UVA Alumna Helps Others Break Through the Glass Ceiling

March 20, 2024 By Anna Bennett , amb7yjt@virginia.edu Anna Bennett , amb7yjt@virginia.edu

Inspired by a groundbreaking female leader, University of Virginia alumna Shannon Nash is now sharing the story of Black women climbing the corporate ladder in her latest film, “OnBoard.” 

A filmmaker and corporate executive, Nash said she was inspired by Patricia Roberts Harris, the first Black woman in the United States to join a corporate board and later the first woman of color to serve in the presidential Cabinet as the secretary of housing and urban development during the Carter administration. 

Nash, a double Hoo who received her undergraduate degree from the McIntire School of Commerce in 1992 and her graduate degree from the School of Law in 1995, currently works as the chief financial officer at Wing, an Alphabet company. Nash called Harris a “trailblazer and pioneer who broke numerous barriers.”

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In Nash’s latest film, shown at the 2023 Virginia Film Festival, Nash chronicles and celebrates a yearlong journey of Black women’s achievements in corporate America. The documentary is centered around the global organization Black Women on Boards, which promotes accessibility, visibility and sponsorship for Black women on – or who are ready to be on – executive boards. 

“I want to make films that raise awareness about important, seldom-covered topics – critical issues where there’s not a lot of content out there – but once shared, it becomes something you can’t ‘unsee/unlearn’ and has the potential to become a powerful force for change,” Nash said. 

Nash also produced a documentary on autism, titled “Colored My Mind,” which received the Best Short Film Award at the 2013 American Pavilion. 

UVA Today reached out to Nash to find out about Black Women on Boards, her latest film and her experiences in corporate America. 

Q. How did you get involved in BWOB?

A. “OnBoard” does a great job highlighting the story of the first group of women invited to join BWOB by Robin Washington and Merline Saintil, the organization’s co-founders, who are dedicated to placing more talented, successful Black female executives on the boards of large companies and other organizations.

3 women walk together smiling

“OnBoard” is centered around the global organization Black Women on Boards, which provides mentorship and support to Black women working to climb the corporate ladder. (Contributed photo)

It all started as a Zoom call Robin and Merline invited 18 women to. I was one of the 18, and the rest led to a thriving organization that now has over 200 members and has placed over 40 prominent members into board roles.

Q. What drives your interest in filmmaking?

A. Before making “OnBoard,” if you Googled “Who is the first Black woman to serve on a corporate board?,” you would’ve gotten another name. Upon pure luck, I went to dinner with one of my mentors, Barry Williams, and told him about the film we were making and the person we were highlighting as the first. Barry, a seasoned corporate board member, knows his stuff – he knew the first was Patricia Roberts Harris. I immediately began additional research and found out he was correct! Once that happened, I knew we had to make this film. 

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Now, when you Google “Who is the first black woman to serve on a corporate board?,” the top hits are about our film, “OnBoard,” and Patricia Roberts Harris. 

Q. How did you break into the world of executives?

A. I have had a handful of truly outstanding mentors and sponsors throughout my career who have helped me navigate the corporate world every step of the way. What I tell young people all the time is that to be mentored or sponsored doesn’t always mean it’s somebody who works in your company.

Take Larry Bailey. He’s a CPA. He went to Wharton Business School at a time when few African Americans were doing that, and he became one of the first African American partners at a major accounting firm. When I met him, I immediately knew he had a lot to teach me, so I established a relationship with him that’s now 30-plus years and going strong. 

He brought me into his network, introduced me to people and made sure I went to the right conferences and dinners. He made phone calls on my behalf. He took a vested interest in me succeeding in this career. 

Finding and cultivating the right mentor or sponsor relationship takes time and intentionality, but when it’s done well, it is incredibly rewarding.

Q. What lessons from your time at UVA do you still carry with you in your career? 

A. My time at UVA’s McIntire School taught me how to think critically, take chances and not be afraid of the unknown. I also learned the importance of surrounding yourself with smart people (even smarter than you) who will both challenge and lift you up along the way. Finally, tap into your leadership skills; everyone has the potential to lead in some way, shape or form, and my time at UVA taught me how to access that leadership within myself and spot it within other people.