In the past few years, there have been changes in the makeup of corporate boards of directors. Janet Wong, a former accountant with one of the Big Four accounting firms and current public company board director and promoter, has been working hard to bring diversity, equity, and inclusion to the corporate boardroom. I talked to her about her journey, her successes, and the work she continues to do.
Tell us a little bit about your journey to the corporate boardroom.
I spent my career in public accounting, rising up through the ranks. When I was a lead partner at KPMG, I became involved with a women’s group focused on the lack of gender diversity in the corporate boardroom. At the time, corporate boards were mostly white men. I set a personal goal then that once I retired from public accounting, I would take my extensive corporate business experience to the corporate boardroom.
That experience included working with startup companies in the technology industry that grew to be successful public companies as well as working with companies that had issues such as expanding market presence, establishing and maintaining strong internal controls, merger and acquisition activity, human capital with companies that were growing in size and R&D, and research and development. So I had the background they often look for in corporate governance.
Currently, I serve on three public company boards, and each of these board opportunities came from my network of people who knew of my background, experience, and ability to be a trusted advisor in the boardroom representing various stakeholders.
I’ve now been a public company director for almost six years, and it’s been such a rewarding experience to see each of these companies that have a great company culture just continue to grow and be recognized market leaders. And I get excited every day about being a part of the successes of these companies.
What made you get involved in trying to change the status quo on boards?
Looking back, I realize I’ve been involved in the momentum for change throughout my career. When I started my career in public accounting, there were few women or people of color who were partners in what we now call the Big Four of the accounting profession.
When I was elected to the U.S. partnership at KPMG, the firm reached 100 women out of 1,700 partners, so a very small percentage. Fast forward to today; women are leading in public accountancy. in fact, recently, two of the largest public accounting firms had female CEOs in the U.S.
I feel like I was the start of that change for more women partners and more women leaders in public accounting. Now that I’ve retired and am serving on corporate boards, I am part of the same movement in the corporate governance arena. On the first board I served on, I was the only woman and the only person of color; the other boards I serve on now have more women, and one has Asian, Black, and Latino racial diversity as well. It is slow going, but it is going.
As of last year, we finally reached a milestone that every company on the Fortune 500 has at least one woman on their board. Now with a renewed focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially from a racial perspective, we have seen changes coming more quickly—but there is still much more room for growth.
Part of the change has come from people working from the inside, and part of the support from different organizations as well as state governments and institutional investors. For example, in 2018, the state of California passed a law—SB 826—which requires companies headquartered in the state of California to have at least one and up to three women on their board, depending on its size. And then, last September, AB 979 was passed, also in California. The law requires companies headquartered in the state of California to have at least one underrepresented community by the end of this year on their board and potentially up to three, again, depending on the size of that board. This legislation has placed more awareness on diversity of the board—not just from a gender standpoint, but for underrepresented communities as well, such as the Asian, Black, Latino, and LGBTQ+.
In late 2020, the NASDAQ proposed a rule change to the SEC that any company listed on its exchange must have at least one underrepresented community on their board. And that change has received public support, but it is currently under review by the SEC.
What are some of the things you are doing to get more women and people of color on boards?
I volunteer with several groups that aim to get more diversity on corporate boards. I lead the Pan Asian voice on the Diverse Corporate Directors Coalition, which includes representatives from the Black Corporate Directors Conference, Latino Corporate Directors Association, Quorum (LGBTQ+), and WomenCorporateDirectors. We’ve advocated for more disclosure by public companies of the makeup of their boards and recommended that boards move toward having at least 50 percent of their board members be diverse. It is definitely a challenge. I also serve on the board of the Thirty Percent Coalition, which is another nonprofit organization, and its focus is greater gender diversity. And it’s been doing very well on that. Last fall, it also added to its objectives to support more people of color on corporate boards.
The argument used to be that boards couldn’t change because of supply—i.e., there weren’t enough diverse candidates who were qualified to hold directorships. One of the things we do on the Thirty Percent Coalition is to help our members, especially those in private equity, to work from within their organizations to diversify their boards. I also try to educate women in leadership positions about what it would take for them to serve on a corporate board. In fact, I recently spoke on a panel at Google for their female leaders to learn about board service and the opportunities as well as to encourage more senior women to seek out board seats and to put their names out for consideration to serve on a corporate board.
It is important to point out that we aren’t aiming to get more diverse boards just to be “fair.” Diverse boards improve business. There have been studies that show that companies with diverse boards are more successful, have better investor returns, and have better profits to the company. So there are a lot of those different elements supporting diversification.
What I think is really exciting is that the diversity is permeating beyond the boardroom to the community. So that’s one of the changes that I’ve seen since last spring: more actions on diversity, equity, and inclusion within organizations, as well as with other stakeholders. For example, I’m on the board of a financial service company, a bank. And we just recently announced the support for a historically Black community college with the funding to start a commercial banking program because we said there aren’t enough Black corporate banking officers. So we are now a founding sponsor of a program of study for commercial bankers at an HBCU and also have the support of other banking institutions as well.
Positive actions such as this example are where diverse boards are helping to grow from within their organizations to say: what can we do to further support the communities that we serve?
What advice would you give to a diverse leader walking into their first board meeting?
My first advice would be for the leader to be themselves as they head into their first board meeting. Remember, earning a corporate board seat includes a thorough interview and vetting process. So the board’s ready for its newest member to actively participate and make contributions.
Most companies have an onboarding process, and if there’s not one, ask for it. I think any new director wants to be up to speed and ready to be an active member of the board at their first meeting.
On one of my boards, we just elected a new diverse director. He attended his first board meeting a week ago. I could tell he was prepared as he provided perspectives valuable to the company. And I think that’s what a diverse board is about.
What is one action that you would encourage boards to do this year?
Keep diversifying. If a board does not have diversity that can be defined, whether it’s gender, race, age, or experience, it should consider how to add it. Look at your current board and evaluate the board’s skills matrix—what is missing? What is the board succession plan? Because perhaps there’s a board member retiring soon or the board is expanding its size, and then with respect to the board slate, look to include more diverse candidates.
We’re going to continue to see more diversity, be it gender, race, age, etc. All of these different elements are coming together to impact change so that it’s not just a moment, but it’s become a movement.