Offer transparency about the company’s financial situation — and pay. It shows that you walk the talk of equal pay for equal work; they need to know that is happening. Establish a way to offer Open Book financials for the entire company.
Asvpart of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take to Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure of interviewing Michele Ashby.
Ms. Michele Ashby is the President & CEO of ACE LLC, Ashby Consulting Enterprises LLC. A champion for getting more women placed onto corporate Boards of Directors, Ms. Ashby is a subject matter expert on Board Governance, Finance, Mining, Energy and Strategy. Ms. Ashby has a diverse background, which includes 30 years as a specialist/analyst, financial expert, independent corporate director on boards re the precious metal — Gold. She is an award-winning entrepreneur — recently named one of the Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Business in Colorado. She is known for her work in training 1,000 women to get onto corporate Boards. In just 18 months, one third of her 60 graduates have joined a for-profit Board of Directors. Ms. Ashby educates, supports, and empowers women to attain corporate board positions through her unique program, ACE Board Certification Training.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you.’ Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Icall myself a Hick Chick from Colorado and thought of myself as growing up in the Wild West (I loved horses as a little girl). I am the oldest of three kids from a middle class, Irish-Catholic family. My Dad was in the trucking industry, and we had a stay-at-home Mom. We all went to Catholic schools; I went to an all-girls high school. Dad raised me on skiing and football, and told me I could be/do anything that I set my mind to. I always loved being active, involved, learning. I loved school and tried everything — excelling at Math. At age 12, I worked at a local greenhouse during the Summer break to pay for tuition to the private high school that I went to. Our parents made us earn money to pay for what we wanted; they didn’t hand it to us. At the same time, they supported us in all our endeavors and interests. I have to say, I had a very healthy family life which inspires me now.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
As we are talking about inclusivity today, there is a certain book that stands out in my mind. When I was young, I read a book called A Patch of Blue, about racism, sexism and abuse. It was made into a movie in 1965 at the height of the civil rights movement. I always remembered this book and how much it taught me about loving people for who they are and not where they come from or how they look. The book has had a lifelong impact on me with one line at the end of the book — “I love you Pearl” which reflects on the innocence of youth and our authentic love and connection to each other. I’ve held this lesson as an internal compass and guide over the years. To be curious about people who are different than me and to spend time learning from them and keeping an open mind enriches my life
When my favorite book was made into an Oscar-award winning film in 1965: A Patch of Blue, it was directed by Guy Green. The story focuses on the friendship between an educated black man (played by Sidney Poitier) and an illiterate, blind, white, 18-year-old girl (played by Elizabeth Hartman) and the problems that plague their friendship in a racially-divided America of the 1960s. Against the backdrop of the growing civil rights movement, the film explores racism while playing on the idea that “love is blind.” It’s heartbreaking and revealing all at the same time.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Strength, Hope, Life, Love” — These four words are carved on my daughter’s headstone. She died at age 19 from a rare bone cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma. She was my wild child and never missed a thing — she lived more in 19 years than most people do in 40. She got a tattoo on the back of her neck when she found out she had cancer — in Chinese symbols that meant those four words — Strength, Hope, Life, Love. That is why we put them on her headstone, and why I keep them posted so I can see them. They remind me of her strength and courage throughout her valiant journey and how she inspires me every day to make the world more equal for all people, which is my mission in getting more women — and women of color — onto corporate board positions.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership to me means inspiring others to be courageous enough to step up into the bigger roles that are scary: CEO, CFO, COO, Board of Directors Member.
For example, when COVID-19 hit, and we were first in lock down, I was scared. I didn’t know what would happen to us, to our businesses, and to our lives. I wanted to shut down and protect my family, our assets, and our health. I was concerned about my income. As a business owner, I wanted to protect my revenue stream. I was thinking in a greedy way, to be honest.
During those first few days, I was researching, spending many hours reading, working with, and talking to people to gather as much information as possible. That is how I find comfort — filling myself up with information until it is overflowing. What then happens is that my analytical side kicks in with ideas. I used this time to think and analyze what was happening to us and to the world around us.
What I surmised was that this pandemic was tearing the curtain wide open and creating the possibility of a lifetime for equity. This crisis was offering up great opportunity to lead. I thought “the world will want more women in leadership roles now” — more than ever before. This could be the biggest chance for us to attain real equity in leadership roles that we will see in our lifetimes. So, I thought “How can I help that to happen?” I train women on how to get on corporate boards. So if we can get more women trained to join boards quickly, then they will be ready to take on those roles sooner rather than later.
I had an idea — I had just created an online course to teach women how to get on boards and the price was $595. What if I made this course available to as many women as possible during the pandemic at a fantastic discount? What if I could encourage them to step up and look for leadership roles they can do NOW? So, that is what I did — I discounted my course by 99% and make it just $5.95 so it would be affordable to anyone and everyone. No barriers. I also offered a free coaching class to anyone who registered for the class, so I may help them get themselves uplifted.
So, instead of holding on to my greed, I let that go because the money didn’t matter then — what mattered was my reason for doing this work — to help as many women as possible, as fast as possible to get into leadership roles in the board room and C-Suite. To lead by giving them more of what they needed to know about getting on boards and help them get there faster. As a result, hundreds of women have signed up and taken advantage of my offer. And now women who took that course are changing their lives and getting on boards and in C-Suite roles that they didn’t even think that they could do before.
For example, one of my recent graduates of our ACE Board Training online course is Marilyn Spink of Toronto, Canada. Ms. Spink has been successfully placed as a Director to Avalon Advanced Materials’ Board of Directors after completing my course and offers this insight:
“Michele has designed an easy to follow program proven to increase the representation of women on corporate boards. The ACE Board Training Primer Video Series was a perfect fit for me as someone who had some board experience but was still seeking that key first paid board appointment. Her sage advice, coupled with quality content plus her recommended actions were invaluable to me. An equally important part of her program was hearing the stories from other women of their board journeys plus the intimate “live” coaching session directly with Michele. I was left feeling empowered and motivated which is largely due to Michele’s inspiring and authentic leadership style and the superior program she has developed.”
Ultimately, in seeing my students succeed, I am so glad that I listened to my inner voice telling me to “get out of my own way” and be brave — “step up to lead” more women in this time of crisis — to give them something. By training women worldwide to lead and to encourage them to step up, too, and apply for corporate boards, my program has added more than 29 women to corporate boards in 24 months. I am blessed to have the opportunity to interact with them on coaching calls every week to hear their stories, answer their questions, and encourage them to go for it. It is so exciting!
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
This is a great question, which I could talk a lot about. Over the years, I have accumulated a number of techniques that I use to take care of myself and follow a routine. I have a daily practice of self-care that begins with Spiritual Exercises, which is an active meditation that I learned from my spiritual teacher years ago. I also exercise daily and have a strict diet, augmented with supplements, along with frequent visits to various alternative care providers and spiritual practitioners. So, daily, I meditate, exercise, spend some time outdoors, eat healthy, work and get lots of rest. I like to watch Netflix or documentaries and my most fun things are skiing, cycling, and kayaking.
My husband is my best friend and partner in everything, and we have an active social life, too. I am a former ultra-athlete and now I call myself an ultra-business person, and I love working with purpose. I have found a number of practices that work for me and will continue to explore new ways to stay in tune with my body and soul going forward as this is the basis of my happy life.
When I have big event coming, I lean on my spiritual practice of meditation and chanting a lot. I also practice my material for presentation and do a lot of preparation in advance so that I am comfortable when I step on stage or get into that big meeting. Breathing helps, too!
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
I am in an inter-racial marriage of 27 years, and I think that as far as this current crisis, “It’s been a long time coming.” During my lifetime and many generations before me, white privilege is real; white people have had a superior status to others and have been raised that way, which I don’t believe is right, yet it is what has happened. And I was included in benefitting from that status.
Now, we see the reaction to too much racism, plus not enough inclusion and equity for everyone. My husband and I have been having the conversation about racism, sexism, and discrimination since we met. One of the things that we have had in common is discrimination –he as a black man experiencing racism and for me, I have experienced sexism at times as a woman leader in a traditional male industry. We have lots of stories of the things that we have been through and how we have reacted to them.
With the repetition of police violence towards blacks over the years and the video coverage of this outrageous behavior, I’m surprised we haven’t had this kind of uprising earlier. But changing something like systemic racism or sexism isn’t so simple. The #MeToo movement is another example of the uprising of masses of people finally standing up en masse against discrimination and abuse, resulting in lawsuits, media coverage and social shaming for bad behavior. And hopefully, healing and better behavior going forward.
The systemic racism we have been raised in keeps it on-going and seemingly OK to our white culture to keep the “status quo”. The closest I can get to knowing what racism feels like is my 30-year career in finance and mining — both male (white) dominated industries. Except in my case, I was fortunate to be mentored by a number of white men, who took me under their wings, included me in the “good ole boy” network and helped me succeed. I think that is rare for women and rarer for minorities. My husband has had good encounters throughout his career as well and has been able to affect changes in organizations he has been a part of in bringing up more minorities for roles of leadership and management.
As for me and for our family, I learned that people can change — my parents were racist when I was growing up but they changed when they got to know my black friends and my husband when we were dating and subsequently married. I always wanted my kids to be accepting of all people, and I believe that I accomplished that with them. I want to keep working at it to make our world more inclusive and diversified and have that as our normal. And I want to continue to learn more about how to break down the walls of racism and sexism and all the other “isms” we have in society.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
At the end of 2019, there were approximately only 20% women on corporate boards of public companies — only 20! Worse, the percentage of minorities among that group of women is only a small fraction of that number. Shareholders and activist investors have been taking a stand for the past few years, encouraging companies to add more women and minorities to their boards — to diversify.
Studies have shown that companies with more women on their boards have a better return on investment and better growth than those without diversified boards Data argues good reasons to include women on corporate boards. According to the Credit Suisse Research Institute Report — Global companies with more than 1 woman on the board have better performance than those with zero women. Here are key data points from this study:
Earns 3.5 percentage points Excess Compound Returns per year
Higher Price/Book valuations
Superior Stock Price performance
The argument that women are not on boards is because there are not enough of them qualified to be on boards just doesn’t hold water anymore. There are enough women with skills and experience to sit on corporate boards. I know because I have met and trained hundreds of them.
In 2016, I was looking for another board seat for myself, when all the business news headlines were about not enough women being on boards. I wanted to know why. Up until then I didn’t know the stats on this.
My male mentors had taught me that you climb the corporate ladder, then get on 3 or 4 boards and retire out. Those boards pay director fees and give stock options, so you are working part time as a board member and have time to go golf, ski, or travel and you are set financially, along with using your work experience and skills to lead companies. It’s a privilege and a nice gig if you can get it. I have been fortunate to have been on 6 Corporate Boards of Directors so far and have been invited to all of them. But many of the women I have interviewed didn’t have those mentors or privileges or even told about being on boards as a career move.
I interviewed 200 women over 18 months to find out why they were not on boards and what happened to them in careers. I was surprised about how little they knew about being in the board room. Or how to get there, or that it was a paid position. As I did more research and learned the state of boards, I decided to do something to help women get ready to get on boards and then help them do it. I want to see the boards include more women and get to parity. At the pace we are going now, that will take 70 years! Wow! There had to be a faster way and I wanted to speed up the process, so I set my ambitious goal to train an army of women — 1,000 of them to get onto paying, corporate boards.
That is why I created a certified board training program for women and started training them in 2018 in the U.S. and Canada. There are nearly 100 women who have been certified through the ACE Board Certification Program and hundreds who have taken the ACE Board Training Primer Series on line. These women are now getting on boards and in C-Suite jobs and starting new companies, and becoming the leaders they aspired to be. It is inspiring to watch them get into the roles of power and money that once were only available to white males. They are now able to create wealth and success for themselves and the companies they represent.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
If you think about any of the services that you use or products that you buy, you probably just focus on what it does for you. The majority of businesses are catering to all humans, regardless of gender or color — they want you to buy their product or service and pay them your money. So, the customer base is typically diverse and inclusive, even when the company executives and boards are most likely exclusively white men. The majority of the average Board Director is currently a 63-year-old white male. Let’s say they have done pretty good so far, but could it be better? Better for the consumer or the employees or the vendors or the shareholders?
The percentage of men in the CEO role of Fortune 500 companies is about 90% and the majority of them are white. And yet, everyone under the executive team, such as the management, salespeople, staff, shareholders, vendors, customers and clients might be a majority of women. In fact, women drive 70–80% of all consumer purchasing decisions. Why are they not represented in the top roles where all the biggest decisions are made?
And those decisions being made by the highest compensated executives in the organization are mostly white men. I am not saying that women will solve every corporate problem out there, yet I am saying women deserve a chance to be at the table, to be a part of making the big decisions that will affect the companies, employees, customers and the planet. And the outcomes may be better for more of the involved parties from the bottom up.
The truth is, maybe we don’t know if every company will do better with more women in the top roles, but women should be provided the same opportunities to sit on boards as their male counterparts. Women and men on boards together are representing the whole and solving the issues brought to the table together with their diverse skills and experiences to take into consideration the impact of their decisions as they are implemented. The focus should be on solving the problems and issues that come up and having the best people at the top to do that, not based on gender or color. Women are invested in corporations as much as men and therefore should have more of a role to play.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take to Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society?” Kindly share a story or example for each.
Hold “Town Halls” — virtual until in-person events can resume. Now is the time to open up the conversations and find out how your folks are doing. If you have minorities who work in your company, provide them with an opportunity that is a safe and neutral process to share their experiences, ask them what they want, and ask them to make suggestions for improvements.
Offer transparency about the company’s financial situation — and pay. It shows that you walk the talk of equal pay for equal work; they need to know that is happening. Establish a way to offer Open Book financials for the entire company.
Blind resumes — what if the resumes that came in for Board Seats and C-Suites did not have the person’s name on it? If you didn’t know if the person was a man or woman or what color they were? Would you choose differently? This happened in a philharmonic orchestra when they made their auditions into blind auditions. The candidates auditioned behind a screen and the judges could not tell their gender. The judges picked more women than the orchestra had ever had in its history and they were hired. They kept the blind auditions going forward because it made for better music.
Think for yourself — there is so much information that is thrown at us, yet how much do we actually seek independently? How much time do we take to think things through? How many people do we have discussions with on tough topics to learn new ideas? The collective of all of those practices and more will give us better insight and sounder decision making skills.
When appropriate, say “I’m Sorry” — repent for our sins — remember my favorite book is Patch of Blue. When Nelson Mandela ended apartheid in South Africa, it was monumental in changing the lives of black South Africans. One of his ideas to help heal the wounds there was to hold reconciliation courts which allowed the offenders and their victims to come together in a safe place and repent and forgive with each other. The court went on for over a year as I recall. Can we instill a platform for this type of action? It seems like a good idea now too — for all of us.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Yes, I am optimistic. So many people are standing up to say Black Lives Matter and taking positive actions to keep the conversations and actions going. This will take time to change and maybe even generations, because it has been going on for hundreds of years. My hope is that my grandchildren will not be raised in systemic racism or sexism, but in a different way that is better and more neutral and accepting.
My parents and my teachers raised me to believe that I was only competing with others based on my knowledge and my experience, not on my gender or color or age. I went out into the workforce with that attitude and I worked hard and took advantage of opportunities when they came along. I was able to accomplish great success and realized how privileged I was to be born an American with the freedom to go create what I wanted. As I traveled the world and was exposed to more cultures, this became more and more apparent, so I am committed to helping be the change I want to see here in the U.S. — to have more women in the board room. To represent the 50% of the population that we occupy and to be respected and included in these very important roles.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Richard Branson — I just signed up to be an astronaut with Virgin Galactic when they start flying commercially. I flew Virgin Atlantic a lot and was always impressed with the fact that many of his employees had met him in person and reported that he was very gracious to them and humble. Also, I’ve always wanted to go to outer space and I have every intention of flying on Virgin Galactic when they offer commercial flights. I would love to go to his island and talk with him about solving problems, putting clean energy on mine sites, creating solutions and making shit happen — he is fun, unapologetic, respectful and authentic.
How can our readers follow you online?
Ashby Consulting Enterprises Website: https://acellc.consulting.com
I wish to extend a special thank you to Parveen Panwar for your interview and to my publicist Carolyn Barth for arranging this opportunity to share my story.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!