Writers at Women in the Boardroom had the opportunity to interview some WIB members to gain insight into their personal and professional experiences and knowledge about antiracism, diversity and inclusion, and equity in the boardroom and corporate settings. We wanted to learn more about what efforts they and their organizations are making to effect change for women and men of color within these organizations and/or how they’ve perceived these changes as women of color.
This week we spoke with Teresa M. Sebastian, the founder, President and CEO of The Dominion Asset Group, a firm primarily investing in real estate and commercial ventures. She serves on the Boards of Kaiser Aluminum Corporation, Juul Labs, Edward Jones Bank, Assemble Sound, the United Negro College Fund and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Previously, she served as SVP at Darden Restaurants, Inc; VP at Veyance Technologies, Inc.; SVP at Information Resources, Inc.; and earlier management positions in energy and finance.
Ms. Sebastian is an adjunct faculty at the University of Michigan Law School and Vanderbilt University Law School. She is also a member of the School of Literature Sciences & the Arts Dean’s Advisory Council, and Co-Chairs the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leadership Council at the University of Michigan. Ms. Sebastian earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, an MBA from the University of North Florida’s Coggin College of Business, a Juris Doctor degree, from Michigan State University College of Law and a Master of Laws degree from Wayne State University Law School.
As you moved up the corporate ladder, what did you feel the most jarring changes were in regard to diversity initiatives?
I realized diversity initiatives were not top priorities the further up I moved. During that era, we struggled to show diversity as a priority. We took actions, made controversial statements, participated in grassroots organizations, and risked our reputations to make an impact. This was during a time when affirmative action was no longer required, and so the typical reaction from management was to label us as troublemakers, or otherwise shrug their shoulders at our actions. Unfortunately, you were often labeled a token if you achieved advancement or labeled the angry black person if you expressed objection if you felt discriminated. The trend at that time was to create mentoring programs and affinity groups in our companies to make an impact.
What is your definition of diversity, inclusion, and equity and how or why do you think diversity is important?
DE&I can be allusive because things are so fungible- it’s something you have to always struggle for. Nevertheless, in the workplace, DE&I is important to assure all stakeholders have a voice in areas where policy and decisions are made and to assure all constituents are considered.
In what ways do you think your experience as a person of color has shaped your professional journey?
It totally did in all ways. It is inherent in the evolution of our country, the norms, and the laws that my professional journey would be impacted by my color. It’s systemic. In one of my first executive positions, I was very vocal about wanting a particular job in which someone else had retired. I didn’t do anything much different than comparable white males did, and the executives had one of the top Black male executives sit down with me and tell me not to be so assertive. I have a saying that I tell my kids – “don’t get mad, get strategic”. And that’s what I did. I found a much higher-level position outside of the organization. It’s important to keep in mind that the person in front of you holding the stop sign is not the end all be all. Seek out a green light elsewhere because there’s more than one route to your destination.
How would you describe your current thinking about antiracism, and how has your thinking changed over time?
My current thinking is that racism will not go away in my lifetime or in that of my children and grandchildren, because the need for power and feelings of supremacy is built into the human psyche as a way to govern. Remember the book of Lord of the Flies by William Golding? There will always be a struggle for supremacy regardless of the basis for it. Unfortunately, racism is based upon something uncontrollable – genetics.
What does it mean to you to see others illustrate a commitment to diversity and antiracism?
It gives me hope that the dialogue is taking place. The fact that companies are talking about it in their boardrooms, to consider people of color as stakeholders in their decision-making, makes me hopeful. One example I’ll share – a company considered releasing a “Black Lives Matter” statement but realized it may seem disingenuous because of internal problems they had with perceived systemic racism and minority employee engagement. So instead, they took the time and money they would have used to release that statement and decided to address their own issues, to make real change within their organization. I appreciated that transparency. It’s important to fix your own house before you come out and rally around an issue. Doing this first will bolster your credibility and the perception of your commitment.
What advice would you give to boards/corporate leaders to actively engage in antiracism consistently and moving forward?
To have the tough conversations about race and to allow race to be a part of boardroom dialogue, eschewing intimidation or the perception of conflict.
What strategies have you witnessed as being used to respond to diversity challenges? Have they been effective? How might you change them?
I’ve seen both helpful and harmful strategies be effective. For example, consistent referrals of friends and families creating homogeneous boardrooms and C-Suites, excuses that diverse candidates cannot be found for a particular skillset, or the excuse that diverse candidates are not the right fit have all kept diversity out of the boardroom. Conversely, some helpful strategies that I’ve seen work are assuring a diverse slate of candidates, tapping into diverse talent by partnering with affinity groups to find qualified diverse candidates, and speaking up when you sense racist behavior or lack of diversity.
Do you feel comfortable sharing your experience with microaggressions in the corporate setting?
I was once told that I was “too ambitious”. This is something expected of white men – to be ambitious. Another example is that when being discussed for a board seat, I was told, by someone who was informed of the discussion, that the question was asked “Where did she get her money?” I highly doubt they would’ve asked that question about a white candidate. I’ve never heard someone question how a white male got his money as a due diligence question for a board seat, or how it’s even relevant to board candidacy. Unfortunately, minorities seem to be held under more scrutiny.
It’s no secret that as we move up the corporate ladder, there are few, if any, people of color at the board table, in the conference room, at a networking event, or in the office. What can organizations do, starting today, to actually diversify these environments?
Organizations can work with professional affinity groups inside and outside of the corporation to figure out how to fill their pipeline with qualified individuals of color to come up through the ranks. They can work with recruiters. They can take the extra steps and reach out to originations like Women in the Boardroom in search of candidates. It not going to be easy, accomplishing a lofty goal is never easy. So, we’ve got to realize that if we really want to achieve diversity in its truest form, we’ve got to put in the work.
Why is it important for others to be open to feeling uncomfortable when discussing anti-racism with full transparency?
Because it’s simply important to have the discussion.