In honor of Women’s History Month, Our Weekly conducted a series of interviews with some of the most powerful, high-ranking African American women in the nation, who have not only had a profound impact on culture but have changed the landscape in corporate America.

Climbing the corporate ladder is no simple feat, especially when the top rungs seem out of reach for the majority of African American women.

A 2011 census conducted by the research group Catalyst reveals that more than two-thirds of companies in corporate America had no women of color serving on their boards of directors from 2010 to 2011. Yet, a previous study done by The Alliance for Board Diversity in 2008 shows that, not only does diversity deliver better results, it makes a strong statement that diverse perspectives are valued, especially in today’s global marketplace.

Who are these women who have climbed to some of the top rungs in corporate America? How did they get where they are? What challenges and barriers did they face along the way?

Although they come from a variety of backgrounds and aren’t easy to categorize, one thing is certain: they all have a commitment to excellence.

Paula Williams Madison, CEO, The Los Angeles Sparks; CEO, Madison Media Management; and part owner of The Africa Channel.

For Madison, 59, the first African American woman to become president and general manager of a major network-owned station in a top five market–KNBC-TV, Los Angeles–growing up on welfare in Harlem wasn’t easy. But as she looks back at her journey, this daughter of Jamaican immigrants says there are still a lot of hurdles to clear, but increasingly we are seeing opportunities where, provided it is a level playing field, we are given the (chance) to go in and be as excellent as we are. We can, frankly, grow up and be the first lady of the United States.

JB: What prepared you to step into your position as the first African American woman to head a major network?

Madison: From the first day I was made news director at WNBC New York and somebody said to me, “How does it feel to be the first African American female,” because I have only ever been an African American female, I can’t tell you anything else, but what I can tell you is this: I am not the first African American nor am I the first African American female who could have done this job. I happened to be at the right place at the right time with the right preparation and the right people who were willing to take the risk. And I was up for the challenge. I wanted to take that risk. But you can’t accomplish these things on your own. You have to have role models. (Editor’s note: surprisingly Madison’s mentors were not other women or even other Black women. They included White men like Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC-Universal.)

JB: Looking back over your career, what has been your biggest challenge?

Madison: You have to figure out how to stay in touch with your people. When I was running the news department at NBC, sometimes I would take the subway, even though I had a car and all of the above, but I said to myself “the world looks pretty different when you are sitting in the back seat of a limousine.” It is a skewed perspective, not suitable if what you are trying to do is improve the quality of life for a community. When I was in journalism, that really was my goal.

JB: Do you think there is a pipeline?

Madison: There definitely is. There is an organization called the Executive Leadership Council, which was formed about 17 years ago by African Americans. It is a pretty powerful and impressive group. I was a member of it. It is a pretty aggressive group, and they are training African Americans in how to step into corporate board roles. This is the kind of thing that helps keep that pipeline stoked, but by no means is the pipeline filled. At least we have it in existence, though, a recognition that there is a process and it does require mentoring. It requires sponsorship.

JB: What advice would you offer to young Black women who want to climb the corporate ladder to the top rungs?

Madison: My advice would be to find mentors and sponsors and other Black women and Black men, but you are going to have to recognize that mentors and sponsors come in all colors and genders. So when you find people who believe in you and want to guide your career in a way that is beneficial to you and your goals, you want to keep those people as part of your circle.

JB: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in your career?

Madison: I don’t think so, and I don’t say that to say I did everything right. I try not to dwell on regrets. I try to look at what I’ve done and see what I can learn from it, but careerwise, I think as a whole my career was very fulfilling. But I’d like to think that, as my parents said, “One of the reasons you are here is to try to make wherever you’ve been better than how you found it.” I’d like to believe I did my little part. There isn’t anything I would do differently. I did what I did given what I had at the time. It is what it is. Those are my experiences. Those things make me who I am.

JB: Do you consider an African American woman owning a major sports team to be a groundbreaking event?

Madison: Yes I do. In a number of sports franchises, mainly basketball and football, the players are African Americans but you know the real focus has to be team ownership. It has to be what our goal is. It should be thought of as a business and not just a sport where we are in it–whether running down the field or up the court. (Editor’s note: Madison said many opportunities came across her desk at NBC, but when shock jock Don Imus made his comments on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, it prompted her to purchase the Sparks. It was a matter of restoring pride and dignity to Black women.)
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Diane T. Ashley, vice president, chief diversity officer and director for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

As the first chief diversity officer ever hired by any bank in the Federal Reserve System in the United States, Ashley, 57, a leading expert on diversity practices in the financial services industry, says it was really her experiences as a clergyperson that prepared her for the position she is in and helped her see life from a lot of different perspectives.

Ashley, who also is board chair at New York Theological Seminary, and is involved with In Trust magazine, says, “I am a huge believer in building relationships. I think it’s a key fundamental.”

JB: What prepared you to step into this position?

Ashley: I tell individuals that I have leveraged my entire life prior to taking this role, and I have had a career that is very similar to a lot of women’s careers. I have had three to four different careers along the way and I have been very focused, not only on my corporate career, but also as a person very active in the nonprofit community. I chair a board and sit on four boards, and I really see that there is a synergy in terms of being able to integrate experiences along the way.

JB: What is your philosophy of life?

Ashley: You eventually get out of things what you put in. You have to spend a lot of time being very clear about who you are and what your mission is. You’ve got to do your homework. At the end of the day, the one consistent undergirding piece of everybody whom I have ever met and who has been successful–and I mean senior-level successful–has been the ability to build relationships. That is one of the areas where we as women have challenges.

JB: In what way? What do you feel some are those challenges are?

Ashley: I think part of it is fear. But let’s be honest, part of it is driven by history. Some of it is stereotyping on both sides. We all have biases, but it’s what you do with them.

JB: How do you differentiate yourself from other people?

Ashley: I learned that you do that by building a base of common experiences quickly. You learn to build some kind of common engagement, and I tell women all the time, one of the ways you can build bridges is through getting involved and doing things that, frankly, men like to do. I am a huge advocate that women should learn a country club sport.

JB: What do you think are some of the barriers to Black women getting into corporate America?

Ashley: There certainly are barriers. They are real issues, but I think we have to be careful, because while it is a reality and it is a significant challenge, I truly believe that we have the power to overcome a lot of our issues more than we think.

I think that African American women are hugely powerful women, and we’ve got to sometimes understand that because we are hugely powerful women, we have to know how we are being perceived. And we’ve got to be aware of the nuances of the cultures in which we seek to work.

I am not minimizing the fact that there are truly gender issues and racial issues. Yes, they exist; there is no question about that. But at the same time, I do want to talk about accountability. I do want to talk about the need to ensure that as an employee, as a person who is looking to manage her own career, that the African American woman who seeks to go into corporate America, if she sincerely thinks it’s something she wants to do, (has) to become master of the pathway that’s going to get her there.

JB: What advice would you give to young African American women who want to climb the corporate ladder?

Ashley: I would say a couple of things. One is, wherever you want to go, do all the due diligence that you can. Gather all the intelligence that you can. Talk to people who can give you an array of perspectives, pluses and minuses. Do what you can to ensure that you find yourself a mentor and a sponsor. I think this is even more critical for African American women, because at the end of the day, research has proven out that women who have those individuals, whether they look like us or not, are necessary to get you to the next rung, because you always need that person who is in the room, who is talking on your behalf when you are not there.
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Marcea Bland Lloyd, senior vice president, chief administrative officer and general counsel for Amylin Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Lloyd, 63, who says she wanted to change the world as a young woman, found that social work was not the path to achieve that goal.
After her brief stint in the field, she decided to go to law school. Out of college at 19 and out of law school before 21, Lloyd says she feels she’s been a lawyer forever. Today, as chief administrative officer, general counsel and senior vice president of Amylin Pharmaceuticals, she is making a huge difference in the lives of people who she says are disproportionately people of color. Lloyd enjoys her position so much that she says, “I sometimes feel like they shouldn’t pay me.”

JB: How do you think your accomplishments have contributed to the context of high-ranking Black women in corporate America?

Lloyd: I actually honestly believe that if I am not willing to share the experiences I have had, then me having been here would just be a blip on the screen that will disappear. The idea is to more broadly network and share with others those experiences and those mistakes, so I have been fairly aggressive about being involved in the Executive Leadership Council, which is my primary outside involvement.

JB: What are some of the successes you’ve experienced in your career?

Lloyd: I have demonstrated the ability to be successful in non-traditional industries. I started just like everybody else, in Pillsbury or, rather, in a consumer-based company where African American women typically start. Places like Pepsi and Coke, considered consumer-oriented companies, have traditionally been more receptive to diversity. I think my career stands for the possibility that you can be equally successful in medical manufacturing and pharmaceuticals, which have not been traditionally welcoming or receptive industries.

JB: What advice would you offer to young women who want to climb that corporate ladder to the top rungs?

Lloyd: Obviously there are certain things like preparation, competence, work ethic and I think a level of risk-taking in a certain sense, and I don’t mean doing stupid things. But I mean being willing to try something new, to do something you haven’t always planned to do.

I would also caution women that before you worry about what they pay, just do a good job. If you are good at what you do, you will get paid. I believe that.

Another thing is, everybody wants to know what these jobs pay, but they never want to know what they cost.

JB: What do you think some of those costs are?

Lloyd: Flexibility and freedom. One of the things I am experiencing now is that as many of my close friends and peers begin to retire, I can do almost anything that they want me to do, but I can’t do it on next weekend’s notice.

In the final analysis, I think that success for women in the workplace comes from a couple of things. First, one must acknowledge that there is no work-home-life balance. It’s an imbalance, so you have to survive that imbalance. One day you will be doing more of one thing, and the next day you will be doing more of something else. The idea that someone works eight hours and then goes home and parents eight hours and then sleeps eight hours is just a flawed notion. It never works with that mathematical certainty. So what you need to do is seek out an environment that gives you flexibility and allows you to do things in a non-traditional way.

JB: Looking back over your career, is there anything you would have done differently?

Lloyd: Who you partner with and what kind of family backdrop you set for yourself is extremely important for your career success as well as personal happiness. One of the things that’s working for me right now is that I am married to the absolute perfect person for me, and if I could have just found him at 21, it would have been perfect for me.
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Hilda Pinnix Ragland, vice president, corporate public affairs for Progress Energy, Raleigh, N.C.

Growing up on a cattle farm and having no brothers, Hilda Pinnix Ragland, one of three girls, learned the value of hard work. She also pumped gas at her uncle’s filling station and says she didn’t mind flipping hamburgers. “I came from a family of entrepreneurs, and we just worked,” says Ragland, whose family motto was God first, family next and then education.

Today, as vice president of Progress Energy, a fortune-500 electric utility company, Ragland sits in a position that very few women, let alone African American women, hold.

“I think as the first African American being promoted to officer level at Progress Energy, it is no doubt that you are an example for others to follow,” said Ragland, whose primary role is to work with federal, state and local officials to develop public policy.

JB: Looking back over your career, what would you say has been one of your biggest challenges?

Ragland: First, in a predominantly male environment, being a woman was not an easy task. I can vividly recall walking into the audit department and there were two of us women, let alone the only African American woman, and that was the same when I went to MBA school at Duke. The road for me has been less traveled, but I strongly believe that women have to be assertive, very knowledgeable, willing to take a calculated risk and move from one job function to the other so that you can be well rounded and understand how decisions are made.

JB: Do you feel there are enough Black women executives in corporate America?

Ragland: Definitely not. My viewpoints are heavily related to quantitative data. If you look at the population of African American women today and you look at the percentage in the workplace and look at where they are in jobs and job levels, we are woefully underrepresented, especially in higher office positions. There are only a small amount of African American women on board of directors, and that’s one of the things that we must address.

JB: When you put your position in the context of high-ranking Black women executives in corporate America, how do you think what you’ve done has added to that picture?

Ragland: I mentor women, all women. I particularly focus on African American women. Today we have three African American female officers, but for 10 years I was a lonely one, and I’ll say it was lonely. I have always tried to support and promote women. The other thing is I am currently chair of 58 community colleges–that’s all of North Carolina’s community colleges, the first African American woman to ever be elected to that role. No matter where I am, I am always trying to bring younger women along the way.

JB: Do you think there is a pipeline?

Ragland: Yes, there is a pipeline, but I do believe we have a gap at the mid-level management level. That’s why organizations like the Executive Leadership Council are so vital. We have a symposium for African American women managers and executives. I am not happy with the overall financial picture of women of color, especially African Americans. I think we need to increase that whole portfolio.

JB: What advice would you offer young Black women trying to climb the corporate ladder to the highest rungs:

Ragland: I would say take on the tough risks. Make sure you have a strong knowledge of the core operations; understand how the money flows and develop strategic relationships. That means the relationships with the higher levels as well as those around you. Understanding that if we don’t lead the way for others, we’ve wasted time.

JB: Looking back over your career, is there anything you would have done differently?

Ragland: I am quite satisfied with my career. I think we all want to aspire to do more. I am extremely pleased with how I’ve reached out and tried to bring others along the way, especially people of color. I have learned along the way that there are other people who are watching you and no one is here alone.

I have had mentors. But there’s another piece. In those mentoring relationships I have had, I have learned more from the mentees than they have learned from me. When you are talking to someone, you start looking at yourself. So I am really thankful for those sustainable strategic relationships.
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Valerie Lewis, assistant vice president and assistant secretary of Safeway Inc.

A few years ago, Lewis found out that it was not only important to get a good education, but that the ability to meet thinkers, movers and shakers and know how to interact with them also plays a vital part in one’s success. Today, she not only values those early educational experiences but also considers strategic relationships valuable. “I think sometimes what you really, really need is someone you can pick up the phone, call, and hear them say, ‘I think you are absolutely right, or you’re absolutely wrong,’” she says. Lewis, who believes this type scenario can only come from strategic relationships, is a strong advocate of mentor relationships.

Today, as assistant vice president and assistant secretary of Safeway Stores Inc., Lewis, who also mentors young corporate potentials, says, “I get as much out of mentoring as I do being mentored.”

JB: What prepared you to step into this position?

Lewis: A really well-rounded education. I went to the University of Virginia and then law school. So, I would say, plain and simple, you’ve got to be competent, and the higher up you go those folks are going to be competent. Then I think, at a certain level, you need to start thinking about what sets you apart other than just being competent and able to do a good job.

JB: What advice would you offer to young Black women who want to climb the corporate ladder?

Lewis: You’ve got to learn the craft and put in the time. You’re going to have to convince folks you know what you’re doing and that, one, you’re worth their resources. Later, it may involve the actual investment of their capital and their clients.

You’ve got to remember that it is not only a job for you to look good, but to make the people you work for look good. Ultimately, what it’s really about is somebody wants you to move up because you’re going to continue to make them look good.
You’ve also got to look for leadership opportunities where you can, even if you are not getting them internally. You can go and be in another organization externally and develop leadership skills that you can bring to the table in your job.

JB: Thinking back over your career, is there anything you would have done differently?

Lewis: I learned that being right wasn’t the end, and that you have to learn the difference between the battle and the war.

JB: What do you mean by that?

Lewis: You can’t fight about everything. But it is the relationships that are a whole different job, and that’s what’s really hard. We aren’t as prepared. But I think we are working more and more on these areas, and I hope my sisters understand that.

JB: When you put your position in the context of high-ranking African American executives in corporate America, how do you think what you’ve done has added to that picture?

Lewis: In my industry, there aren’t a lot of people who look like me. There still aren’t a lot of women and there aren’t a lot of Blacks. So . . . being there brings as much of who I am to the table and makes a big difference. For one, there are some people who are exposed to people like me who otherwise would not have been exposed. They are also exposed in a setting where we can interact, and they can recognize that we are extremely bright, thinking folks who bring real important stuff to the table.