How One Company Created Expertise and Equality in the Boardroom

The following has been adapted from prepared remarks, delivered by Jack Remondi, for a conference hosted by Skytop Strategies: “Gender Equality in the C-Suite & Boardroom — The Path to Value Creation.” This article also appears on LinkedIn.

I’m proud to share a story of opportunity and growth at one company: Navient. We launched just two years ago — in 2014 — following a spin-off transaction. With the separation, our board was split between the two entities, creating the opportunity for us to build a new board along with our new company.

As we launched, we recruited new board members with the experience and expertise we needed to help us grow. I’ll get to the full story in a moment, but the headline is this:

Today, in our boardroom, women outnumber men.

First, I’d like to take a step back. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Higher Education Act into law.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Higher Education Act of 1965

This bill created a federal program to provide scholarships, loans, and work opportunities to help more people pursue a college education. At the signing ceremony, President Johnson said:

“…a high school senior anywhere in this great land of ours can apply to any college or any university in any of the 50 states and not be turned away because his family is poor.” [1]

At the time, many fewer women attended college than men. Since then, the percentage of Americans — both women and men — who pursue higher education has grown steadily. Today, the number of women attending college greatly surpasses men. [2] With these programs, the number of Americans with college degrees has similarly increased. Today, the percentage of Americans with college degrees is higher than any other time in our country’s history, including for women. [3]

Source: U.S. Department of Education National Center Education Statistics (link)

I’m proud to be at the helm of a company that has over the years — first as Sallie Mae and today as Navient — played a key role in creating educational opportunity in America. This educational attainment comes with a host of individual and societal benefits. People with college degrees are more likely to be employed, earn more, buy a home, pay taxes, vote, and volunteer, to name a few. In short, education has been and continues to be one of the surest paths to economic wellbeing.

But let’s get back to the details of our board story. In considering how to build our board, we had two goals in mind. First, we wanted a board that would help our business succeed, grow, and diversify. Second, we wanted to ensure we had a board with diversity of expertise, perspectives and experiences.

With these goals in mind, we set to work finding the talent we needed. In a time of great change, it’s easy for boards to ask, “Who do we know already? Who do we feel comfortable with?” We recognized, however, that this approach would be unlikely to bring us candidates who brought the expertise, perspectives and experiences we sought. Knowing we could not do it alone, we tapped the resources of a search firm that specialized in bringing forward skilled, experienced candidates with diverse backgrounds.

It was this purposeful process that brought us the results we needed: top, talented experts ready and able to lead the company as we sought to grow and diversify our company. Today, our board is comprised of six women and five men.
Navient Board of Directors. Front, from left: Katherine A. Lehman, Barry A. Munitz, President and CEO Jack Remondi, Chairman William Diefenderfer, and Diane Suitt Gilleland. Back, from left: Ann Torre Bates (retired), Laura S. Unger, Jane J. Thompson, Barry L. Williams, John K. Adams, Jr., Linda A. Mills, and Anna Escobedo Cabral.

Our women board members’ experience not only speaks to their ability to bring critical perspective to the boardroom; it serves as an inspiration to the younger women who are coming behind them. I know it does for many Navient emerging leaders. They tell me so.

I am privileged to serve with these talented leaders, and appreciate the expertise and experience that brought them to our boardroom. We are thrilled with the recognition we have receive, and I believe that true equality is to be known for expertise and talent, not gender. I know that certainly our directors deserve recognition for their talent and expertise.

Preparing for this conference made me think about my daughter. She’s 12, and full of confidence and no shortage of creative ambition. Over a year ago she really wanted a texting account. My wife and I thought it was too early and unnecessary. So, she created a PowerPoint presentation to show how she could have a texting account without a phone, how a texting account would help her grow — and to convince us that she was responsible enough now. One slide said: I have 10 years and nine months of training to be responsible. It was very compelling.

She got the account.

She is a long way from entering the workforce, and while I am in no hurry to see her grow up, when she does, I want her to continue to follow her passions. I want her growth journey to be based on her skills, not her gender or her age. I hope that she continues to believe that nothing can hold her back.

Today, women are nearly half the workforce and more women than men are earning bachelor’s and graduate degrees. While this progress should be celebrated, we cannot ignore the continued challenges facing women in the workplace.

Navient recently released a study — Money Under 35 — on millennial financial health that asked a nationally representative group of young adults aged 22–35 to rate their financial health, income, saving practices and more.

What we found regarding the gender pay gap concerned us: even millennial women continue to earn less than their male peers.

We’re committed to raising awareness to resolve this persistent gender pay gap and joining with others to identify solutions for current and future generations of women workers. We’ve joined with the White House and other companies to sign on to the Equal Pay Pledge.

Navient is a stronger company because of our diversity.

If we only seek employees and leaders with the same experiences, we will not only miss out on great talent, but also valuable perspective. Diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, experience, and expertise makes us better.

Tunnel vision is not place of strength.

Without a doubt, our diverse corporate board enriches our approach to corporate governance and enhances our company’s potential. Every member of our board is a talented leader in his or her own right, and together, they push Navient to perform at a higher level.

I am proud to stand here today to discuss our board leadership and am committed to our company’s effort to empower people at every level of the company.

We all have opportunities each and every day to be a champion for what’s right. What matters is that we seize those opportunities.

Footnotes

[1] http://www.txstate.edu/commonexperience/pastsitearchives/2008-2009/lbjresources/higheredact.html

[2] NCES http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d15/tables/dt15_303.10.asp?current=yes

[3] https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p20-578.pdf