Amazon’s board diversity policy stirs debate at annual shareholder meeting

Rev. Jesse Jackson. (GeekWire File Photo)

Earlier this month, after Amazon’s board initially opposed a shareholder proposal requiring the company to consider women and minorities for open board positions, criticism from employees and members of Congress prompted the tech giant to adjust its approach.

Amazon agreed to adopt the policy but insisted that it was simply formalizing a practice already in place. The proposal was later withdrawn and wasn’t on the formal agenda at Amazon’s shareholder meeting Wednesday.

Even so, the new policy was cited multiple times during the meeting, by people on both sides of the issue.

Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson kicked off the audience QA session by commending CEO Jeff Bezos and Amazon for implementing the policy. “It’s not about black and white, it’s about wrong and right,” Rev. Jackson said.

Amazon currently has seven men and three women on its 10-member board. All of its board members are white.

Rev. Jackson told Bezos that an all-white board represents a form of “race supremacy.” He asked Bezos to go further than the resolution to make a commitment to bring qualified people of color onto the board.

Speaking after Jackson’s comments, Justin Danhof, director of the Free Enterprise Project, a conservative shareholder activist group at The National Center for Public Policy Research, likened the policy to affirmative action, which he described as “unmitigated racial disaster” in university admissions, saying it ultimately is “harming the minority students it’s designed to help in some cases.”

“America’s experiment with forced diversity in education provides a cautionary tale for a policy like this,” he said, citing the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous line that people should be judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

Jackson, who was a close associate of King, turned around in his chair to watch Danhof as he spoke. Approached by GeekWire after the meeting, Jackson said he believes it’s important for the company’s board to reflect the diversity of the world.

Danhof, who has spoken about similar issues at the annual meetings of companies including Google and Starbucks, said he believes it’s most important to focus on a diversity of viewpoints: “We encourage the company to see board members with a diversity of thought, opinion and experiences.”

If the candidate “happens to be a white male, if you guys think he’s the best for the company, don’t reject him because he’s a white male,” he said, asking whether a diversity of viewpoints was a factor in the company’s new policy.

Bezos responded by emphasizing the importance of many types of diversity.

“I think viewpoint diversity is very important,” the Amazon CEO said. “I believe we can still have the very best people and still have racial and gender diversity, as well. And as we pursue that we will have the very best people. We owe it to our customers to have the very best people.”

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