EWNJ webinar: Get in the game. Your best resources are the people around you

In conjunction with the release of its 2021 A Seat at the Table report, “Achieving Racial Diversity in the Boardroom and Beyond,” Executive Women of New Jersey (EWNJ) hosted a webinar on Wednesday provide an exclusive preview of the report featuring a panel discussion of New Jersey industry leaders.

The report, which focuses on racial and ethnic diversity in corporate spaces, reflects the intentional expansion of EWNJ’s efforts to advocate for more Black, Brown, and Asian Americans on boards and in the senior governance of public companies in New Jersey. (Click here to view the report.)

The panel was broadcast via Zoom and moderated by EWNJ President Emerita Barbara Kauffman with Ralph Izzo, PSEG chairman, president, & CEO and BNY Mellon Board director; Sunita Holzer, Verisk Analytics board director and Human Resources officer and South Jersey Industries Independent director; Daria Walls Torres, Walls Torres Group managing partner and Columbia Bank New Jersey Independent board director; and Maria Teresa Hilado, Campbell Soup Company independent director.


Led by Kauffman, the panel discussed many diversity and inclusion issues companies and boards face and offered solutions, suggestions and their own experiences on how to achieve diversity.

Kauffman posed a question on opening to the panel regarding how intention and accountability are critical to changing the traditional composition of boards and senior management. She wanted to know What actions help to foster greater diversity in senior leadership and on boards and what serves to impede progress in this regard?

Izzo, which said PSEG produces an annual “diversity index” that tracks its progress, and takes a more personal role himself by meeting with 200 of his highest ranking staff members every three months on the issue, said,

“It goes beyond purposeful recruiting. One has to make sure that the inclusion and engagement continues afterwards. PSE&G began a campaign last year with its senior manager where every one of its quarterly senior leadership meetings focused on D&I and one of the exercises was for members to state who are the five people closest to outside the office and what’s the homogeneity of the circle of people with which they all associate themselves with – the responses were staggering, even though no one considers themselves exclusive toward other groups.”

What that points out, said Izzo, is that if you are serious about diversity and inclusion, your best resource are the people you attracted recently in terms of their availability and then reach out and network with the folks they are familiar with and know and can contribute to an organization.

“Don’t underestimate the importance of making sure that your number one source for enhancing your diversity and inclusion are the people you interact with every day are right in your own building,” he added.

On the impediment side, Kauffman asked what the panelists thought about other companies that haven’t progressed and what suggestions they had that might help these firms move the needle.

Hilado said there needs to be a recognition that there is a business necessity to actually add diversity to your workforce and board – not just diversity for diversity’s sake.

“Members of the board are like members of a team individuals with various fields of experience and expertise. Every board search involves a profile of what they are looking for to compliment the current board.”

And as far as how businesses actually implement and put their diversity practices, it’s a lot harder than it sounds. Kauffman also wanted know if it gives the company an advantage in the marketplace and if either being an ethnically or racially diverse leader or working with diverse leaders impacted their overall leadership style.

Torres, who has helped some of the highest performing leadership teams and boards grapple with complex, strategic questions, build clarity and consensus, and establish commitment to new directional paths said that what was interesting as a woman who might be on someone’s list that leaders need to see things that others do not see.

“I think about how the world is changing. You know that that acronym, VUCA, – volatile, uncertain, complex ambiguous – in this environment, you know, risk mitigation, risk management has become critical. And to do that effectively to be an effective decision maker in that environment. You have to be able to anticipate consequences and challenges and circumstances that others may not have on their radar.”

She said that in that environment the presence of diversity is definitely a strength.

“But the the opposite side of that coin is that the absence of diversity could actually be a huge source of disadvantage or deficit. So that that’s going to make the gap even wider and the imperative even greater for closing the gap.”

Just how does one go about getting onto a board, is there a hierarchy or level one should begin. Smaller companies aren’t always necessary for stepping stones. They themselves can be the landing platform to doing great things.

Holzer, who has three decades of enterprise-level HR leadership experience across several industries, stated that no size of company is too small.

“If you’re first trying to get onto a board, just like everything else. When you are trying to get a job you look at all your experiences, and you go from one job to another one area in the company to another to build your portfolio of experiences. As a board member or as a possible board candidate. You also have to build that portfolio of experiences.”

“So whether it’s nonprofit, small startup, private equity, any of those experiences that they’re offered to you or you have an opportunity to step in, take it because you’re gaining an experience that then shows that you have the skills that would be valuable to the next role that you want on a board or to a public board if that’s what you desire.”

In the Q&A portion of the webinar Kauffman said that since 2013, EWNJ has tracked and documented the progress of women in gaining access to board seats and positions in senior executive leadership. EWNJ’s report and advocacy have contributed to increases in the number of women on corporate boards in the state. Kauffman summed up what the panelists all basically agreed on to be the best way for individuals to achieve D&I roles on boards. She said it was important to become engaged with an organization to achieve a level of diversity and inclusion and to get on a board.

“Get in the game. That’s going to help you to be able to to meet the right people to be able to get a position. Getting engaged with something that interests you, become a key volunteer of a committee and share your thoughts and passion – that gives you the ability to gain exposure.”