For many Americans, 2020 served as a rallying point around racial justice, as more attention was paid to the treatment of African Americans and people of color following the murder of George Floyd. This focus on equity, diversity, inclusion and access has touched practically every sector and industry in the nation, including corporate America, where much of the power and resources are spread across Fortune 500 companies.
Of the 500 companies currently recognized by Fortune as the biggest and most successful in America, only about 19 have ever had Black CEOs. When it comes to gender equity, the statistics get even worse with Black women rarely becoming a chief executive officer or chief financial officer (CFO). If progress is to be made, it’s important to know the history of Black CEOs in the Fortune 500, so that others can see that it is possible to run some of the largest companies in health care, tech, and finance, as recognized by Wall Street and Bloomberg. Keep reading to learn more about some of the Black CEOs who have led or are currently leading some of the most recognized names in the world of business.
These are some of the biggest companies in America led by Black CEOs.
Kenneth Frazier — Merck & Co.
Kenneth Frazier serves as the CEO and chairman of this pharmaceutical company based in New Jersey. Merck is currently ranked 69th on the list of Fortune 500 companies, and had a whopping six blockbuster drugs worth $1 billion each in 2020 alone. From vaccines and biologic therapies to animal health products, Merck & Co. has been on the cutting edge of a variety of medications and treatments over the years.
Kenneth Frazier is a graduate of both Pennsylvania State University and Harvard University and has served as the CEO of Merck & Co. since 2011. He first gained notoriety as general counsel for Merck when he represented them during litigation over the arthritis treatment Vioxx. He holds the distinction of being the first Black man to ever lead a pharmaceutical company in America and has pushed Merck to be bolder in its efforts rather than attempt to always balance the budget. This approach to doing business has worked, as the 2020s slate of medications has shown, but even in 2013, Frazier felt it made more sense to continue investing in research and development than focus on having a balanced budget. Frazier was recognized by Time magazine as one of its 100 Most Influential People of 2018.
- 2020 Company Earnings: $47.6 billion
- Stock Price (as of close July 6, 2020): $78.11
Thasunda Brown Duckett — TIAA
A recent appointment in 2021, Thasunda Duckett is currently the president and CEO of Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA). She comes to this position after serving as CEO of Chase Consumer Banking, making her one of only four Black women to have served as CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
TIAA was founded in 1918 by Andrew Carnegie to help fund pensions for professors. Since then, TIAA has become a Fortune 100 company in the financial services industry, offering banking, investing, and retirement services for members of the academic, governmental, medical, and cultural fields. Altogether, TIAA has a little more than $1.3 trillion in assets to manage, making it an impressive company to helm.
Duckett received her education from the University of Houston and Baylor and held previous jobs as a Director of Emerging Markets at Fannie Mae and as the CEO of Chase Auto Finance. While at Fannie Mae, Duckett helped lead national strategies to increase homeownership for Black and Hispanic families. In addition to her new appointment at TIAA, Thasunda Brown Duckett is also on the board of directors for Nike and founded the Otis and Rosie Brown Foundation in honor of her parents. According to their website, the Otis and Rosie Brown Foundation’s mission is to “highlight extraordinary people, organizations and corporations who utilize ordinary resources to enhance the well-being of individuals, families and their community,” something she believes her parents exemplified.
- 2020 Company Earnings: $41.6 billion
- Stock Price (as of close July 6, 2020): $32.25
Roger Ferguson Jr — TIAA
Roger Ferguson Jr. preceding Thasunda Brown Duckett as CEO and president of TIAA, himself the second Black CEO in the financial services organization’s history following Clifton Wharton’s six-year tenure as CEO from 1987 to 1993. Ferguson Jr. was CEO for 13 years and only just stepped down to make way for Duckett to take the helm in his stead. He currently serves as a member of the board of directors of Alphabet, Inc., the Smithsonian, and General Mills.
Roger Ferguson Jr. is Harvard-educated, and before his time at TIAA he did a lot of work in the public sector. Two major milestones in his impressive career involved helping the Federal Reserve manage its response to the September 11th attacks and directing TIAA during the financial crisis of 2008. Other recognitions Ferguson Jr. has received include the 2016 Harvard Medal for his service to the alumni association, as well as the Harvard Centennial Medal (the highest award offered by the graduate school) in 2019.
- 2020 Company Earnings: $41.6 billion
- Stock Price (as of close July 6, 2020): $32.25
Jide Zeitlin — Tapestry
While you might not recognize the name Tapestry, as the parent company of both Coach and Kate Spade, you likely are familiar with Tapestry’s family of products. Jide Zeitlin was appointed to CEO of the company with a mission to re-energize its consumers, and with an MBA from Harvard and work experience at Goldman Sachs—not to mention experience within the company—he seemed like he might be the right person for the job.
Unfortunately, his time at the company was short-lived. Amidst misconduct allegations, Zeitlin stepped away from the company, citing his concern for causing a distraction as a major reason to resign from his new post. He currently serves as co-chairman and co-CEO of Bleu Acacia, Ltd.
- 2020 Company Earnings: $4.96 billion
- Stock Price (as of close July 6, 2020): $41.71
Ursula Burns — Xerox
Ursula Burns was the first Black woman to break the glass ceiling and serve as CEO of a Fortune 500 company, becoming the CEO of Xerox Holdings in 2009. Burns first became acquainted with the technology company in the 1980s when she held an internship at the company. After that internship, she slowly began to rise through the ranks, eventually becoming the president and chief executive.
Burns oversaw some rocky times at the company, including an acquisition that ultimately led to Xerox being split into two separate companies. Burns was chairman of Xerox Corp (one half of the split), and also held the role of CEO for Veon, a telecom company based in Amsterdam and the ninth biggest mobile network operator globally. Since 2020, Burns has become a champion for Black employees and racial justice in corporate America.
- 2020 Company Earnings: $7.02 billion
- Stock Price (as of close July 6, 2020): $23.70
Marvin Ellison — Lowe’s and J.C. Penney
Before he started his post as CEO of Lowe’s Home Improvement in 2018, Marvin Ellison spent three years as the chief executive officer of J.C. Penney as well. A graduate of The University of Memphis and Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, Ellison has an intimate knowledge of retail, working at companies like Target before tackling some of his more senior-level positions.
Ellison has a knack for the retail sector, and his contributions to Lowe’s have been measurable. Just as Ellison began a turnaround for the flailing J.C. Penney department chain before his departure, he’s now investing his time and energy into helping Lowe’s rival Home Depot in the home improvement sector. One reason he’s doing so well at that task? It might have something to do with the fact that he spent 12 years as Executive Vice President of stores for the competitor from 2002 to 2014, before taking on the role of CEO at J.C. Penney.
- 2020 Company Earnings (Lowe's): $90 billion
- Stock Price (as of close July 6, 2020): $194.75
Rosalind Brewer — Walgreens Boots Alliance
Rosalind Brewer, also known as Roz Brewer, is the only Black woman currently serving as CEO of a Fortune 500 company. While Brewer may be the only Black female CEO right now, she’s certainly no stranger to holding positions of power in major corporations. Before joining Walgreens Boots Alliance as their CEO, Brewer served as COO of Starbucks, a leadership role at Walmart, and was the CEO of Sam’s Club.
All of this experience makes Brewer a particularly admired CEO, and Wall Street was quite keen on her appointment as CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance. Indeed, she’s been recognized for her business acumen and leadership skill by multiple publications, including Fortune, Forbes, and USA Today.
- 2020 Company Earnings: $456 million
- Stock Price (as of close July 6, 2020): $47.70
Richard Parsons — Time Warner
Appointed to the role of CEO of Time Warner in 2002, Richard Parsons was heralded as a welcome respite from the typical media company CEOs of the era. With a background in banking as the CEO of Dime Bancorp and degrees from The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and Albany Law School, Parsons had already served on Time Warner’s board since 1991 and as president since 1995. Hand-selected by chief executive Gerald Levin for these positions, he was appointed CEO to replace Levin when he stepped away from the company amid a recent merger with AOL.
Parsons had a lot on his plate as CEO, and his first task was to ameliorate the dueling companies who had yet to fully settle into the merger. Under his guidance, the AOL and Time Warner teams began to work together more effectively, even as Parsons decided to drop “AOL” from the media conglomerate’s new name.
Since his work with Time Warner, Richard Parsons has held a variety of high-profile titles and appointments, including chairman of Citigroup, interim chairman of the board for CBS, and chair of the Apollo Theater Foundation.
- 2020 Company Earnings: $12.15 billion
- Stock Price (as of close July 6, 2020): N/A
Rodney O’Neal — Delphi Motors
A spin-off of General Motors, Delphi Motors was in trouble when Rodney O’Neal took charge. As CEO, O’Neal oversaw the company during a tumultuous time for the automaker, as well as the automotive sector at large. That being said, even though Delphi Motors was reliant on its parent company for a majority of its sales when he took the helm, by the time he left his position, Delphi only had a little under 20% of sales come from General Motors.
In a similar vein, O’Neal was able to steer Delphi clear of bankruptcy and restructuring in the courts. As a pioneer in automotive safety technology, Rodney O’Neal left Delphi much more prepared to add value to an evolving industry, something that would have been almost unfathomable when he first accepted his CEO appointment.
Anyone who knew O’Neal was likely unsurprised by the tenacity and vision he demonstrated in his position at Delphi. A native of Dayton, OH, as a child he delivered The Dayton Daily News, a job where he received the distinction of Delivery Boy of the Year after just his first 12 months working there. With a master’s degree from Stanford and 2002’s award of Black Engineer of theYear, it’s no surprise that O’Neal went on to greatness in the automotive industry.
- 2020 Company Earnings: $4.4 billion
- Stock Price (as of close July 6, 2020): $157.60
Mary Winston — Interim CEO — Bed, Bath, & Beyond
While Mary Winston only served as Interim CEO for Bed, Bath, & Beyond for about six months, it’s still worth noting that for a short amount of time she was one of a few Black women who could claim CEO status for a major company. She was only the second Black female ever to be appointed CEO of any kind to a Fortune 500 company when she started her position in May of 2019. Unsurprisingly, she was on the shortlist for the position, considering her extensive experience in both finance and accounting, not to mention her existing affiliation with the home goods retailer.
Although Winston was likely asked to stay on as CEO for the company, she wound up moving on to work for Target instead as a chief executive there. With an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellog School of Business, Winston has made a name for herself in the world of retail. In addition to serving as the interim CEO for Bed, Bath, & Beyond, she also has experience as the Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at Family Dollar Stores Inc. and serving on the board of directors for Chipotle.
- 2020 Company Earnings: $2.62 billion
- Stock Price (as of close July 6, 2020): $30.28
Aylwin Lewis — Sears
Today, it might be hard to remember that Sears was once a major competitor with the likes of Target and Walmart; however, thanks to online retailers like Amazon and the general success of the latter two retailers, Sears has fallen on hard times. Even so, Aylwin Lewis is worth recognizing as the Black CEO who was tasked with a nearly impossible task: managing the merger of Sears and Kmart and revitalizing both brands as they came under increasing fire from their competitors.
Lewis had a great background and had worked as the Senior VP of Operations and later COO of Pizza Hut; however, due to the meddling of hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert (who suggested the merger in the first place), Lewis’ experience was overridden. While Aylwin Lewis stayed on at Sears for four years, he ultimately left to become the CEO of sandwich chain Potbelly. Over nine years at Potbelly, Lewis helped the company make major strides, showing that he deserved to have been listened to when he was CEO of Sears.
- 2020 Company Earnings: $6.63 billion
- Stock Price (as of close July 6, 2020): $0.26
While there are large companies run by Black CEOs, the total number of Black executives in Fortune 500 companies remains disproportionately small compared to white executives. Progress in the sector has been moving slowly, although there have been recent appointments that may signal the start of a shift towards more racial equity. Even so, parity is probably many decades away at the pace that things are going.
One unfortunate thing to note about many of the Black business professionals on this list is how many of them were set up for failure. It seems as if many flailing companies thought that, as a last-ditch effort, appointing a Black CEO would somehow help their image and solve all of their problems. Putting that amount of work on an overly-scrutinized demographic in corporate America is unfair at best and manipulative at worst—and it’s worth noting that even against seemingly insurmountable odds, the majority of these Black CEOs rose to the occasion other professionals were fleeing.
It’s also worth noting that many of the CEOs on this list who have since moved on from their posts are still major advocates for increasing representation in corporate America and the workforce at large. A diversity of voices can only better serve everyone when everyone has a seat at the table, and it’s hard to contest the fact that Black Americans and other people of color have so few seats at the table that is the Fortune 500.
Perhaps what’s most striking is how successful some of these CEOs have been at their posts. From Starbucks to Sears and pharmaceutical companies to businesses generating billions of dollars in financial services, the CEOs and leaders on this list have made impressive contributions to corporate America. Ideally, with their support and advocacy, the sector will continue to diversify in the coming years.