Women have made incremental progress over the last 10 years in gaining more board seats on Minnesota public companies, but women of color, underrepresented to start, have made little to no gains.

Among Minnesota public companies the number of women directors grew from 129 to 153 from 2016 to 2020, but the number of women of color did not change from 24, according to the Minnesota chapter of Women Corporate Directors (WCD).

While progress was made in 2021 with 15 new women of color gaining board seats, they still make up only 6% of available board seats in Minnesota. The Minnesota WCD believes fair representation would be 20%.

In the aftermath of George Floyd's death last year, the group looked at the diversity of its own membership, gave its members background statistics so they can champion diversity and inclusion issues in their boardrooms, and launched its first cohort of women of color to give them the preparation and resources they need to become board members.

The first cohort included 28 local women, and so far six of them have been named to for-profit boards, including Kelly Baker, chief human resources officer at Minneapolis-based Thrivent. She joined the board at Ferguson, a $22 billion-a-year home building and supplies company.

Another in the first cohort, Lorinda Burgess, vice president of finance for North America at Medtronic, was appointed to the board of Stepan Co., a $2 billion-a-year chemical manufacturer.

Kim Nelson, who retired in January 2018 as senior vice president of external relations at General Mills, said a program like the one established by WCD would have helped her.

"If you are given the contacts, and introductions are made to recruiters, and you are helped with resources," said Nelson, who served on the pipeline committee for WCD's second cohort. "We can move this thing along a heck of a lot faster."

It took almost a year and a half for Nelson to get named to her first board. She now sits on three public company boards: Tate & Lyle, an ingredient supplier to food and beverage companies; Cummins Inc., a maker of engines and powertrains; and Colgate-Palmolive, a consumer packaged-goods company.

Now, the program has attracted the attention of other WCD chapters that might replicate it.

"We've created this program," Nelson said. "We're actively sharing the experience and all of the best practices and learnings with all the other WCD chapters."

Others from the first cohort have taken board positions for Fairview Health Services, a Minnesota community bank and a public biopharmaceutical company.

The Minnesota chapter as a whole has 75 members, which include C-suite executives or women who own their own company. Those women are all well connected within the community, and they didn't have a problem coming up with a second cohort of 21 women - even after fine-tuning and codifying their selection process.

For the second cohort, participants had to be committed to board service within a year.

The Minnesota WCD's program comes at a time when new rules are taking hold in terms of public company board service.

In August, the Securities and Exchange Commission approved a new rule to increase transparency around board diversity. It requires companies to disclose the self-identified gender, racial characteristics, and LGBTQ status of its board members or explain in their proxy why they don't have a certain number of diverse board members.

California mandated that public companies based there have at least one female board member by the end of 2019 and two by the end of 2021. Eleven other states have either enacted or are considering similar measures.

There has been an uptick in the last several years of companies going public, creating more public company board positions. Eight Minnesota companies were among almost 400 firms that completed initial public offerings this year, with more lined up to complete IPOs in 2022.

Pursuing board seats is different from applying for a job or advancing in a career. The Minnesota WCD developed a three-step program to increase diversity and significantly reduce the learning curve to become board members.

The program stresses diversifying its own membership, building connections with appropriate sources in the board placement community and building a pipeline of board-ready Minnesota-based women of color.

Mentoring sessions also help cohort members understand what skills and perspectives they can bring to a board and how to be effective board members.

Jeninne McGee of Ameriprise Financial is in the second cohort. She has 30 years of experience at the Fortune 500 financial services firm, most recently as the chief risk officer. She has worked in operations, technology and for Ameriprise's insurance operations. As chief risk officer, she regularly interacts with the Ameriprise board.

She also has nonprofit board experience. She is a trustee at her alma mater Carleton College and serves on the investment committee of the Minnesota Opera board and is currently concluding her tenure as chair of the YWCA of Minneapolis.

Yet interactions and responsibilities of for-profit boards are different, and McGee said she is hoping the WCD program will help her bridge that knowledge gap.

"One of the things that I'm hoping to get out of the cohort is to understand more about what that role is, and what's expected," McGee said. "And what would constitute being a really exceptional director, you know, how do you get really good at that."