DeForest B. Soaries, Jr., Independent Director, Ocwen Financial Corporation
and Independence Realty Trust
In December 1992 I was honored to be invited to serve on the board of directors of New Era Bank, a small, community bank in New Jersey that was three blocks away from the church that I had was serving as Pastor. This local bank was exactly the partner we needed for our business microloan program, our home ownership initiative, funding for community development and personal access to credit for families. I excitedly assumed my position February 1993.
The bank hosted a reception for my church members and community residents to celebrate my becoming the first and only black director and more than 200 people attended. This was more than a personal accomplishment – this was to be a benefit for black people in our area.
I chose to serve on the loan committee that approved all bank lending and the investment committee that approved how the bank invested its own funds. Not only would I participate in meetings that discussed the bank’s core business, but I would also learn invaluable information about finance and financial institutions at the same time.
Before my first board meeting started, I was given forms to complete as if I was an employee of the bank. That is when I learned that the directors at the bank were paid a fee for serving on the board. That is also when I realized that black people need to seek to become paid corporate directors.
A few months after I joined the board, I was in the unenviable position of having to influence the board to deny financing to a black owned business. As the only black person among this small number of board members, everyone assumed that I would be the strongest advocate for a black owned, neighborhood business. The problem was that this business was a bar that was the most dangerous place in our neighborhood. Shootings occurred there on a regular basis and the goal of the residents was for this establishment to either close or move somewhere else. The board deferred to my opinion and denied the loan. That experience was just the first of many when being the only black member of a board can carry some complexity and great responsibility. But we need to be in those boardrooms.
After having been a paid director on seven corporate boards, I now have a passion for teaching black people how to become corporate directors. Those of us that have had a seat at the corporate director table are the best people (and sometimes the only people) to prepare our folks to access these important opportunities and be effective after being appointed to corporate boards.
In my program “How to Become a (Paid) Corporate Director” I share every secret that I have learned inside the corporate boardroom since 1993. And every guest that has shared with my participants has expressed that they wished they had participated in a program like mine before they began their service as directors.
Legislation, investor pressure and regulatory standards are all making corporate directorships more available for black people than ever before. But the people who will make the biggest difference will be the black corporate directors who open doors for other black people to become corporate directors themselves.