By Joyce Gannon / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Kay Coles James is pretty sure a casual encounter at a White House holiday party helped her land a seat on PNC Financial Services Corp.’s board of directors.
At the time, Ms. James was working as the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management under President George W. Bush. While standing in the shrimp line at the gala, she struck up a conversation with Thomas Usher, the former chairman of U.S. Steel.
A few years later, when PNC was trying to fill an open board seat, Mr. Usher, who sat on that board’s nominating and governance committee, suggested the committee consider her as a candidate.
“Shrimp and serendipity matter,” said Ms. James, who joined PNC’s board in 2006 and who now heads a firm in Gloucester, Va., that trains African-Americans in leadership skills.
She told that story earlier this month at PNC’s Downtown headquarters to a mainly female audience gathered for advice on how to build networks and exposure that could help them crack the male-dominated world of for-profit corporate boards. Nationwide, women hold about 19 percent of seats at publicly traded companies, while among Pittsburgh-area public corporations, women account for about 17 percent.
At PNC, Ms. James is one of four women who comprise 31 percent of its board seats.
On Thursday, board diversity will be the focus of 18 events in Pittsburgh and nationwide that have been organized by 2020 Women on Boards, an initiative to boost the number of women on public company boards to 20 percent by the year 2020.
Pittsburgh’s first 2020 Women on Boards forum, held last year, attracted 133 men and women. Thursday’s event at the Wyndham Grand Downtown is sold out, with 300 expected to attend.
“The national movement is trying to raise consciousness and take proactive steps to facilitate closing the gender gap and I think we have some strong women in this community who think this is really important,” said Diane Holder, president and chief executive of the UPMC Health Plan and executive vice president of UPMC.
Besides its signature event Thursday, the local 2020 initiative organized three advance workshops to give women more opportunities to get advice and feedback on skills they need to become board-ready.
During the workshop at PNC, Marjorie Rodgers Cheshire, a PNC board member since 2014, encouraged women to join nonprofit boards.
Ms. Cheshire, president and chief operating officer of A&R Development Corp., a real estate firm based in Baltimore, said serving on nonprofit boards “was an easy way for me to network.”
“There are some real influencers on those boards and they were a stepping stone to getting on for-profit boards.”
In fact, Ms. Cheshire’s service as a trustee at the nonprofit Johns Hopkins Hospital and Hopkins’ Bayview Medical Center, and at other organizations in Baltimore, helped raise her profile, said Greg Jordan, PNC’s general counsel.
A former PNC director — Richard Berndt, a Baltimore lawyer — “saw her in action in Baltimore … and he was a real advocate for her,” said Mr. Jordan.
At Thursday’s event, Leroy Ball, president and chief executive of Koppers Inc., will receive this year’s Board Diversity Ambassador Award for supporting the initiative to appoint more women as corporate directors. On Koppers’ eight-member board, two directors, or 25 percent, are female.
Mr. Ball said he knew little about the 2020 Women on Boards initiative until last year when he was among “a strong minority of men” who attended its Pittsburgh kickoff.
“Just raising awareness is why this event is important,” he said. “It allows companies and boards to be more thoughtful in managing the process [of adding women to boards] going forward. It’s something you need to be intentional about. You have to break out of the old cultural norms.”
But some old-fashioned business etiquette could actually help women — and men — who are seeking corporate board seats, said Ms. Cheshire.
She suggested sending handwritten notes after meetings and interviews as a way to cut through the clutter of email.
“Make it Crane’s note paper,” added Ms. James, referring to the classic, upscale stationery brand. “That will get you noticed.”
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com.