Ciara, Oprah, Shaq and Serena are among the celebrities companies are tapping as directors for their pop-culture expertise and as a marketing boost
By guest author Chip Cutter from Wall Street Journal
Pop star Ciara Wilson’s meteoric career has travelled a familiar arc—first a string of hits, then a fragrance brand and a fashion line.
Now the Grammy-winning singer is taking on a role that has become increasingly popular among entrepreneurial-minded celebrities: corporate director.
Announced Thursday, January 4, 2021, Ms. Wilson’s appointment to the board of Seattle marketing-tech company Amperity Inc. makes her the latest famous face to bring star power to a company boardroom. She also recently joined the board of Bright Lights Acquisition Corp. BLTSU, a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, focusing on entertainment, sports and consumer brands that went public last month.
From tennis star Serena Williams to Oprah Winfrey and basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, more companies are recruiting athletes, entertainers and other celebrities to boards, executive recruiters and corporate-governance experts say. Their addition can bring valuable insight into cultural trends and consumer behaviour, some CEOs say, while generating buzz for brands among coveted younger consumers. Along the way, the unconventional recruits often bring different experience and more ethnic diversity to boards, something more companies are seeking—and are under investor and, in some cases, regulatory pressure to achieve. (In California, for example, a new law requires greater diversity on public-company boards.)
When Amperity CEO Kabir Shahani thought of recruiting Ms. Wilson, a longtime friend, to the private company’s board, he asked a business contact: “Hey, is this crazy?” The board included corporate veterans such as Starbucks Corp. CEO Kevin Johnson and other executives who had built companies or developed technology.
Mr. Shahani said the company needed someone tapped deep into cultural trends that resonate with consumers, important expertise for a business that sells marketing tools to other businesses. Some board members were intrigued by the choice, others uncertain. “It was a mix of, ‘That could be cool; I’m not so sure,’” he saidThe mood changed after the board met with Ms. Wilson via Zoom and heard her approach to projects and music releases, he said. “She is the product,” Mr. Shahani said. “Her brain works like the world’s greatest marketers.”
Companies have long sought athletes and other notable figures for stints on company boards, including Deepak Chopra (Men’s Wearhouse Inc.) and Billie Jean King (Philip Morris Cos.). Fame can bring reputational risks, too. In the early 1990s, O.J. Simpson served on multiple boards, including Infinity Broadcasting Corp., where he had been on the audit committee. He stepped down from those roles in 1994 after he was charged with the murders of his ex-wife and a friend.
The newer generation of celebrity directors brings digital-marketing prowess, executives and recruiters say, often evident by their millions of social-media followers. Ms. Winfrey joined the board of Weight Watchers International —now WW International Inc.—in 2015 after buying a 10% stake in the company. She soon became its public face, appearing in advertisements and at events.
Papa John’s International Inc. added Mr. O’Neal, who operates and invests in other restaurants, to its board in 2019 as the company was trying to repair its image after founder and former chief John Schnatter stepped down as chairman over his use of a racial slur. Mr. O’Neal has also appeared in the pizza company’s advertisements and invested in restaurants. Mr. Schnatter, in a statement, disputed the circumstances that led up to his resignation from the company.
The online-survey software maker SurveyMonkey named Ms. Williams to its board in 2017 at the suggestion of another director, Facebook Inc.’s Sheryl Sandberg, and CEO Zander Lurie. Ms. Williams also sits on the board of the retail marketplace Poshmark Inc., which recently went public.
“She gives us advice ranging from how to think about winning to global expansion to current trends and even new inventory,” Poshmark founder and CEO Manish Chandra told The Wall Street Journal in 2019. At SurveyMonkey, Ms. Williams plays a variety of roles, including luring roughly a dozen hard-to-recruit candidates and executives, Mr. Lurie said.
“I text her, I say, ‘Hey, Serena, we’re trying to land this awesome candidate for sales in Dublin; we’re trying to hire this person out of Oracle ; we have a superstar underrepresented minority in this area,’ and she just says: ‘Say the word,’” Mr. Lurie says. “If Serena is calling you, you are definitely in our crosshairs.”
Umesh Ramakrishnan, a longtime executive recruiter and co-CEO at Kingsley Gate Partners, cautions companies not to recruit just a famous name but someone with relevant experience building a business.
“Saying, ‘OK, let’s get a Black woman on the board, and oh by the way, it would be fun to have a big name, so people will see that we’re attached to a celebrity’ is a mistake,” he said. “You’re going to be making major decisions that impact employees, management and stakeholders.”
Some celebrities have had attendance issues. Food manufacturer J.M. Smucker made note in its 2018 proxy that professional golfer Nancy LopezRussell, on its board since 2006, was the only director to attend fewer than 75 % of all board and committee meetings, saying she fell just short of the threshold because of some special meetings held at short notice.
The company added she continued to be a valuable director “due to her significant leadership and operating and marketing experience gained through operating her companies.” The next year, Smucker said in its proxy that all directors attended at least 75% of meetings that fiscal year. Ms. Lopez-Russell declined to comment on the matter.
Last year, shareholder advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. proposed that investors vote against Mr. O’Neal’s re-election to Papa John’s board, noting he had attended fewer than 75 % of board and committee meetings the prior fiscal year. ISS later reversed its position and supported his re-election, saying the reason for his absence had been business and broadcasting commitments made before his appointment, which Papa John’s didn’t expect again. A representative for Mr. O’Neal didn’t return a request for comment.
Mr. O’Neal has been hands-on, the company says, including in hiring the pizza chain’s current CEO, Rob Lynch. Beforehand, Mr. Lynch interviewed with Mr. O’Neal in the company’s hometown of Louisville, Ky., a conversation Mr. Lynch says helped persuade him to take the job. “I came out of that initial meeting really inspired,” Mr. Lynch says. “He believes that we are taking something that was in a bad place and that had a negative impact on a lot of people’s lives and making a difference.”
Ms. Wilson says she plans to attend meetings at Amperity with a notebook and a range of questions. She adds that she has been meeting with other board members to get up to speed. She will also work with the board on corporate social-responsibility issues, such as workforce diversity and youth-education efforts.
Ms. Wilson took a course at Harvard Business School on the business of entertainment, media, and sports in 2019, and says corporate governance is the next logical step after branching out as an entrepreneur.
“I get to see things from the brand perspective and the consumer perspective,” she says.