Marvin Ellison’s ascent at J.C. Penney Co. Inc. is remarkable not just because it signals a vital transition for the long-struggling retailer and the final closing of the door on the Ron Johnson era. His appointment also stands out because he will be one of the tiny number of African American chief executive officers in retail when he takes the reins in August.

This story first appeared in the October 14, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Home Depot Inc. and Target Corp. veteran will join Sam’s Club ceo Rosalind Brewer, who took the helm at the retailer in 2012. And those will be the only two.

That’s an exclusionary shame, but not surprising. Fashion and retail, for all of its openness on other fronts, is something of an old boy’s club when it comes to the c-suite. (A 2012 WWD study of 38 publicly traded fashion, retail and beauty companies found only five female ceo’s — a statistic made all the more egregious considering that women shoppers are estimated to make more than 80 percent of fashion purchases.)

Penney’s ranked among DiversityInc’s top 50 companies for diversity this year, coming in 48th out of the 1,215 companies surveyed.

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The online publication described outgoing chief Myron “Mike” Ullman 3rd as a “strong advocate for diversity” who “signs off on diversity metrics, visibly communicates the importance of diversity to business goals and chairs the executive diversity council.”

“Our commitment to inclusion and diversity is one of the core values on which we are rebuilding J.C. Penney,” Ullman told DiversityInc. “Our customers respect that our associates reflect who they are and that our teams bring a wide range of views, backgrounds and experiences in their work. In this way, we are building a winning culture that encourages teamwork, innovation and exceptional performance.”

Ellison briefly addressed race and his experience in corporate America during his May commencement address at the University of Memphis, where he earned a business administration degree in marketing.

“I grew up in Brownsville, Tenn., a small, three-traffic-light town 80 miles northeast of here,” he said. “As an African American, I have worked in environments where no one looked like me. I’ve worked with colleagues with elite educational backgrounds and impressive résumés. I have to admit that on occasion I have felt slightly inferior that my credentials or my background did not measure up. So if you don’t measure up, what do you do? Well, you try to blend in and be more like them.

“On occasion, I would think to myself, ‘How can a guy from Brownsville compete in a corporate environment with people who clerked on the Supreme Court, have worked internationally or attended Ivy League schools?’ Whenever I begin to feel inferior, I would hear a message in my head repeated to me by my father as I grew up in that small town. He would say, ‘You are no better than anyone and no one is better than you.’ He would go on to say, ‘When times get tough, remember no one can beat you being you.’ In other words graduates, leverage your unique abilities to differentiate yourself from your peers and that’s what I did and that’s what I continue to do.”

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