How Corporate Boardrooms Can Reflect a Diverse America, with Attorney Ken Lewis

Corporate boardrooms don’t look much different than what they did in the 1950’s.  Find out what Ken Lewis says we can do to change that.

Ken Lewis has been a practicing attorney for 33+ years, and represents clients in mergers, acquisitions, and sales of businesses, and in the formation of strategic alliances at Nexsen Pruet, LLC.

Transcript

Donald Thompson: Welcome to the Donald Thompson podcast. And today, I have a good friend of mine, Ken Lewis. Ken is a very, very strong businessperson, very well respected in the legal community. And Ken, Welcome to The Donald Thomson Podcast.

Ken Lewis: It’s great to be with you.

Donald Thompson: Ken, as we talk a little bit about some of the macro events in business, what we think about, how we can work and grow in the diversity, equity, inclusion space, whether it be the legal profession, whether it be business in general.

I want to take a step back and allow our audience some space to get to know you. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up, brothers and sisters, married, kids. Tell us a little bit about Ken Lewis the individual, and then we’ll dig into some of the business stuff.

Ken Lewis: Great. So, I grew up in Winston Salem. My parents were both educators. My mom was a school teacher, a fifth grade school teacher, and my dad was a university professor and a minister for most of the time that I grew up. I spent most of my time as a youngster on the college campus where he taught, Wiston Salem State. He also taught a little bit at Wake Forest.

I tell people that I actually went to school in the first – went to college in the first grade because that was my afterschool care, just sitting in the back of his classroom watching him teach.

Donald Thompson: One of the things, when you think about, kind of, our early childhood, and then what we ended up doing as our primary profession, right? People have a lot of different things they can do. What drew you to the law?

Ken Lewis: So, it’s interesting. There were really three catalytic events in my life that drew me to the law at a really young age. The first was my best friend growing up, his father was a probation officer. And one summer, I must’ve been 10 or 11 years old, we went to go visit him in his office, and I wandered into the back of a courtroom and spent the day watching lawyers try cases. And, for the rest of the summer, I would find my way back to that courtroom and sit in the back and lawyers try cases. And that was really the first time I got the idea that I wanted to be a lawyer.

So, that was the first event. The second event was, I started school in 1966. That was really at the beginning of integration in the public schools in Winston Salem. There was a plan that allowed you to attend any school you wanted to attend as long as you could provide your own transportation.

So, my parents enrolled me in a school across town that was the best elementary school in the city and would transport me from my home to that school every morning. And over the years, in elementary school, I began to notice the difference in the development in the part of town where I lived and the part of town where I went to school.

There were movie theaters, and Kripsy Kreme donut shops, and ice cream shops and all sorts of nice things in the part of town where I went to school, and there weren’t those kinds of amenities in the part of town where I lived. And I just developed an interest – I was fascinated by that, and I developed an interest in, why are our businesses located in one part of town and not in the other?

And the third catalytic event was in high school. I was a part of a group that got exposed to careers and a antitrust lawyer or came to speak to the group, and that was where the merger of my interest in law and in business. I, I first learned through that talk about business lawyers and that really sent me on my, on the path of deciding I wanted to go to college and major in business, and then go to law school.

Donald Thompson: That is phenomenal. And one of the things, that’s a thread between those three major events, right? Your education, being able to see lawyers in practice and then have somebody come into your classroom and sow into you by letting you know what you could to be.

Ken Lewis: Right.

Donald Thompson: Raising those horizons. And so exposure, I think, is the big word that I will take away from, from how you developed that, that interest in, in law.

When you think about the legal profession and it’s impact on social justice, what are some of the things that people need to understand about our system of law, our system of how do we, we think about social justice, that allows people to have a better understanding of things like systemic racism, things like disparity in education.

How do some of your experiences help you shed light on those things that maybe most people wouldn’t understand?

Ken Lewis: Well, during the time that I was growing up, lawyers were very prominent in, in society and in my consciousness, in part because they were on the front line of creating the opportunities that I was preparing myself to one day pursue.

And so, lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, or Julius Chambers in North Carolina. You know, were bringing lawsuits that we’re opening up the doors of opportunity, and there was a lot of talk among those lawyers and in the public sphere about what the constitution guaranteed, the values of the country should be, how those values should be extended to, you know, to others.

And that became a part of my framework. I went to college and at Duke. And the year that I got there, I learned that Duke had discontinued the, the business major, undergraduate major. And so, I ended up majoring in political science and really got interested in, in how societies are constructed.

And in a democratic society, a society that is based upon representative democracy and society grounded in the rule of law, the law is fundamental to shaping the opportunities that are enjoyed by its citizens, and the law has worked in multiple ways in our society. The law has enforced discrimination and disparity, but the law has also been used to, to open up opportunities.

And so, it’s a powerful tool, really in both directions and in both closing down opportunities, but also in opening up opportunities.

Donald Thompson: Oh, that’s a powerful way to think about it. So one of the, one of the things that you mentioned, whether it is your reference to Thurgood Marshall, Julius Chambers, but the door opening aspect of people on the front lines, and then how that transitions to really how, how we’re, in progress, are limited or open in our society.

And the way that laws are constructed, the way that policy and government is made is very different from the conversation sometimes on the ticket line. And if we don’t understand how to manage both, right, it’s hard to have that sustainable progress.

And one of the folks that we both know, Tonya Williams, that we both think really highly of, one of the things that she said as a guest on my podcast earlier is she’s very, very focused on people being educated on policy that will last for decades, right? While the picket line is important, there’s also these other things that are done behind closed doors that we need to pay attention to also.

Ken Lewis: Right, right. Exactly. So, the law is where we translate our values into rules that we agreed to live by and to govern ourselves.

And so, some of the things that are happening in the streets and on the picket lines are really about giving expression to what our values, you know, ought to be calling attention to the ways in which our society may stray from our professed values. And so, that’s very important. And if you look at the history of the country, whether you’re looking at the labor movement, or whether you’re looking at the environmental movement, whether you’re looking at the civil rights movement or the women’s rights movement, many of – all of those movements were amplified  through public protest and advocacy, which helped to draw attention then to the need to create some change in our society.

But that society was able to, to achieve that change through translating those values into laws that then provide the, the new opportunities that were being advocated for through direct action. So, the law is an important tool in giving expression to our values.

Donald Thompson: No, that’s really important. I appreciate that. One of the questions as we look more from the legal side and transition into business, you were quoted in an article in the Wall Street Journal that talked about the lack of multicultural representation in the boardroom.

Talk to me a little bit about that article, that perspective, and really some things that you think can be done to make change there.

Ken Lewis: So the, the Wall Street Journal, you know – as are many publications now, are in the wake of the George Floyd killing and other similar kinds of killings in the country – is taking a deep look into issues of diversity, not only in the criminal justice system, but also so in society more broadly.

And one of the, the areas that they have focused on is the lack of diversity in corporate boardrooms and in the C suite of the largest companies in the country. So, there’s a way in which we can look at our country today and compare it to 50 years ago and see a very, very different country. We, we no longer are living in a society that is segregated by law.

People are going to school in many instances, although we’ve had some intrude in this area as well, but we’re going to school with people of different races. You are interacting in the public sphere in restaurants, and hotels, and stores with people of a variety of races. Well, if you were to look at the corporate boardrooms in America today, and, and compare it to the 1950s, you would be shocked at how similar the corporate boardrooms in our country look today to the corporate boardrooms in the 1950s. And I think there’s an increasing awareness that, that is – that, that is problematic for a lot of reasons. And I think the Wall Street Journal is – and other publications are, are – trying to understand why that is, why change has been so slow in this arena.

Donald Thompson: What are some of the things that if you had the magic wand, how would you make that change? Right? How would you, how would you create the environment? What are some of the things that you would advocate so that we get there faster so we’re not, or our kids are not, or grandkids 50 years from now having the same discussion?

Ken Lewis: Well, the first thing I would do is I would encourage leaders in the country, whether they are corporate leaders or political leaders, but leaders in the country and, and members of society more broadly to take a really fresh look at why there hasn’t been more change in this space, you know, then there has been. To really whiteboard the way you would in a, in a business environment where you really, when you try to step away from whatever your assumptions may have been, whatever you have, the common understanding may be, pull the curtain back and really do a situation analysis to say, “What is the actual situation here?”

And I think if, if we did that, one thing that we would see is that the pool of available talent to have to complete a diverse board of directors is wider and deeper than it has, than it has ever been in the country’s history. You know, that because of  the changes in laws and the changes in society that have occurred or over the last 50 years, access to educational opportunities have grown tremendously in those 50 years, and African-Americans, and women, and other people of color have taken advantage of those educational opportunities. They have entered corporate environments in numbers we’ve never seen before, they have achieved success in the, in those corporate environments in a way that wasn’t available to prior generations.

And so, we have a, a tremendous pool of available talent out there to have a more diverse boardrooms. I think that’s one thing.

Secondly, if I had the magic wand, I would wave it and have a broader segment of society understand that this is not just a fairness issue. This is not just about being fair to people, that this is an issue that I believe that is fundamental if we’re going to be a vibrant economy, a dynamic economy, a growing economy in the feature. That, that in order to, to maximize the value creation available to us that we’re going to have to tap into the enormous, diverse talent that exists in the country.

And it’s through people working together, bringing to a problem a set of diverse experiences and ideas and problem solving approaches, that we unlock a dynamism that will create the next explosion of growth in our country and in our corporations. And so I want people to see this, not only as a, as an issue of fairness, but also an issue of growing the pie in a way that will be beneficial for everyone in our society.

Donald Thompson: Oh man, that is the analogy of growing the pie is really, really important. As I work in this space and, and try to be a positive beacon for diversity, equity, inclusion, there is this concern: if I make available opportunity for someone else, that means there’s less opportunity for me. So you, you mentioned growing the pie, but how do you articulate to someone that has that, kind of, concerning view, and it’s a real concern that middle aged white men in particular, right?

They’re like, “More opportunity for women, more opportunity for Black people, more opportunities for Latin X, more opportunity for this. What about me?” How do you have that conversation?

Ken Lewis: That’s a real issue. And I think again, in my, in my hypothetical sort of magic wand and my whiteboard, I think, I think if we were identifying what the problems are that I think one thing we should, we should identify is that we have – that part of our history includes a way of seeing the world in a zero sum way. Hmm. That, that is part of the, the history of the country. And so this thinking that if someone else is, is winning, I’m losing, I believe is tied to our history where we divided opportunities and provided them to some and that’s all. And some of that’s around race, and some of that’s around gender, but it’s a way that we operated in our country from the beginning. And so, these ideas, I think, of zero sum are ideas that continue to exist as a part of our culture. And I think the first way that we address those ideas is to identify their source and identify that this is not truth.

This is just a legacy of a society that divided opportunities, provided them for some and not for all. And then, I would encourage people to think about the other part of our legacy as a country, and this is a part of our legacy of a country that I think is the pathway to the great opportunity for all that exists.

If you think about America, the idea of America, let’s talk about the idea, just the idea of America. The idea of America is a place where everyone can flourish, a place where there is freedom of opportunity, a place where people can come from all over the world and give expression to their unique talents and achieve based upon their talent.

That’s the idea of America. Right? That’s not, you know, we wrote that down in our fundamental documents. But then we, we also adopted a, a set of practices that divided and provided the opportunity to some and not for all. And so these two things have co-existed in our country from the very beginning, the idea of a place where anyone can succeed based upon talent and a reality where we divided people and provided opportunity to some and not for, not for all.

But if we can, if we we’re to get back to the original idea, and create a society that really provided an opportunity for all the basic idea of America is that, is that the human spirit, human capacity, unleashed from chains, unleashed from dictators that suppress free expression, that, that will unlock the highest human potential. And I think that is still available to us now. In fact, I think that is the key to our future success, but in order to get there, we’re going to have to rid ourselves from some of these old ideas that are the legacy of our departure from the original idea of what America could be.

Donald Thompson: Hmm. That is powerful. I mean, both in terms of what you said, but the ease of understanding the way that I was able to accept it, because most people can get behind the original idea of America. And if we start with that original idea, then it’s easier to accept that we’ve gotten off track. And how do we then get back on track to that original idea of America?

And I think that the way that our communication mechanisms are set up, there’s so much financial prosperity in negativity, and there’s not as much money in unity. And so, therefore people are incented to get groups mad at each other. All the time. And so we’ve got to create an environment, my opinion, where more clear minds can speak openly and disagree strongly, but do so from the framework of how do we get back to this original idea of America.

And that’s, that’s really, really cool. I appreciate the way that you, you articulated that. Ken, when you think about your experience as a business person, as a lawyer, working with leaders of all different backgrounds, different company sizes. How have you learned to operate being the only one in the room?

How have you learned to navigate and continue to grow and prosper? Right? And I don’t know if you still do it, but if I go into a crowd of 10 people, 20 people, 200 people, I still look around and see if there’s somebody like me.

I can’t – it’s built – I just still do it. What advice would you give to those that are learning how to navigate when they’re the only one in the room?

Ken Lewis: Well, you know, you know, it’s interesting. It’s – I have been in that situation so frequently over the last – this is my 33rd year of practicing law. And so, I’ve been in that situation so much, I still notice it, but it’s, it’s such a common experience now that, that it’s, it has almost become normalized, which I hate to say that, but it’s, it’s – so I’m always surprised when I see someone else.

I’m happily surprised. I’m always surprised when I see someone else in the room. I’ll tell you a funny story, a bit of an aside, but this gives me, this makes me think about this. When I started practicing 33 years ago, I started at the largest law firm in North Carolina and I was first African American associate hired at this firm. And it was in Charlotte, big firm on the 30th floor, you know, 31st and 32nd floor and 30th floor of this office tower. I had been there for maybe a month or so, and I was in the men’s room and I was startled because I saw another African American. And then, I realized quickly that I was looking at my own reflection in the mirror.

And that was me. That was when I was struggling to like, realize like, “Wow, I’m in such an environment here where there’s no one, you know, that looks like me, that I’m startled even see myself.

Donald Thompson: That is like, that is hilarious. It makes me think of a, another narrative that I think we’ve allowed, you know, people of color to deal with is this negative narrative of who we are and what we can become. It’s one thing for people to hold you back. It’s one thing to have systemic structural things make it harder. And then there’s this ability to listen to a school counselor that says, “Johnny can only go to a two year trade school. He doesn’t really have the aptitude to do this. Jenny would be better off if she put away XYZ and just went to – maybe you can be something that’s, you know, you don’t need to be an engineer. That might be a little bit too much for you,” right? “There’s, there’s a lot of math. If you want to learn how to do that computer stuff.”

And so one of the things that, that your success amplifies is you can become what you dream. And one of the things that you – based on knowing you and what you described – had a strong family influence about achievement. What do we do? What do you and I do, what’s our responsibility for those that don’t have that set up, that we continue to give them the opportunity to dream bigger, bolder and not hold themselves back?

Ken Lewis: Yeah, no, that’s, that’s a very powerful point. And I think it actually relates to how I would, how I would answer this question about being the only person in the room.

I think it really starts with having a firm grounding in who you are and just understanding that, you know, that, you know, you know who you are and I, I just can’t overemphasize that. And I agree with you entirely that, that I was very fortunate to grow up in a family that was a very strong family with very supportive parents who really impressed upon us to understand who we, who we are, right?

And to not be defined by, by society. To not be defined by, by how others may see you, but to have your own definition. I think that is, that is fundamental. And so, for those who don’t have the benefit of having that sort of family structure, they have to find a way to build a sense of self and a sense of who they are and to ground themselves in that. One of the things that I tell young people is that most important decision you make in your life, it’s not, you know, whether you go to college or not, it’s not, you know, not who you marry, it’s not the vow you take, the most important decision that you will make in your life is your vision of yourself that you adopt for yourself. Like, what is your vision of you? And that decision about how you see yourself will drive all the other decisions that you make.

And, you have the ability to adapt for yourself your vision for yourself, that is within your control. I don’t suggest that’s, that it’s easy to adopt a favorable view because we’re all influenced by our environment, and society has lots of ways of trying to tell you who you are and, and what you should dream. But ultimately, that vision of yourself that you adopt for yourself is within your control. And so, you know, so I try to get people to understand that. And then I try to do what I can to try to expose people to possibilities in their lives, so that as they are thinking about their vision for themselves, they are constructing a self image and self vision that embraces all of their possibilities and is not limited by what society may say about them.

Donald Thompson: Mm, Ken, that was a, that was a lot. That was powerful.

And I’m going to repeat it just for amplification, not to try to do anything better, that the biggest decision in your life is creating your vision of you. And it’s something that you can control. And the thing that about winning and life is there so many things that are outside of our control, so you’ve got to make sure that you control what you can, and win in that moment, and part of that winning is with self. And that goes back to, to what we were talking about earlier, not adopting the negative narrative, right, that someone else puts forward. And your vision of you is the most important decision that you’ll make.

I love it. You know, we wanted to take 30, 40 minutes today and I, I like my pride myself on knowing when to land the plane

And, and, that is a very, very good way to, to cap this, the last kind of question or two.

So within that statement, what are some things that you used, you recommend, you’ve read that give you that inspiration, that, that continued good, good seed, right, to continue that positive narrative, right? What are, what are some of the places where you get good insight, business, good insight, political, good insight, spiritual, if you’re open to sharing some of those things.

Ken Lewis: Yeah. Yeah, no, that’s, that’s a good question. Well, I’m a, I’m a voracious reader, so I’m always, I’m always reading books and, and I like to read a variety of books, but I’ve read a lot of, a lot of biographies and autobiographies.

In part, because I wanna, I want to know this stories of people. You know, you see people who are successful. It seems as though that was just inevitable that there, that they were just meant to be successful, but when you read their stories, you realize that, that they’re just like you, that they’re – they have strengths and weaknesses. They have wins and losses, you know, they have fears and insecurities, they have things are confident about it or not. You know, they are human, and they all are human and involved in the human experience, and I find that to be inspiring.

You know, I, I also, it helps me to bill my own resilience when you, when you realize that life is not truly easy for anyone, that everyone has has challenges. And your challenges may be different than others, but no one escape, escape their challenges. That that reminds me of my son. My, my son was six or seven years old and we were – this is when my dad was still alive.

We were in church, and my dad was giving a sermon and he was talking about everyone has as a cross to bear. And he was expanding on that point, and my son was sitting between me and my mom. And he said to my mom, who he calls Grammy, “Grammy, you know, I don’t have a cross to bear? And she said, “Keep living.”

You know, he’s now in medical school, I think he probably has found his cross along the way. But it’s, you know, life is challenging and, as I read about people who’ve overcome challenges and I find inspiration in that, and I read just a variety, about a variety of people.

I think having – I am a spiritual person, I think that, you know, having something that, a place in your life where you can go for solace, you know, and a restoration, you know, something that allows you to, you know, to, you know, to see beyond what exists immediately and have some hope for something better, whether that be religion or some other practice that you have.

I think that’s important. I think you have – to create change, you have to, of course, be able to envision it. And so, I think having, cultivating, an imagination, you know, things that help you to imagine what can be, and then, combine that imagination with work and how to bring it into fruition.

We need more people like that who can imagine a future that doesn’t exist. And I think that’s one of the ways that I sustain my hope is by having an imagination about what can be, and then working toward that. And so, so that’s, that’s the advice I would give, I’d say read the stories of others, they’re, you know, they’re, they will inspire you, develop a sense of, of hope, however, you, you derive that, and cultivate your imagination of what it is you want to see, and then get to work to find and create it.

Donald Thompson: That is awesome. I’ll tell you what, whether it is growing the pie so that we can all be involved versus a zero sum game where there’s a winner or a loser, whether it is understanding when you’re the only one in the room, remembering who you are, to your points around the most important decision is your vision of you. I’ve got a couple pages of notes. I am thankful that you’re willing to spend time and knowledge with our listeners, and I’m cheering for you. I’m pulling for ya in all that you’re doing, and you are part of the reason that I’m inspired and we’re getting to know each other better, but we also can cheer and see what each other’s doing from afar.

And, and I’m really excited about what you’re, what you’re putting in for all of us. And I appreciate it.

Ken Lewis: Well, I just want to say just how proud I am of all the you have done and are doing. From the, your success in business, you know, to your reaching back, to try to provide some breadcrumbs on how others can achieve similar kinds of success, you know, to the inspiration you provide to young people.

And we’re starting businesses and mentoring them and helping them along their way to providing this forum for people to talk about the important issues that exist in our society. But, you’re making a tremendous difference here. I’m really proud of what you’re doing and I’m happy to be invited to come join you and do my little part to help you do the great things that you’re doing.

Donald Thompson: All right. My friend, listen, I want to be careful with your time and respectful. This has been great. Like this is some good nuggets, and this won’t be the last that we reach out and we do some things together. And so I want to, I want to thank you for your time, but this was awesome.

Full Episode Transcript

The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is edited and produced by Earfluence. For more on how to engage your community or build your personal brand through podcasting, visit Earfluence.com.

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