Michelle Gadsden-Williams has always been highly-motivated. That’s not to say that the Managing Director & Global Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at BlackRock has focused on professional goals to the exclusion of everything else — quite the contrary. She’s an extrovert, with close relationships with colleagues, mentors, her identical twin sister and her husband.
As the title of her second book states — released last month by McGraw Hill — she’s Driven By Intention. Throughout her corporate journey, across the globe and through industries including consumer goods, pharmaceuticals and financial services, she’s never stopped listening to her inner voice.
“I’ve always thought about what I want to do, who I want to be, and where I want to go,” she says. “In fact, these are the same three questions that my father would ask my sisters and me every morning before we left for school.” By her seventh birthday, she aspired to be an executive at a large corporation.
Gadsden-Williams loved her childhood in North Edison, N.J. “Although,” she says, “I didn’t see many kids walking around who looked like me.” She and twin sister Monique were two of eight black children in a graduating class of 600. “We made some great friends, but we also had two exceptional role models.” Her Dad spent 40-years at manufacturing company TRW, and her mom, an entrepreneur. “My parents always encouraged us to speak our dreams into existence. And this notion of intentionality was instilled in my sisters and me early on.”
Though her original intention was to go to law school, when she received her degree in marketing and communications at Kean University, she wanted to “get started” and leveraged a retail job at Bamburgers department store into their management training program. A year later, she joined Philips Van Heusen as a Product Manager. A few years after that, a friend encouraged her to apply to another leadership program at Wakefern Food Corporation. Gadsden-Williams was accepted and found herself working in different company divisions every 18 months. Her final stop was Human Resources and her assignment: To create their first diversity strategy. “I took that project head on. I did my research, spoke to a variety of different firms and presented my proposal to the head of HR and then to the CEO.”
One of her recommendations was to hire someone full time to focus on diversity work. “They said, would you like to be that person?” This was her entrée into diversity as a practice and she fell in love with the work.
With Wakefern raising her diversity profile, Gadsden-Williams found herself in demand, and segued to pharma, with stints at Merck and Novartis. While at Novartis, she completed a graduate program in organizational development at University of Pennsylvania. Despite a three-hour roundtrip drive between North Jersey and Philadelphia three nights a week, she was all in.
By then, Gadsden-Williams was in overdrive. “I made it a point to leverage my network, embrace my passions, and seek out experiences that would get me closer to the dream. For me, the North Star was clear.”
She credits taking on stretch assignments like one that presented itself at a Novartis luncheon with the pharma division CEO. “He was a German executive, talking with a group of Americans, and he asked if anyone was interested in taking an assignment in Basel, Switzerland. Everyone looked around but there was silence. I raised my hand and said, I absolutely want to go.” After six months there, she was offered the top diversity job at the company.
The conundrum of the top spot: To stretch, she’d need to switch industries once again. When Credit Suisse called and she could return to New York, she accepted. Although transitioning from pharma to finance, meant focused networking to sharpen her game, she was fortunate to connect with colleagues receptive to mentoring her.
Even before making the leap to finance, she says, “I’ve been blessed to meet wonderful people who had nothing but my best interests at heart. These are people that I would go to the hill and back for.”
Back in New York, Gadsden-Williams was intrigued with entrepreneurial friends who were dabbling in different spaces. “I wondered if I had the chops to do something for myself.” She resigned and created Ceiling Breakers, a business focused on solving diversity challenges across different industries. Gadsden-Williams soon built a thriving practice, but she missed corporate America and sold her consultancy to lead diversity at Accenture.
When you’re good at your job and have a broad network, you get offers. The next came from a friend from Credit Suisse and the CMO at Blackrock to lead DEI globally at BlackRock. Gadsden-Williams initially declined. “But after speaking with Larry Fink and Rob Kapito, I was convinced, and even more so now, that this organization is committed to accelerating progress in DEI.”
Commitment to DEI is Gadsden-Williams’s passion. But what if you don’t have one? That’s where her latest book comes in. “Driven By Intention is a playbook that provides tools and tips on how to get to your North Star.”
Perhaps what informs Gadsden-Williams’s drive most is that she managed big jobs while managing chronic illness. “That’s been a big part of my journey. I was quietly living with lupus. I didn’t want to be labeled as the sick executive. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.” Now she speaks openly about it because lupus disproportionately impacts women, especially women of color. “My twin sister and I are both afflicted and there’s no family history.”
Michelle Gadsden-Williams is a true unicorn—a trailblazer who can talk with conviction and credibility about drive, intention and the importance of dreams. “I once worked for a CEO who would say, if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough. But I think that I’ve always been so focused on my goals that I never considered failure.”
To hear from Michelle Gadsden-Williams in her own words, check out this Virtual Champagne Salon featuring Michelle and Davia Temin, President and CEO of Temin and Company, in a fireside chat about Michelle’s new book Driven by Intention and about the chapter that profiles Davia, “Strong Minds” – on “Intention to Live with Integrity.”
Jessica Rao is an award-winning media professional with lifestyle, business and corporate/PR experience. She loves storytelling and interviewing and is at work on her debut novel.