Jerri DeVard on Spearheading Diversity in Corporate Leadership

    More corporations have been raising their voices about racial injustice over the last couple of years, but some of the words ring a bit hollow. For while businesses may say they support greater diversity and equality, the everyday reality is very different.

    Only a small percentage of top-level senior executives are Black or people of color, and the imbalance doesn’t end there. Minorities are also significantly underrepresented in influential senior marketing roles, which help shape the face that companies present to the world.

    That disparity prompted one of the industry’s high-profile exceptions to try to do something about it.

    Marketing specialist Jerri DeVard—whose notable career includes posts with Office Depot, ADT, Nokia and the NFL, and being named one of Black Enterprise’s “75 Most Powerful Blacks in Corporate America” and The Wall Street Journal’s “50 Women to Watch”— launched an initiative to challenge the status quo.

    Having attended too many white industry events where Black representation was minimal, she got “really tired of sitting back… And I said, OK, you know the old adage that if it’s to be, it’s up to me… I had to move from just being a victim of the situation, because victims are unable or unwilling to change their circumstances.” So she determined to be “much more deliberate about creating the change that I wanted to see, because I know that these organizations are working on it, but it’s not happening and it’s not happening fast enough.”

    The result was BECA, the Black Executive CMO Alliance, a nonprofit group founded earlier this year to “create opportunity, access and equality for Black C-suite marketers and to pay it forward.”

    The organization’s list of founding members is a testimony to the wealth of Black talent out there. It includes Anton Vincent, President of Mars Wrigley North America; Candace Matthews, former CRO at Amway; Esi Eggleston Bracey, COO, North America, Beauty and Personal Care at Unilever; Kevin Warren, CMO of UPS; and Maurice Cooper, SVP of Guest and Brand Experience Marketing at Target.

    Yet according to one advertising industry survey, only 3% of chief marketing officers are Black. “Many people try to characterize this as a supply problem, in that we can’t find any Black chief marketing officers or people that can take on that role, when it’s never been a supply problem,” DeVard says. “It’s always been about demand and opening up the aperture of consideration for who can be a chief marketing officer.”

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    It’s a matter of perception, she says. “What happens is that when you’re coming to the C-suite and you’re looking for someone that can assume that [CMO] role, people tend to look for people that look like themselves or people in their network or people that they know, because there’s a comfort level in that.”

    Quiet confidence
    DeVard has been encouraged by the “overwhelming,” enthusiastic response to the fledgling BECA. “The time is right,” she comments. “People are really starting to understand and look under the hood about what they were thinking, biases that they had, conscious or unconscious.”

    “She told me that I was special and I believed her,” she recalls. “My mom would always tell me, ‘Jerri, you are smart. You are going to go places’… She taught me this confidence to be special, but also the humility of how to wear it.”

    Having successfully navigated the corporate world as a Black woman, DeVard has some pointers for anyone looking to follow in her footsteps. First, she emphasizes the importance of cultivating and developing good professional relationships. “You have to build authentic relationships with people that can tell you what’s going on,” she says. “Some people are fortunate enough to have that with their boss, to have their support and allyship and partnership for your success.”

    Such a connection is important because “you can’t make yourself successful on your own. Someone’s got to see it and amplify it and put you out there and say, ‘Yes, you know, this individual is ready.’ But you have to plant your seed in the right fertile ground.”

    DeVard advises checking in to see whether you are enjoying what you’re doing, and whether you are getting the recognition you deserve. And if not, “well, then change it. You don’t have to stay where you are, because you have to understand playing the game of being successful means mastering the art of demonstrating your ability. But also putting yourself in surroundings where you can succeed, because sometimes you could be the greatest thing in the world, but if you’re not in an environment that’s going to support that and champion that and allow you to fail…”

    This is especially true if you’re Black, she notes: “We don’t get second and third chances, right? We don’t get the benefit of the doubt. We don’t get the, ‘Oh yeah, that was just a stumble.’ It’s like, ‘Well, I told you so,’ so you have to recognize that.

    “You can’t make yourself successful on your own. Someone’s got to see it.”

    Clear excellence
    DeVard hasn’t only made her mark in marketing. She is also in the minority of seasoned Black executives who have been asked to serve on corporate boards. Among her tenures: Belk,, Tommy Hilfiger, ServiceMaster and Under Armour.

    Underrepresentation on boards has a knock-on effect, she points out: candidates for senior C-suite positions are often expected to have had some prior board service.

    From her experience, what does she suggest to anyone wanting to find their way onto a board? “Being damn good at what it is you do, period, full stop,” she says. “And be good at it so that your organization gives you the opportunity for great assignments and promotions, working on things that matter so you can have results, so you’re not just a cogwheel, just sitting there and making sure that it goes by, but you’re actually driving change.”

    Master self-promotion as well. “You advocate for yourself by being able to speak up in rooms that matter, to say that these are my accomplishments, and this is what I would like to have as a result of those accomplishments, be it a promotion or an assignment that’s really important.”

    As part of that, “get out of your cocoon” and raise your profile outside your current situation. “It’s great to be a legend in your organization. But if those are the only people that know you and the outside world doesn’t, then that’s a problem.” Join trade organizations, network. “Be someplace where you can speak about what’s important to you,” she says.

    “Is your voice being heard? Are you the person that they’re reaching out to talk to, and if you’re not, then you need to be able to sharpen the pencil on what your message is and start getting that out there so that when there is a main stage, when there is a microphone, when there is a story or article, that you are being called and they want to quote you because you bring some expertise and some gravitas to a situation that is needed. So get outside of your bubble… so your name becomes someone that people want to meet.”

    And be ready to take advantage of an opportunity, she adds. “You also have to be able to have a conversation with people within three minutes, or two minutes, that says what it is you do in a way that they don’t even know you just hit them across the face with why you’re ready for that opportunity. It’s not just chitchat about the weather and ‘Isn’t this a great conference?’ and ‘Where are you going for dinner?’

    “It’s, ‘Hi, I’m Jerri DeVard. I’ve worked in marketing for the past 15 years. I’m working on a big assignment now that’s going to generate a significant amount of revenue and market share in my organization, and I’m really excited about bringing that to a greater audience.’”

    “You need to be able to sharpen the pencil on what your message is.”


    I am nothing without my mother, Dr. Jean DeVard. She was a single mom raising two children… She finished her four-year undergraduate degree, got her master’s degree, got her Ed.D. and got her Ph.D. all with two little children in tow. I had a front-row seat as I watched this woman conquer the world, understanding that nothing was going to get in the way of an education.

    From an interview with Louis Carr

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