Alumni Spotlights

Nicole Sandford, BBA’92: Empowering Board Diversity

  • on February 27, 2020
  • by Lisa McMahon, MA'09

In the early 2000s, when the Enron scandal brought the concept of corporate governance to the forefront, Nicole (Silsby) Sandford, ’92, and her colleagues at Deloitte & Touche LLP were taking steps to become the thought leaders in that space.

“It wasn’t intended to be a new career,” said Sandford, who was working in the firm’s audit department at the time, “but that’s exactly what happened. It was the first of many times that I sort of jumped into something new in the interest of trying to do something different.”

As the founding member of Deloitte’s award-winning Center for Corporate Governance, Sandford led its response to milestone legislation and regulation, including the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was passed to help protect investors from fraudulent financial reporting by corporations. She helped dozens of public and private companies across industry sectors – including several large global banks – to transform their boards and organizational governance, and was one of Deloitte’s most frequent speakers on matters related to corporate governance, risk management, and corporate culture. She has received numerous awards for her work, including Millstein Center’s “Rising Stars of Corporate Governance” and The International Alliance for Women’s “World of Vision” Award. 

Her confidence in accepting that it was okay to not know exactly where her future would take her is something she developed as a student in Niagara University’s Academic Exploration Program.

“I learned that things work out exactly the way they’re supposed to work out from my experience at Niagara. That helped me a lot later on, to not be afraid to take a chance on something different that maybe I had never tried before,” she said.

Initially enrolled in the university’s premed program, the Middleport, N.Y., native quickly realized that a medical career was not her calling and opted to transfer into the Academic Exploration Program, where she was able to take a variety of classes to determine what appealed to her. One of those classes was an introduction to accounting with professor Al Oddo.

“Professor Oddo was the best teacher I ever had. He made accounting interesting,” she said, “and the best part was it came to me very naturally.”

Sandford began exploring what an accounting career might look like, and when she realized that she could quickly obtain a well-paying job after graduation, she decided to declare accounting as her major.

Niagara’s small classes and accessible faculty enabled Sandford to pass the CPA exam with ease and prepared her to hit the ground running at her first job in the tax department of Arthur Anderson’s Manhattan office, a job she obtained through her connection with a Niagara alumnus.

Less than a year later, Sandford received a call from Deloitte, where she spent the next 27 years. She started in the audit practice, where she served as the audit partner for a number of highly complex public companies and obtained substantial experience in mergers and acquisitions, initial and secondary public offerings, leverage buy-outs, and other complex transactions.

After the Enron scandal started to break, Sandford traveled across the United States with Deloitte’s CEO and other senior leaders to give presentations to their largest clients on corporate governance, crisis response, and regulatory risk management. Hundreds of board members and senior executives attended the sessions that Sandford organized, which gave her the idea to establish the Center for Corporate Governance.

“Our clients came because they were interested in what we were talking about, so it seemed logical that we would make that a fixture and part of our infrastructure in how we served clients,” she said. “We were the first firm to have something that focused at the board level for helping our clients to be more focused on their corporate governance programs.”

“At the time, there was very little research being done around effective boards of directors,” she continued. “What does an effective board look like, what do they do, how do they process information, how do they make decisions, how do they work through conflict? Our thinking was to use our platform as a global consultancy and as a leader in the audit and consulting world, to tap into the effective leaders at the board level that we knew and have them help us to develop leading practice frameworks that we could then share across all of our clients.”

Over the next 10 years, during which she was named partner at Deloitte, Sandford built the center, creating its strategic vision and writing many of its most important publications. She has published numerous articles and whitepapers on corporate governance, and spoke at institutions and organizations including Stanford, Notre Dame, Columbia, Yale, New York University, Rice University, and the University of Delaware, the American Bar Association, the Society for Corporate Governance, and the International Corporate Governance Network.

The success of the center led to the launch of the Diversifying the American Board Program, an initiative Sandford spearheaded to identify women and underrepresented minorities and prepare them for directorship roles. Sandford is proud to note that her efforts to help clients recognize the value of inviting women and underrepresented minorities into their boardrooms has contributed to the significant increase in the number of those individuals who now serve on boards.

“While board turnover remains stubbornly low, we continue to see improvements in board diversity since I started my work in this area in 2003. Now there are only two boards in the S&P 500 with no women directors, and only 7% that have no underrepresented minorities. It’s not perfect – not by a long shot – but I’m proud to have been a part of this movement.”

Sandford made several other career pivots during her time as a partner at Deloitte. She served as governance services leader and enterprise compliance practice leader, positions in which she advised boards and senior executives in their most challenging times. She notes that the more difficult aspects of her work – getting groups of people with different outcomes in mind to come to a common solution – have also been her most rewarding.

“The most rewarding work I’ve done with clients has happened when I’m able to help a board figure out what its challenges are, come to some common agreement about how they want to operate, and how they’re going to hold each other accountable on a go-forward basis. It’s amazing to see the board really turn the corner and start to work together as a cohesive, effective group,” she said.

In 2017, Sandford was offered the role of U.S. regulatory and operational risk market leader, leading Deloitte’s nearly $600 million practice during a period of strategic transformation. She integrated more than 2,000 professionals in the U.S. and India to form the largest regulatory advisory practice in the industry.

This January, Sandford made the difficult decision to retire from Deloitte and pursue another career change as executive vice president and Global Board Services leader with Ellig Group, an executive search firm that focuses on recruiting and onboarding talent with highly diverse backgrounds and experiences. This new chapter in her career will enable Sandford to become more involved with connecting women and underrepresented minorities to boards.

The position “really plays to a lot of my strengths, because I love the networking, I love connecting people to opportunities, and I believe passionately that the board diversity initiatives that we have in this country right now are critically important for enhanced corporate citizenship,” she said.

Sandford, herself, has extensive board experience, including her current roles as vice chairman of the Girl Scouts of Connecticut and director of the Stamford Public Education Foundation. She is an emeritus member of the advisory board of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, and previously served as the audit committee chair and member of the CEO selection committee for both the Society for Corporate Governance and the Global Partnership for Afghanistan, and as chair of the Corporate Governance Committee of the Financial Women’s Association. 

A breast-cancer survivor, Sandford is also passionate about helping people with cancer. She is a volunteer driver for the American Cancer Society, the patient advocate on the Greenwich Hospital Breast Center Leadership Committee and is actively seeking opportunities to serve on boards for biotech companies that are making a difference in the field of cancer research. Other charitable interests include public education and the development of our youth.

“No matter how busy I get, I find the time to stay involved with the causes I care about,” she said. “It very much was a part of my educational experience at Niagara.”