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How we assemble the Virginia 500

Foster. Photo by James Lee

When I give my elevator speech about the Virginia 500, it usually starts this way: It’s like the Fortune 500, but instead of companies, it’s about people.

Unlike the Fortune 500, which ranks companies by gross revenues, this is a more subjective list. Compiled via staff research, we catalog Virginia’s 500 most powerful leaders across 19 major sectors, ranging from real estate and manufacturing to higher education and federal contracting. There is not a nomination process, and we do not rank executives.

Some of the list is determined by position — if you’re the Virginia-based top leader of a Fortune 1000 corporation, you’ll likely find yourself on the Virginia 500. Other factors we consider include career achievements, company revenue, the number of employees a leader oversees, the scope of their responsibilities, and their involvement and prominence within their industry and community.

When I discuss the Virginia 500, I also explain that this is journalism, not public relations or advertising. Our editors choose who makes the list, which leaders we write about and what we say about them. The Virginia 500 is not an award or an endorsement; it’s simply a recognition that a person holds a position of power and influence. Though most appreciate being on the list, a very small number wish not to be included. There isn’t an opt-out process, however.

For the sake of expediency and organization, we condense related industries into overarching categories. One example is the real estate section, which also includes architecture and engineering, construction and development.

Because business along Virginia’s borders is fluid, we include executives who have direct responsibility for Northern Virginia but who work in Washington, D.C. But while a host of federal officials call Northern Virginia home, we don’t include those whose focus is solely on federal business and who don’t work in the commonwealth or play a role directly in Virginia’s interests.

Finally, we do not adjust this list for diversity or geography. Our aim with the Virginia 500 is to report an accurate picture of who holds the most power in business, government, nonprofits and higher education in Virginia. As such, this list skews white and male, reflecting the larger demographics of American business leadership.

This year, a record eight Black CEOs lead Fortune 500 companies, making up 1.6% of Fortune 500 leaders. By comparison, the Virginia 500 has 45 Black leaders, or 9% of the list. (Black or African American people make up 21.7% of Virginia’s population, according to 2021 U.S. Census Bureau data.) There are 68 people of color on the 2023 Virginia 500.

As for gender, there are 102 women leaders on the Virginia 500, accounting for 20.2% of the list. Comparatively, a record 53 women CEOs head up Fortune 500 companies this year, marking the first time that women have made up more than 10% of the leadership of the top U.S. companies.

It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that economic power in the Old Dominion is mostly clustered within the “Golden Crescent” of Northern Virginia (representing 40.6% of Virginia 500 leaders), Central Virginia (29.4%) and Hampton Roads (18.8%).

This year’s Virginia 500 had an 18.6% turnover rate, featuring 93 new leaders. While fewer than 10 were added to the Living Legends section, which recognizes lifetime achievement, most newcomers to the list have succeeded retiring or exiting executives.

For those of us who haven’t ascended to the lofty heights of those represented here, there is an aspirational joy to reading about the career journeys of the leaders in these pages.

After all, there’s always next year.

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