Meet the four Black women who have led Fortune 500 companies

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 6, 2024 7:15 PM EDT
These four Black women led Fortune 500 companies.

America’s Fortune 500 companies are anointed their hallowed status by the editors of Fortune magazine based on previous fiscal year performances. So logically, the conversation on Fortune 500 outlets is also one that overlaps into who is making the most revenue and perhaps, having the most impact on American lives.

In 2023, the top 10 companies alone posted $3.7 trillion in revenue. From the grocery stores to the phones in our hands and to the doctor’s office, these companies are omnipresent in American life and represent the current state of the business world. It is therefore quite disheartening that America’s largest corporations do not reflect the nation’s overall diversity.

The number of women running Fortune 500 ranks is at an all-time high with more than 10 percent of companies being led by women. Despite this progress, only four Black women have held the CEO position in Fortune’s 69-year history. Black women leaders are faced with systemic biases and pressure to conform to the existing status quo which impedes their leadership skills and ability to contribute effectively. They have to continuously prove that they are qualified and that people see beyond their race and gender.

With 1 in 37 C-suite executives being Black women, it is clear that there is an abundance of talented and qualified Black women ready for top leadership. However, stakeholders often see them as risky bets and skip them over for the CEO position. America’s biggest organizations are consequently missing out on the effective decision-making that comes with diversity in leadership. Research has shown that having Black women in leadership roles boosts organizational performance, engagement, and profitability.

The lack of representation at the top makes it seem like Black women are neither qualified nor capable enough to lead. Black women leaders who have gone against the status quo are an inspiration for everyone who aspires to thrive in arduous circumstances.

BlackStars News highlights the four Black women who have led Fortune 500 companies.

1. Ursula Burns
“I’m here because I’m as good as you,” Burns – the first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company espouses the importance of believing in oneself.
Growing up, Burns was told that her options as a poor Black girl were limited to being a nun, teacher or nurse. She didn’t heed the naysayers. Excellent at mathematics, she dreamed of a career in engineering and took the necessary steps to realize her aspirations. Burns joined Xerox as an engineering intern and progressed into management and eventually executive leadership. In 2010, the girl from the Lower East Side of Manhattan was named CEO of Xerox.

2. Rosalind Brewer
Brewer encourages young girls and women looking to climb the corporate ladder to speak up and have their opinions heard despite the risk of floundering. A first-generation college graduate, she has reaped from the benefits of education that her parents missed. She transitioned from working as a scientist for 22 years to making history in the C-suite as CEO of Sam’s Club and COO of Starbucks. Brewer became the second woman to head a Fortune 500 company following her appointment as CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance in 2021.

“When you’re a Black woman, you get mistaken a lot. You get mistaken as someone who could actually not have that top job. Sometimes you’re mistaken for kitchen help. Sometimes people assume you’re in the wrong place, and all I can think in the back of my head is, ‘No, you’re in the wrong place’,” Brewer said of the biases and stereotypes she’s encountered as a Black woman CEO.

3. Thasunda Brown Duckett
One of two Black women currently leading a Fortune 500 company, Duckett is a trailblazer across the finance industry. She began her finance career at Fannie Mae and served as senior executive and later CEO at Chase Consumer Banking, a division of JPMorgan Chase. Duckett managed over 50,000 employees, 5,000 branches and $600 billion in deposits at the bank. But it is at TIAA, a provider of financial retirement services that she has had the most impact. With an estimated $1.4 trillion in assets under management, the firm pays out more than $4 billion to retirees annually.

4. Toni Townes-Whitley
Townes-Whitley, CEO of technology integrator Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) is the latest Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. Ranked at number 479 with an annual revenue of $7.7 billion, she is responsible for ensuring that the company remains among the Fortune 500. But this isn’t Townes-Whitley’s first rodeo. She previously served as the President, US Regulated Industries at Microsoft where she was in charge of over 5000 employees and $16 billion in annual revenue. Before that, she was President of IT consulting service CGI Federal where she was responsible for 6,600 employees in over 70 countries with a portfolio exceeding $1 billion. Townes-Whitley acknowledges that the onus is on her to ably represent other Black women.

“People like myself and others—we have to show up. We have to demonstrate that we can make this happen. We can grow businesses, we understand top line, bottom line, and all of the shareholder pressures, and we can deliver. And I think the more that occurs, you’re going to start to see some changes” Townes-Whitley said about how she’s paving the way for Black women CEOs.

It should be noted that Mary Winston served as the interim CEO of Bed Bath & Beyond for seven months in 2019. She previously held executive positions at Pfizer, Visteon, Scholastic, Giant Eagle and Family Eagle. Winston is currently the President and CEO of financial consulting firm WinsCo Enterprises.