Thasunda Brown Duckett and Jana Rich | The 2021 MAKERS Conference

Thasunda Brown Duckett, President and CEO, TIAA, is interviewed by Jana Rich, Founder and CEO, Rich Talent Group, about creating more diverse workspaces, the power of the sisterhood, and finding mentorship all around you. They will celebrate Thasunda’s incredible achievement in becoming the second Black female CEO at a Fortune 500 company in 2021.

Video Transcript

JANA RICH: Oh, my goodness I must say Jana and Black MAKERS Act, as a board member it is so thrilling to see you launch this incredible initiative. Welcome to my dear friend, T. I must say I am so thrilled to get a chance to have a girl chat with her today as part of MAKERS because she's literally one of my favorite human beings ever. As I was leaving the house today, my wife Jill whose birthday was yesterday was like please tell T I said, hi. I know she's one of your favorite people on the planet. So T, welcome to MAKERS and welcome to your new job.

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: Well, thank you so much and happy birthday to Jill as well. But it's so good to see you almost real time if you will, real life, even though we're still in Zoom but it's so wonderful to see you and I'm so excited about this conversation we're going to have.

JANA RICH: T, so am I. I must say for pretty much anyone in this audience it's such an epic day and week to have you be stepping into this incredible role. One of the only two Black women who are CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The size and scope of your impact in this role is going to be enormous. And so at this pivotal moment, I would just ask you the question. And as I know probably a big question but, how does it feel? [LAUGHS]

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: I mean, first of all, the word that comes to mind is gratitude. Gratitude that I have an opportunity to work for a phenomenal organization as President and CEO. Gratitude and the fact that it is history making where you have someone like Roger Ferguson who leads TIAA, followed by another African-American has never happened in the history of our country. Gratitude for my family. But I would also say gratitude for those who have come before me. You know I have to give a shout out to Ursula Burns who showed the art of possibility, who cracked that ceiling. But even before Ursula it was the cooks and the janitors and the secretaries who looked like me that was making their way in corporate America for someday, someday you have an Ursula, you have a T, you know that's here, you have a Rosalyn.

So hopefully, you know the goal is for us to not be the last. And that when you think about the impact of even conferences like this with MAKERS we're going to continue to make history until there's just no more history left to make. That is the goal and the objective and so I'm overwhelmed. I'm excited and I'm anxious but gratitude is probably the one word that I would say really embodies how I feel.

JANA RICH: And when you think about TIAA specifically, one of the things I get excited about is I think you-- think of your mother who is a teacher and I think about the literally millions of people's lives you're impacting. Can you tell us a little bit about why TIAA specifically was the right next challenge for you?

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: I mean you, you nailed it. I mean, when you think about the mission and values of TIAA it just aligns with where I am at this stage in my life. You know continue to be anchored on purpose, anchored on financial health. When you think about Andrew Carnegie, who invested a million dollar to start this phenomenal organization, anchored on the passion that those who served should not retire in poverty but they should have lifetime income.

And so you're absolutely right Jana. I think about rosy Brown. I think about someone who has been an educator for over 30 years. And to know that there's a company like TIAA that is thinking about all the rosy Brown's all across our country, is one that just combines my personal life, my professional focus as well as my passion altogether. And it's just a company that like, like I said I'm just excited to be a part of and a part of the rich history, but also the continued passion that this company you know has, which is continuing to make sure that those who serve can be served, you know through in post retirement.

JANA RICH: I love that. And I would think back to when you first started JPMorgan Chase you talked about how important it was literally to walk the halls and I know obviously right now we're a little limited in terms of literally walking the hallways. But how you got to both know the culture and influence the culture-- and again I know you're literally in your first couple of days in the job but how are you going to get to know the culture? How are you going to impact the culture, especially since in the beginning, some of that will have to be virtual or a lot of it will have to be virtual?

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: OK. Well, you know what, no matter how we start-- and yes it's unprecedented for me or so many new executives to start one Zoom call at a time, but what hasn't changed is the power of connection. And the way in which you connect in the way in which I am connecting is first and foremost, letting people know a little bit about who I am. Sharing why I am excited about joining the TIAA family. Connecting to the impact that the organization, you know brings, which is paying out over $500 billion of lifetime income and other, you know retirement benefits, you know since its founding in over 100 years ago. But also listening. You know for any leader coming in or even while you're in you never get tired of listening. Listening to what's on people's minds. Understanding what they do at every single level of the organization. Doing those gipp levels. Doing Zoom practices. Writing those handwritten notes, by the way. Sending it to their home, but also connecting with our participants, our clients.

And so I think you know starting in this unprecedented way, it also-- is just a way for people to really get to know me. And to say whether we are in person on a Zoom call or email the passion that I have, the commitment to lead, and the level of humbleness that I have to roll up my sleeves and understand what they do and how they do it every single employee, is one that I'm excited about. And it's a journey that for me as a leader is never ending. You just don't do that in your first 90 days. You do it year, after year, after year. And so that's how you enter Jana and quite frankly that's how you stay. You stay connected.

JANA RICH: I love that. T, what would you say? You've got a lot of companies represented on the screen here today who are genuinely committed to increasing the opportunities for women, people of color, LGBTQ folks but they may not all know how to push that needle. Any words of wisdom for how we create more space for great women, people of color and LGBTQ people?

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: Yeah. I mean, first and foremost, we have to decide. And you and I have had this conversation. We have to decide that talent is created equal, opportunity is not. We have to decide that the way in which we may have sourced talent or the areas of credentializing that we hold on to in terms of our past, that did not include women, Black women, people of color, LGBTQ that was out and proud and unapologetic. Then we have to say what else do we need to add in to this formula, so that we can make sure that we are identifying great talent? And so I think deciding is step one.

I think step two which is the accountability of senior leaders, is who are your core lieutenants? Who are the people that you are hiring, and do they share that same conviction, that same mindset and that same level of action? Because if you do that when you look around your table and you say does my table represent the culture that I embody? And if the answer is yes the word that will be in your company and your organization, which is just like in financial services the power of compounding. And what we have to do is have that compounding mindset. That says if we get one, then we get two, then we get 3. And by the way compounding is additive. We're not taking the seat from someone, we're creating the space for everyone to be seen, to have opportunity. So decide who are you hiring in those real key positions that can hire the people. This is not a diversity HR solely exercise. These are the people-- that's your CFO. The person who's your CEO. The person who's running the P&L. It's their accountability.

And then lastly, I would say it is about being committed and consistent. Just like I'm running a big powerful business, it's about the over time performance. We have to make sure that diversity and inclusion and all of these beautiful words are not the flavor of the month. It's not an initiative, it becomes core to your how. And when we do that, we will change the face, we will change the outcomes and we will change the level of talent that enters the halls of corporate America or quite frankly any industry and sector that does not have the representation that you just outlined Jana.

JANA RICH: And what would you say to women and especially women of color who are facing barriers to their advancement? The types of microaggression that they have faced in the workplace. Any words of wisdom or inspiration for them?

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: Oh, yeah. I mean, first and foremost, I think we have to know that we are worthy and deserving of everything. And be unapologetic about it. And so when you are having those microaggressions or some of those slight remarks, you know where they're almost questioning your existence. As if your gender or your complexion was the only reason why you got the job and they were lazy because they didn't do the research. So you don't even need to own that narrative. But I would say it's important to know that you are worthy and deserving because quite frankly the biggest hurdle that we have to overcome many times especially as Black women, is the mental gymnastics that we do on our head when we see in fields microaggressions and just feel like we can't get ahead.

Secondly, know that your voice is necessary and required and do not dim your light. And in order to do that-- and this is why I love this conference the power of the sisterhood. That's where we have to connect. We have to say, you know what, I might be the only Black woman in a senior role in the company, but there's my white sister, or my Asian sister, or my LGBTQ sister that we have to come together and say, hey, I need you. I need you. And so I think we have to create that space for that vulnerability. That space for us to really share what's on our minds and in our spirit so that we can navigate these waters collectively and together.

And then lastly, lastly, I would say is be unapologetic of the impact in the power that you have to make sure that that next Black girl or that next woman or person of color, does not have to have the exact same road that you just traveled. We have to make it a little easier for the next person. And that is why we cannot give up even when we are dealing with the storms that we all face and will continue to face until we see a lot more representation of the sisterhood at every levels of corporate America or just business in general.

JANA RICH: I love it. When you think of the power of the sisterhood-- and it doesn't have to be women necessarily but I'm curious--


THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: --if you can highlight mentorship in your life and your professional life. If you can highlight maybe a few key mentors, how you access them. Maybe even the key ways that they were helpful to you. Because I think we agree here that finding great mentors and sponsors can have a lot of impact.

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: That's right. Well, first and, you know this because we talk about this. There's a difference between the mentor and the sponsor. So first on mentorship-- and you're right the power of the sisterhood. But mentorship, so many men have been my mentor. But let me be clear mentorship is all around us. Because here's the reality. The reality is I cannot get everything that I need from you. Though I adore you and I view you as a mentor for me, you can't give me everything.

And so what I tell people mentorship is all around. Oprah is my mentor. My Secretary Kayleigh is my mentor because she shows me how to be of service to people every single day, because that's what she does for me. And so what I try to tell people is mentorship is all around you. You just have to make sure that you're open to receiving it. It's the person at the coffee shop. It's your children. It's your colleagues. Not just the people with the rented title, but people who are showing up with their ownable assets around character that you can connect to and be mentored and inspired by.

When I think about advocacy, advocacy is earned. And so I think it's really important that when we think about sponsors and people that will advocate for us when we're not in the room, we have to be very clear not on our what but on our how. How are we leading? How are we connecting with the impact that we're driving when no one is looking? How do we connect in a meaningful relationship and rapport? And quite frankly I find, that you get your advocacy when you serve. When you're doing something valuable for that leader, for that person that's in the room, you give before you ask. I think is really important.

And along the way you know Jana I'll just say so many people have been my sponsor, my mentor, my advocate. People who look like me, people who don't look like me, men, women, white Black. I needed all of it. Because unfortunately there's not as many women or people of color that can be in the room to advocate, and so it's important that you don't let the fact that someone looks different from you be the reason why you don't engage or think that they cannot be your advocate. In fact, they can. And they do. And they will.

JANA RICH: Thank you so much, T. Shifting gears just to end it off because we don't have a lot of time yet.

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: Goes so fast when we get together. [LAUGHS]

JANA RICH: I thought it'd be fun to end with rapid fire. Great way for folks to get to know you in a very fun and light way.




JANA RICH: Early bird or night owl?


JANA RICH: Spontaneous or methodical?

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: Probably more methodical with a little bit of flavor because you have to be a little spot. They have a little bit of spontaneity.

JANA RICH: I love it. Yes, you do. Type A or easygoing?

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: I'm probably type A, if I'm honest.

JANA RICH: You know it's so fine I can call you out on some of these. Not all of them, I don't know the answers to all of them. Patient or impatient?


JANA RICH: Prepare or cram?


JANA RICH: 10 minutes early or 10 minutes late?

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: [LAUGHS] Oh, my goodness it depends but I try to be early but there's moments where I'm late. I mean, you know life happens.

JANA RICH: Cliffhanger or afraid of heights?


JANA RICH: Not me.

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: But you know what I am just doing that in the context of risk and being a maker, you know we are all-- whether you know it or not, we are all risk takers because we're making history and breaking down ceilings and barriers and everything--

JANA RICH: OK. I love it. I was taking it way too literally like--

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: You were. You totally were. [LAUGHS]

JANA RICH: I love it. Your answer is way better. Quick to trust or you have to earn my trust?

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: I trust. I'm quick to trust. But, you know you say me twice, shame on me, you know that saying so-- and once I'm done. I'm done.

JANA RICH: Very similar. And I feel the same about you. I honestly feel like you open your heart first.


JANA RICH: And you say yes first and then learn and you listen?


JANA RICH: Just a couple more. Homebody or wanderlust?


JANA RICH: Trust me, I'll take the wheel or you better drive?

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: Trust me. I'll take that will. Thank you. Please and thank you.

JANA RICH: Songbird or tone-deaf?

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: I cannot sing tone deaf.

JANA RICH: Me neither and I wish I could.


JANA RICH: OK. Last one. This is kind of a one that makes me smile because I know both of us are on this journey. Pfizer, Moderna, J&J?


JANA RICH: Me too. Me too.


JANA RICH: T, thank you so much. We're so excited about this next step in your journey.

THASUNDA BROWN DUCKETT: Now, I'm so excited. Yes. I need it. I need the Cheers and all of the encouragement. But I have to tell you Jana I am so excited about this chapter at TIAA. It's purpose aligned with my professional impact. So it's always great chatting with you.

JANA RICH: Likewise. Thank you so much.