One of the Chicago area's least-recognized female CEOs, Ilene Gordon of Corn Products International, said Tuesday she could see the need for a mandated number of women on corporate boards because her experience has shown her that two or three women -- or more -- can make a significant impact on company decision-making.
"You've got to get to two (women on a company's board of directors), and three is better," said Gordon, head of the Westchester-based corn processor and food ingredient maker and a member of the board at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the Executives Club and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
In refreshing comments, Gordon offered intriguing insights into how some government mandates for women to serve on boards are working:
Gordon noted that France has mandated that 40 percent of its companies' board members be women by 2016, and the country is half-way there now.
"They've caught up to the United States. In the past, I would have said, 'Mandates don't work. You don't get the right quality.' But when I looked at some of the women who've gone on to serve on boards in Europe, I've seen some great progress. Whether it's a mandate or the leadership insisting on equal candidates, it's about being very pro-active," Gordon said. "We have to get busier as a community and help drive that. We're doing our part, but one can always do more and we're always looking for excellent talent."
Gordon spoke on a three-member panel that also featured Groupon Co-Founder Brad Keywell and Patrick Ryan, former Aon Corp. founder and chairman who now heads Ryan Specialty Group. The panel's moderator was Christie Hefner, former chairman and CEO of her father's Playboy Enterprises and the executive chairman of Canyon Ranch Enterprises, which operates its namesake health resorts.
Gordon has won some powerful recognition to back her stance. Corn Products ranked No. 1 in a recent Chicago Networks census of the percentages of women serving on the area's 50 largest public companies' boards. And Gordon ranked No. 42 -- up 16 notches from last year -- on Fortune magazine's latest list of "most powerful women CEOs" based on a near-doubling of the company's stock price since Gordon took over in 2009 and its success in passing on rising corn costs to customers while forecasting more than $6 billion in revenue this year.
Ryan disagreed with the need to "get numbers." He touted being "blind" on gender and race so as not to typecast people, and instead for companies to search for particular talents with the idea of seeking greater diversity.
Another insight for change agents: Keywell ticked off two not-for-profits he credits for leveraging technology: DonorsChoose.org, an online charity that connects donors with teachers in need, and CharityWater.org, which brings safe water to developing countries and uses technology to show donors where their money goes and what happens after a water well is dug.
Though Gordon, Keywell and Ryan had no problem expressing their opinions, when Hefner asked if they'd run for office, each answered an emphatic, 'no.'