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Women on board: Increasing ranks, making voices heard

BottomLine Growth Strategies Inc. founder Carol L. Coughlin was recently mentoring a business person who was thinking about joining a nonprofit board of directors. There are plenty of boards to join, she advised. “But if you really want to make a difference on it, you should be passionate about whatever it is,” she said.

Coughlin’s advice underscored a big reason why women sign up for board work: They want to get involved.

Coughlin herself has participated in both corporate and nonprofit boards throughout her career. She is currently the board chair for Hamilton Bancorp, chair of the University of Maryland Medical Center’s financial affairs committee and appointed to the Maryland 529 Board. “I really enjoy the strategy and collaboration with other directors and with management,” she said of her board involvement. “In particular, I love when I can make a difference there.”

Carol Coughlin

Carol Coughlin

With a finance background in the health care field including growth, turnarounds and performance improvements, Coughlin said some of the board opportunities came from relationships she had built as a part of the Baltimore area business community. “Networking is a pretty important component of it and then having the right background for what they are looking for,” she said.

What many boards are looking for these days are female voices. Executive Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women expand their impact an influence through advocacy, education and mentorship, releases a census study ever year focusing on the number of women in board positions at 76 publicly held companies in Maryland.

While 20 percent of national corporate board positions were held by women in 2016, the alliance found that only 14.4 percent of corporate board seats in Maryland were held by women. That equals 91 of 630 board positions. Thirty percent, or 23 companies, in the state do not have any women on their boards, while nationally only five percent of companies don’t have women on their boards.

Executive Alliance has strategies to grow the numbers, president Ann Quinn said.

“We have a list of women who are either or corporate boards or are board-ready,” Quinn said. “Executive Alliance will match the board openings with our list. This provides the board with candidates that are diverse and highly qualified.  It provides our members with an opportunity to advance their leadership and professionalism to new opportunities.

In 2016 the group also launched a “Greenbag Initiatives” to provide the Governor’s Appointment office to with candidates for the many openings on state commissions and agencies. To date, their recommendations have resulted in 16 appointments.

P.J. Mitchell, Sheela Murthy and Ellen Yankellow

Patricia “P.J.” Mitchell, Sheela Murthy and Ellen Yankellow

Women need to get “more engaged” with both corporate and non-profit boards, “because we have different experiences and perspectives that will help us to provide insight, guidance and wisdom at a level that is different and can often greatly benefit the organization in the long run,” said Sheela Murthy, founder, president and CEO of the Owings Mills-based Murthy Law Firm.


Murthy currently serves on the board for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, a corporate board, and several nonprofit boards, including Stevenson University and the MurthyNAYAK Foundation, which she and her husband started.

“Research shows that organizations with more women on their boards tend to be more profitable and provide more stability to the organization,” Murthy said.

Coughlin agreed, citing multiple articles and studies written about the positive net income growth profitability impact when there are more women on the board. “I think women bring a different perspective,” she said. “We are not afraid to be engaged in a board and also we represent often the diversity of their client base.”

Making a contribution

Patricia “P.J.” Mitchell retired from IBM as vice president of global sales operations in 2010. Today, she is active on four boards including The Center Club, KCI Technologies Inc. and SunTrust Bank. “I’ve been very fortunate in my career,” Mitchell said. “My family was always a give back family. I’m interested in the corporate boards because it is (thought-provoking) work and terrific people to work with and interesting business issues to deal with. On the nonprofit side, it is just about giving back.”

Her initial board appointments were to institutions that she already had established a relationship with such as United Way and her alma maters Maryvale and Notre Dame of Maryland University. The opportunity to serve on two of Mitchell’s current boards, KCI Technologies and SunTrust, came thanks to her career experience and networking.

Karen McGraw worked for McCormick and Company Inc. for more than 30 years ultimately retiring in 2007 as senior Vice President of human relations. She made history with the company by becoming the first woman to serve on their board of directors from 1992 to 2007, giving advice on matters such as succession planning and compensation. “It’s like anything else,” McGraw said. “Once you have some experience, then that experience alone becomes helpful (in being asked to join additional boards).”

Karen McGraw

Karen McGraw

She is currently on the boards for Howard Bancorp and Howard Bank, the Board of Chimes International Ltd and Stella Maris. Her board appointments have been a combination of organizations with a need, people knowing to consider her and being the right fit with her skill set and passions. “I think for me, it is always important to feel like I can contribute to what the organization is trying to do and when I feel that I can add some value, I find that very fulfilling,” McGraw said.

McGraw said Executive Alliance’s study shows women are making some progress. “The numbers are going up but they are going up slowly,” she said. “Still you say, is that enough? (Fourteen) percent with half the population as women? Well, I would say there is some room for some progress.”

Getting started

When Haines & Company, the largest flooring distributor on the east coast, hired a search firm to identify corporate board candidates who were diverse, savvy and had experience building a business, they chose Ellen Yankellow, president and CEO of Correct Rx Pharmacy Services, one of Baltimore’s largest female-owned businesses.

For Yankellow, who currently sits on more than seven boards, mostly nonprofit, board work has been both gratifying and career building.

“Oftentimes, I meet female board members who are looking for ways to improve themselves and/or the organizations they are serving,” Yankellow said. “I enjoy sharing my experiences and mentoring these women. This has led to some delightful friendships.  Female mentors offer an important perspective that provide encouragement and a potential roadmap for the mentees to follow.”

So how do women balance multiple board appointments? “I think it is important to always make sure that you don’t take on too many commitments,” McGraw said. “I think one of the obligations of a board member is to really make sure that you are prepared for board meetings, that you understand the issues being raised and that does take time especially when you are not working in it. I think for me, the commitments that I have, are just right for me because it allows me to have the balance I want in my life.”