Insights Blog

Interview with Kim Vu on Board Diversity in 2020

Kim Vu served on an advisory board For Hopela, a startup focused on Philanthropy and Fintech, from 2014-2016. She has also served on a variety of non-profit boards and is currently the Global Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Remitly.

What are some factors that Corporate boards are looking for most recently?

When Corporate Boards search for candidates, skillsets tend to be the first thing companies consider when they think about what they need. Many boards are starting to look for candidates with skillsets that have historically been non-traditional. Yes, finance and legal compliance backgrounds are still really important for corporate boards. But there’s also a trend, especially recently, of looking at leaders  with experience in cyber security, human capital or workforce development, D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) and Crisis Communications.

From your perspective, have recent events changed the conversation around board diversity, from what they were in, say, January?

I think the conversation has stalled, because of everything that’s been going on. California came out strong last year with regulations around gender diversity on boards, and we have yet to see a lot of those outcomes. It may just be too soon to tell, though. The cycle to bring on new board members at the corporate level is much longer than for startup or non-profit boards. A startup or non-profit board may make a placement over the course of a quarter or a few months, while corporate board recruitment often takes upwards of three years.

What are some barriers that you see to improving board diversity?

Access is a huge barrier. You don’t know what you don’t know. Many candidates simply aren’t made aware of the resources that are available to help them prepare for board interviews, position themselves and develop their value proposition for boards, or gain access to those really close-knit networks of senior leaders and CEOs. And those networks are so tightly held that so many people, especially women and people of color, don’t have access to them. That is a huge barrier.

What is your response when people talk about “The Pipeline Problem” and worry that there aren’t enough qualified diverse candidates?

My answer, essentially, is that it’s not a pipeline problem. The problem that exists is this tightly-held belief  that you need to have a certain title or position, that C-suite role, to be valuable to a board. But if there’s a glass ceiling that women and people of color keep coming up against in order to attain C-suite roles, then you miss out on a lot of qualified, exemplary candidates. There aren’t a lot of, for instance, women of color who are CEOs and CFOs, holding those C-suite roles in Fortune 500 companies, so companies will then respond by falling back on the idea that it’s a pipeline issue because there are so few diverse C-level candidates to recruit..s. But there’s a whole population of qualified, diverse candidates that may be in those senior-mid-level roles who’ve hit that ceiling and haven’t had the opportunity to accelerate into the C-suite. We know that the talent and experience exists, but that this barrier to entry keeps that talent from moving up. So boards need to acknowledge that the barrier exists, and maybe rethink what the “right” qualifications are for a board position.

What do you see as a benefit that more diverse boards can provide?

There’s plenty of data showing that boards that are more diverse financially outperform boards that aren’t. Coming from my background at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, we did a lot of research, comparing similar companies in the same industry and found that companies with diverse corporate boards operate differently and perform better financially than those without. At the end of the day, these are companies that are looking at the bottom line, and if it pays to invest in diversity, that’s a pretty solid value prop for boards to consider. The data is there. It’s been there.

Do you think that the recent protests and initiatives that companies have put out in the last few weeks are likely to be a watershed moment for real change?

I think it is because there’s a confluence of things happening all at one time. We’re still in a pandemic which has amplified like socioeconomic issues like unemployment, housing security, and unequal access to healthcare. And when you add on top of that, civil unrest  and heightened visibility of police brutality and racism; it’s not just one piece that’s creating the right friction point that we needed for transformational change. If you looked at companies 20 years ago, nobody was talking about Corporate Social Responsibility or Environmental Social Governance, but these issues become more real, because consumers, customers, community, employees and so many other stakeholders who are part of the corporate ecosystem demand it. The market demands it. And companies have to evolve and change with those shifting attitudes in order to stay relevant and continue to thrive as a business. This is a huge moment, for sure.