A Literal Seat
by Jeffrey Henderson·
Last summer, an amazing friend asked me if I would be interested in joining her on the board at Knoll Inc. Though I would never say ‘no’ to Stephanie, I had a thousand questions. For starters, what I actually knew about the responsibilities of a board member of a public company was superficial. Being on the advisory board at the NYC Business of Sports School would not be the same.
If you’re doing the math you’ve realized that my board nomination that summer coincided with America’s second pandemic. Naturally, I was skeptical about the timing of an all white board tapping me on the shoulder in the midst of protests and national civil unrest.
My Uncle Jeff taught me that every interview has two interviews. There should be questions from both sides of the table and the most important rule is that the invited should have more questions than the inviter.
As I spent time on calls with several board members I realized that the scheduled retirement of a board member coincided with the pandemic. Racial diversity was a focus for the replacement, but there was more involved in the decisions to bring me to the table.
Once I got beyond the white maleness of the board (8 men, 2 women), I was met with an avalanche of EBITDA, margins, and curves. They understood that business meant more than spreadsheets so they wanted the board to reflect that belief.
So after hours of probing questions and simple answers my gut told me that what I was signing up for was a learning experience.
For those of you still doing the math at home, my gut is frequently wrong.
Been There. Done That.
Life Rule #7 — never do anything for the first time — is tough to execute at this stage in the game. My mentor list in the area of being a seat member on a public board was short and the number of folks that might understand my two biggest concerns in that space, being Black and being creative, were in short supply.
My concern for getting myself into something shady was far less daunting than my concern for closing the door behind me by screwing up.
For Black folks and for creatives.
So I reached out to people to reach out to people. If you think finding Black folks on public boards is difficult, try finding Black creatives.
Luckily, I found a couple of generous souls to shed light on my new journey. I learned (and continue to learn) from their experiences and embarked on my journey as prepared as a novice could be.
So Far, So Great
With a couple of official board meetings under my belt I can honestly say that I landed in the perfect position. From the board chair and CEO to the rest of the board and the executive team, I’ve been impressed with their knowledge, skill, and focus on supporting the business while answering my next thousand questions. Learning an industry, a brand, and a position at the same time is not easy if you’re as impatient as I am.
My optimism is on a hundred-thousand-million after touring the factory and innovation center yesterday. I like making stuff and I got my fix in Pennsylvania. Whatever it is you imagine I saw, multiply that by 10.
How I board and how others may board may be different. I’m good with different. I know that visibility and representation matter. I know that the feeling of responsibility Eddy Meneses taught me on the Hasi factory floor in Indonesia has only gotten bigger. I know that you can’t please everyone all of the time. I know that not everyone sees the weight of a community on a draft pick. I know you can’t fix everything in a day. I know I’m never alone in this.
So I’m all good.
Thankfully I’m in a space that values what I value in people and product with a man named Benjamin who needs his own television show.
Photography: Jon Lopez Photography