Elevating Board Candidates to Diversify the Boardroom

By Holly C. Corbett   |   May 20, 2024
illumyn’s Boardroom Excellence Fellowship program journey. (credit: Amy Williams)

When it comes to pushing for more equal representation of women and other underrepresented groups in top leadership positions, your mind might go to increasing the diversity of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies or having our first woman president. Less attention might be paid to the number of women or diverse directors on boards, but the boardroom is the most influential room in business, says Jocelyn Mangan, CEO and founder of illumyn, a public benefit company that connects those historically underrepresented in the boardroom with board visibility and opportunity.

“If you look at private boards – which are the bulk of companies today – only 16% of their boards are made up of women, and only 4% are women of color,” says Suzanne Soares, chief business development officer at illumyn.

Simply put, diversity on a board of directors brings quantifiable business benefits. According to the United Nations International Labour Organization, having gender equality in the boardroom makes companies 20% more likely to improve their performance. Other research has shown that gender equality boosts firm value, corporate social responsibility, quality of decision-making, and sales. Having a diverse board is vital in reflecting the customers served. 

“Not having equal representation of women on boards is a big miss, because women hold tremendous purchasing power: Women are responsible for 85% of consumer spending, 91% of new home purchases, and 80% of healthcare spend,” says Mangan. 

Elevating ‘Hidden’ Executives

“The illumyn Fellowship program effectively bridges a vital gap in our leadership development portfolio. Beyond delivering top-notch learning experiences, it fosters vital connections, enabling practical, hands-on expertise. Historically, sourcing partners or developing this in-house presented challenges. With illumyn, participants benefit from a comprehensive enterprise understanding — a perspective sometimes overlooked in daily departmental roles. Additionally, through board service, they’re introduced to an expanded viewpoint, refining their strategic vision for both immediate and long-term business objectives.” –Kristy Feldkamp, Boardroom Excellence Fellowship participant

If corporations understand that boardroom diversity is good for business, why is progress so slow when it comes to diversifying boards? The answer may lie in the lack of visibility of board-ready candidates, as well as a lack of access to opportunities. That’s where illumyn comes in. 

“We looked out into the world, and we recognized that the majority of the talent many of the boards were seeking, especially women and historically underrepresented talent, were hidden in large corporations,” says Soares. “They’re hidden maybe because they themselves don’t necessarily report to their own board, or they don’t see themselves as board qualified, or they just don’t have the network today to help them expand their visibility to opportunities.”

illumyn brings visibility and opportunity to historically underrepresented corporate executives. With their Boardroom Excellence Fellowship, corporations help nominate top talent they believe has board potential. If the candidate is a match, they can join the fellowship, where they will get an in-depth view of what’s truly involved in terms of board service, align their interests and talents with in-demand boardroom skills, and also have the opportunity to be connected to key boardroom opportunities.

Allison Bubar, a regional vice president at Advance Auto Parts, says the Boardroom Excellence Fellowship program gave her the support and knowledge she needed as she’s prepared to join a board.

“When I had the opportunity to interview for a board position, the team was available with quick turnaround time to help me prepare and ensure that I had all necessary information and was set up for success,” she says. “One of my favorite sessions was on the concept of ‘informed curiosity.’ While the focus of the session was on the board interview process, I’ve also leveraged what illumyn calls the ‘Little Book of Killer Questions’ and insights for other applications, such as preparing for a strategic roadmap discussion with our executive team.”

Leveraging EQ For Boardroom Success

illumyn offers another vital program for historically underrepresented board members, in the form of insider training on how to bring excellence to the boardroom once they have a seat at the table.

“We’re not just creating opportunities for women [and historically underrepresented people] to get board seats, but also making sure they’re having an impact,” says Soares. “We’re making sure they’re not a silent voice, which can happen sometimes, because those boards will have the founder, their friends, their investors, and others who may have been out there for a long time.”

If someone has achieved board member status, they already have the skills, experience, and knowledge to get the job done, but what separates good board members from MVP board members is having high emotional intelligence, or EQ.

“There’s also a really interesting component to being on the board, and it’s far more EQ than IQ,” says Soares. “It’s not about the governance and how much you understand that component of it or understand the financial acumen of being on a board. Rather, it’s really about how you show up in a meaningful way, not as an operator but as an overseer.”

illumyn has created a three-month Boardroom Brilliance Program to support new board members and help them increase their EQ. The program is filled with valuable insights reaped from years of intimate dinners that Him For Her (illumyn’s nonprofit partner) has hosted with CEOs, C-level executives, and board leaders.

“It’s really based on what we call the 10 most valuable characteristics of board members that we gleaned from hosting more than 135 dinners with the country’s top executives and asking, ‘Who makes your MVP of your board and why?’” says Soares. Offering this sort of soft-skills training sets illumyn apart from other board training programs. The program is led by industry leaders with extensive corporate board experience and designed so new board directors can immediately apply actionable learnings.

Soares says she hopes all new board directors come out of the program having found their voice. That they are “ready to make an impact on the board they’re sitting on and feel really comfortable about their position on that board.”


(512) 466-2301
Chief Business Development Officer: Suzanne Soares


Together with Him for Her, illumyn creates boardroom excellence and opportunity for historically underrepresented corporate executives.

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