It’s About Performance and Opportunity, Not Quotas

The path to the executive suite is an arduous one. Traveling it successfully takes tenacity, intelligence, vision, skill and maybe even a bit of luck. None of those attributes are gender specific. But as we were reminded by the fanfare in December over the selection of Mary Barra as CEO of General Motors, making her the first woman to run a major automaker, the executive suite is still occupied far more frequently by men. That has long been the case, and it remains so today.

In 2013, according to the annual census by the organization Catalyst, women held 14.6 percent of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies nationwide. That was virtually unchanged from 2012, when it was 14.3 percent. And last year saw no gain from 2012 in the percentage of women who held the top executive officer earner slot, with the figure remaining at just over 8 percent nationally.

In Florida, the latest data available at press time is from the 2010 biennial Census of Women Directors and Executives Officers from Women Executive Leadership (WEL). It found a decrease in the percentage of women holding highly compensated executive positions in Florida 500 companies, from 7.2 percent in 2008 to 2.6 percent in 2010. Among Florida’s top 100 public companies as ranked by Florida Trend magazine, 74 percent had no women executives, according to the WEL survey.

Local C-Suite Women

At the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast, our push to diversify Brevard’s economy and create a fertile environment for entrepreneurs has increased opportunities in Brevard for executive leadership.

Among our investors are multiple companies across a spectrum of industries that are led by women, or with women in high management positions. I recently asked two women executives at EDC Investor companies – Dana Kilborne, president and CEO of Florida Bank of Commerce, and Jennifer De Vries, president and chief solutions architect at BlueStreak Learning – about their experiences and thoughts regarding their own professional trajectory and their outlook on future growth in the ranks of women CEOs.

Kilborne was named president and CEO of Florida Bank of Commerce after the May 2010 merger of that institution with Prime Bank, which she started with community leaders and other Brevard investors. She was president and CEO of Prime Bank at the time of the merger.

Kilborne came into the industry in the mid-1980s and learned the business amid the savings and loan crisis. It was an instructive period, she said, and helped shape her as a future executive. “It was a chaotic time, and I came to believe that in the midst of chaos, there is always opportunity,” she said.

De Vries started BlueStreak Learning in 2003 with her sister as a part-time endeavor. When they both were laid off from separate corporate jobs in 2005, they made it full-time. The company is an eLearning professional services firm that works with nonprofits and associations that offer certification and continuing education for adult professionals, and also serves corporate training organizations that need to train employees, partners or customers in order to improve their performance.

Making the Change

Though they are in far different industries, both Kilborne and De Vries believe what allowed them to succeed – and what should be the focus on the executive track – are skills, expertise and experience, not gender.

“Directors and CEOs are grown and that takes time. I think the growth in the number of women directors and CEOs will continue to rise but I think it largely starts with us,” Kilborne said. “I believe society must recognize the role men or women play in the family unit and provide for a better work/life balance, and for their part, professionals must be willing to make a commitment to move beyond the traditional definition of a 40-hour, 9 to 5 workweek.”

BlueStreak is a certified woman-owned business and followed guidelines from the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. But when doing so failed to generate new business, De Vries said they opted to “defocus” on marketing that aspect of the business.

“Frankly, we don’t want to earn business because we’re women. We want to earn business because we’re good at what we do,” she said. “What we really need are introductions and relationships with buyers, not programs with a bunch of quotas. We find that when we have opportunities for meaningful conversation with qualified buyers, we have a significant success rate at landing the sale.”

Kilborne said that society needs to show young women that it is possible to have a challenging career and a life outside of the office. But in the end, it is about demonstrating abilities that have nothing to do with being a man or woman.

“The workplace will reward exceptional performance,” Kilborne said. “The experience of the individual, regardless of gender, will open up opportunities for director and CEO appointments.”


Lynda Weatherman is president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast.