Boston’s venture capital and legal industries had long endured criticism that their top ranks remained too exclusive, too homogeneous. White men made most, if not all, of the big decisions.
But the doors of power are opening to others more frequently than ever before.
Case in point: Boston law firm Nixon Peabody said on Tuesday that it has joined four other firms in a nationwide program called Move the Needle Fund. Another Boston law firm, Goodwin Procter, is already on board. The five firms each set aggressive diversity targets for staffing, and say they will work with each other to achieve them. Together, they’ll pay more than $5 million to Diversity Lab in San Francisco for help with such things as experimenting with hiring, work-life integration, and performance reviews. The hope: to come up with new approaches that can be replicated across the industry.
Meanwhile, the New England Venture Capital Association made a major announcement: For the first time, half of the trade group’s 18 board members are women. This puts NEVCA in the forefront of Boston-area business associations in terms of gender balance in the boardroom.
It’s not the first time these industries are tackling the issue. Witness the creation of new diversity director positions among Boston’s major law firms in the past year; Goulston & Storrs became the latest of several law firms to do so, announcing that it has hired D&I consultant Ayeshah Johnson to be its first director of diversity and inclusion. And NEVCA has made improving the diversity of its sector a top priority, in part by sponsoring a Hack.Diversity workforce development program.
These efforts are born out of the notion that the paths to career advancement are too often shut in the faces of women and minorities. Opening them, the thinking goes, is not just the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense. Proponents such as NEVCA and Nixon Peabody mention oft-cited studies that show problem-solving is better done in groups of people who think differently, with different backgrounds, as opposed to groups in which everyone looks and thinks the same.
As a white man, Nixon Peabody CEO Andrew Glincher might seem like an unlikely champion of diversity. But he remembers all too well what it was like joining the firm in 1987, about three years after graduating from Northeastern Law, when nearly everyone around him had a Harvard degree or some other Ivy League pedigree. Glincher came from modest means in Brockton, and couldn’t help but feel a bit out of place. It’s one reason he struck up a partnership with Brockton High School last summer, to cultivate interest in the law among a diverse group of teens.
And it’s a reason why he is investing more than $1 million of his law firm’s money in Move the Needle, as well as setting some ambitious diversity goals for his firm.
Nixon Peabody’s percentages are similar to those at many larger law firms: Seventeen percent of its equity partners are women, and 7 percent are racial and ethnic minorities. Glincher has vowed to get those numbers up to 30 percent and 12 percent over the next five years, and to bring the ratio of LGBTQ equity partners to 6 percent from 3 percent. It can’t happen overnight, though, not for a firm that only names three to five equity partners a year.
Chairman emeritus David Hashmall said Goodwin set two targets last summer with its Move the Needle pledge: ensuring 40 percent of the firm’s leadership committee roles are held by women, people of color, and LGBTQ attorneys — and that the makeup of its new partner classes match those of the entry-level ranks. Goodwin is already well on its way to the first one: The leadership diversity rate has risen to 35 percent from 25 percent just last summer.
Too many younger lawyers weren’t getting elevated, and Hashmall said he hopes the Move the Needle project can unmask and help mitigate the root causes. He suspects unconscious bias is at play — he said people often tend to promote and mentor younger colleagues who remind them of themselves.
That’s similar to what sometimes happens in venture capital. Jody Rose, president of the VC association, said her board was about one-third women when she joined in late 2015. Rose said many of her member firms are taking steps to rethink their approaches to the startups they pick for their investment portfolios, as well as their hiring practices, to improve inclusivity. Progress has been stronger with women; the group and the industry it represents, she said, needs to do more to recruit Blacks and Latinos into the fold.
One by one, more doors are being opened. Rather than being glaring examples of inadequate diversity, maybe Boston’s VC and law communities can actually set the tone for a more inclusive city.
Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.