Black CEOs Lead Just 1% of Fortune 500 Companies
The lack of diversity within the Fortune 500 is clear when it comes to women and openly gay individuals. Theories explaining a diversity gap include identity covering (which involves "downplaying aspects of one's identity") and a lack of opportunities.
Groups like the Executive Leadership Council push for more diverse inclusion, and other empowerment ventures have been launched. While the number of black-owned businesses has grown since 2002, the presence of black business leaders at America's top level still lags behind.
As America celebrates this year's Black History Month, these five black CEOs lead Fortune 500 businesses.
Ursula M. Burns -- Xerox
In May 2010, Ursula Burns became the first black woman to become a CEO for a Fortune 500 company. Before assuming Xerox's (XRX) lead role, she worked at various levels of the company -- including her first position as a summer intern in its mechanical engineering department. The company considers Burns to be a key figure in its turnaround, as she oversaw global research and development at the time.
Burns has also received her share of criticism for underperforming as a CEO. Xerox's 2010 acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services has failed to reach expectations for critics and investors, but Burns and Xerox recently touted a strong finish to 2014 that saw gains and expectations exceeded in some facets of business.
Burns also serves on several boards, including American Express (AXP) and Columbia University's Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
Kenneth C. Frazier -- Merck
Kenneth C. Frazier has served Merck (MRK) in various positions since joining in 1992 as vice president, general counsel and secretary of the Astra Merck Group. In 2011, Frazier was promoted to CEO and chairman--making him the first black person to lead a major pharmaceutical company.
Frazier is the son of a former sharecropper and janitor who instilled the belief that a person can be anything they want to be with hard work. Growing up in impoverished North Philadelphia, Frazier went on to earn degrees from Pennsylvania State University and Harvard Law School. He practiced law from 1978 until 1992 before transitioning to business after representing Merck as a partner in the litigation department of the firm Drinker Biddle & Reath.
Roger W. Ferguson Jr. -- TIAA-CREF
Roger W. Ferguson Jr. has been president and CEO of TIAA-CREF -- a provider of retirement services in several fields -- since 2011. He has earned a bachelor of arts and doctorate in economics and a law degree from Harvard University. He credits his parents -- a schoolteacher and an Army veteran with a knack for investing -- for his passion for finance, even as a child.
In 1997, Ferguson became the third black individual to serve on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and he became the board's first black vice chairman two years later. He serves or previously served on several prominent boards and groups, including President Obama's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and the Federal Open Market Committee. He began his career as a lawyer, practicing from 1984 to 1997.
Kenneth I. Chenault –- American Express
In 2001, Kenneth Chenault became CEO of American Express (AXP) after holding several positions within the company since 1981, where he started in the merchandising department. Along with his work at American Express, Chenault serves as a director of IBM (IBM) and Procter & Gamble (PG). Chenault earned a law degree from Harvard and began his career as an attorney.
Under his leadership, American Express in 2010 launched the Small Business Saturday in response to Black Friday shopping trends. "Small businesses create half of the jobs in the private sector," says Chenault. "They have created 65 percent of the net new jobs over the last 17 years. If people support independently owned small businesses in their community, they can make a difference."
John W. Thompson –- Virtual Instruments
John W. Thompson is CEO of privately held Virtual Instruments. Last year, he became the first black chairman of the board of Microsoft (MSFT), replacing Bill Gates. Before that, Thompson made history -- and shattered expectations -- during his stint as CEO of Symantec (SYMC) from 1999 to 2009. Not only was he the only black executive overseeing a tech brand at the time, Thompson guided revenue growth from $600 million to $6 billion.
Thompson's credentials also include 28 years with IBM and time with the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, where he investigated the 2008 financial crash. He is also a prominent figure in several Silicon Valley groups, as well as being part owner of the Golden State Warriors. Thompson has his MBA from MIT's Sloan School of Management.