The new chairman of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Suffolk Construction magnate John Fish, launched his two-year term last week with a political-style speech before more than 1,000 business leaders at the chamber’s annual meeting. He called on members of the group to widen their circle: The area inside Interstate 495 may be quite prosperous, but the rest of the state — especially the so-called gateway cities — are lagging badly. It was an important message about inequality, Massachusetts style. The crowd seemed to appreciate it, even though some had by then joined Mayor Walsh in excusing themselves to catch the Bruins and Montreal Canadiens on TV.
Still, Fish’s willingness to venture beyond the usual blandishments seemed to signal a new day for the chamber. The people assembled before him reflected the strengths and weaknesses of Boston’s official business community: Committed but not especially diverse; unusually progressive for a chamber of commerce, but also tightly insular; deeply willing to extend a helping hand to a school kid but not particularly embracing of the startup culture that’s juicing the economy in Somerville, Cambridge, and Boston’s Fort Point Channel.
This shouldn’t be entirely surprising. The businesses with the greatest incentives to join the chamber of commerce are large, rooted employers with a heavy stake in the local political and regulatory apparatus. Hence, the disproportionate number of law firms, banks, insurers, and ad agencies crowding into the Convention Center ballroom for the annual meeting last week. But Boston’s political and business cultures can be parochial to a fault; the city establishment isn’t easy to penetrate, especially for those who weren’t born here. This sense of interconnectedness is what keeps the chamber moving in line with the Legislature; but it also keeps outsiders at arm’s length, even if they have a lot to offer. Young innovators who weren’t born here don’t identify with the chamber, and vice versa.
Insurgent companies presumably can find other ways to make themselves heard, but to the extent that members of the political establishment, and the chamber itself, treat the group as the voice of the local business community, the underrepresentation of new firms narrows the public discussion.
In contrast, a wider circle creates greater opportunities for all, as Fish seems to understand. And while Boston companies can and should look to the gateway cities for space for back offices and future expansion, there are other ways to expand the scope of the chamber, as well. It can also help create a more fertile climate even for startups that don’t routinely interact with state and local governments. Members should, as Fish urges, think of ways to embrace others within the region. And while they’re at it, they should embrace others closer to home.