With the stock market roaring and the Small Business Optimism Index trending upward, the mood among black business leaders was upbeat as they gathered to celebrate at the Executive Leadership Council’s (ELC) gala outside Washington, DC. ELC represents entrepreneurs and over 500 black CEOs and senior executives at Fortune 500 companies. Its members include American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, Target Foundation President Laysha Ward, and ING Foundation President Rhonda Mims.
The gala’s honorary chair, Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson, expressed pride in his company’s efforts to further ELC’s goals of increasing the number of African Americans in CEO and senior executive positions and on corporate boards. These efforts do appear to be working, most notably among black women.
Valerie D. Lewis, assistant vice president and assistant secretary with Safeway Inc. and ELC Secretary and Governance Chair, said that during her eight years as a member, she’s seen the number of female members increase substantially. Indeed, a picture of the group’s founders in 1986 showed a single black woman, Elynor Williams of Sara Lee Corporation. Lewis, who has worked in law firms, noted why female attorneys are thriving in corporate America. “First, the culture of most companies is very different from that of a law firm. Law firm lawyers tend to work independently. In-house lawyers are more team oriented. And the team doesn’t just include lawyers. We have to listen and give advice and a voice to everyone in the company. Only when we understand the issue in context do we make our decision. Mind you this all has to be done in real time. That approach works well for women.”
Lewis said that when she first came in house, working with a team was a huge adjustment that required a great deal of patience and without compromising attention to detail. As is the case with most firm attorneys, managing others was new, as was supervising the work of a large staff that did not include lawyers. This challenge, however, became one of the most satisfying aspects of the job.
“I’ll never forget the first time a non-attorney thanked me for helping them raise their game. That’s really what it’s about when you work for a company — raising everyone’s game.”
Another passion of Lewis’ is the corporate pipeline. She notes that men are often great mentors to women. She feels strongly about providing scholarships and training for young people in business. The ELC’s Institute for Leadership Development & Research just hosted its 18th Annual Mid-Level Managers’ Symposium and they gave out nearly $150,000 in scholarships to black college students.
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