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How American Express is Charging Ahead on Diversity

Excerpted from the February 2015 issue of Fortune Magazine

As Silicon Valley startups and tech giants aim to fill teams with more women, they should sneak a peek at the American Express playbook.

Enterprise tech could learn a lot about gender diversity from American Express. Last month, Intel INTC 1.29% announced a $300 million initiative to diversify its workforce (see “The business case for STEM education“) while Microsoft, Google, and other tech giants have acknowledged a need to support more female talent. Yet for American Express AXP 0.33% , the issue is old hat. The financial services giant started its first women’s inclusion group 22 years ago, and groups for underrepresented minorities soon followed. The world’s largest card issuer by purchase volume (and No. 11 on Fortune’s list of Most Admired Companies), American Express now boasts 39% women in vice-president positions and above. Women made up 66% of corporate executive hires in 2014, a statistic that chief diversity officer Valerie Grillo attributes to the many years American Express has been thinking about the issue.

In fact, in 2008, just when most corporations were feeling the brunt of the financial crisis, American Express pushed its diversity efforts into full throttle. Why? For AmEx execs, better business performance and retaining top female talent have always been part of the same discussion.

“Nobody said we have to do this. It’s just smart business,” says Susan Sobbott, president of global corporate payments. The result is a company that sets an example for other industries that are trying to catch up.

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