fb-pixel Skip to main content
Shirley Leung

Another white male CEO at MassBio? The group has some explaining to do

After pushing to boost women and people of color, influential life sciences trade group looks set to hire another white guy from the Legislature as its next boss.

State Senator Joe Boncore, of Winthrop, has emerged as the top candidate to lead the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.
State Senator Joe Boncore, of Winthrop, has emerged as the top candidate to lead the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.handout

The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council has some explaining to do.

Under previous president and chief executive Bob Coughlin, the powerful trade group got out front on the need for more women and people of color in the life sciences industry. MassBio commissioned a landmark study on gender diversity, hired its first diversity and inclusion director, and led a boycott of that scourge known as the “manel,” aka the all-male panel.

But when it came time to pick its next CEO, MassBio’s board conducted a nationwide search that seems destined to end with hiring yet another white guy from the Legislature.

Advertisement



So much for progress.

MassBio tells me nothing’s a done deal, though the only name that has publicly surfaced and described as a leading candidate is state Senator Joseph Boncore. Last week, the Winthrop Democrat filed ethics and conflicts of interest disclosures citing how he is in discussions with the trade group about a position. Boncore’s district encompasses Cambridge’s Kendall Square, where biotechs have clustered, and he serves as Senate chair of the Massachusetts Biotech Caucus. Boncore declined tocomment.

“The process is still ongoing,” said Pam Randhawa, vice chair of the MassBio board and cochair of its CEO search committee.

Randhawa, founder and CEO of early-stage biotech company Empiriko, wouldn’t say how many finalists there are or the odds that the plum posting would go to a white male candidate.

No matter who is ultimately tapped, Randhawa said MassBio has run an inclusive search process. She described the search committee of nearly a dozen MassBio board members as “two-thirds diverse,” featuring women and people of color.

She said the position attracted a “very large pool” of candidates, of whom 44 percent are women and 33 percent are people of color.

Indeed, this town has been buzzing about who got a call and who did not, and how serious MassBio was in finding someone other than a white man.

Advertisement



Interest has been off the charts. If shilling for drug companies is your thing, MassBio pays handsomely. That’s no secret. Coughlin earned more than $1 million in compensation, including bonus and other compensation, according to the most recent tax filings. He stepped down in February after more than 13 years at the helm to go help real estate firm JLL build up its life sciences practice.

For those keeping score at home, white men have been passing the baton to each other among the state’s most influential business groups. According to the Eos Foundation, men comprise 72 percent of the CEOs of the 25 biggest business advocacy groups in Massachusetts.

But MassBio has been such a champion of diversity that I, for one, thought the last person they’d hire would be a white man.

“Unfortunately, I’m not surprised anymore,” said Eos president Andrea Silbert, whose nonprofit focuses on women’s pay and power gaps. “I’m disappointed.”

Silbert said it’s critical to have diversity at the top of business associations because they wield tremendous influence on policy and regulations on Beacon Hill. What happens is that these types of jobs often go to somebody who is connected to the Legislature, which remains largely white and male.

“It always comes down to somebody who is white and male,” said Silbert.

Here is where MassBio says: Hold on. The group remains committed to diversity at the top and has done so by splitting Coughlin’s role, says Randhawa, the MassBio board vice chair, who is Asian American, and who will be the next board chair and first woman of color in that position.

Advertisement



The search committee has been focused on finding a CEO who can lobby and shape policy, but Coughlin’s “president” title has already gone to Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, who has been and continues to serve as chief operating officer. A longtime MassBio executive, she previously served as general counsel.

Under Coughlin, she ran the business and operations side of MassBio, serving the needs of its 1,400 members with events, conferences, and programming, and will continue to play that role when the new CEO arrives. MassBio functions on a $12 million budget and a staff of about 25 people.

“We have a woman leader at the helm of MassBio,” said Randhawa. “We do need to pay attention to that.”

So who will be the public face of MassBio? When Coughlin led the group, there was no question who was in charge. But with the trade group’s leadership restructuring, Randhawa went as far to describe O’Connell as “an equal partner” to the CEO.

I know what some of you are thinking: This gives MassBio cover to hire a white guy. Perhaps. But O’Connell was promoted in December the same day Coughlin announced he was leaving and before outside search firm Russell Reynolds Associates was retained.

Advertisement



Judging by the process, MassBio seemed intent on hiring a diverse CEO, but in the end the search committee seems to have fallen in love with the familiar: a white male legislator with a compelling back story.

Boncore, 39, is the father of twin boys who were born 25 weeks premature in October 2019. He experienced firsthand the power and importance of life-saving medicines.

Coughlin, a former state representative, has a son, Bobby, who was born in 2002 with cystic fibrosis, a rare genetic illness that attacks the lungs and other organs. To live a normal life, he would need treatments that had yet to be discovered when he was born. The MassBio board saw how Coughlin, who often talks publicly about his son’s condition, could be an effective proponent for drug development given his life experience.

This is a tough one, folks. I’m not ready to declare no white guys need apply. Everyone deserves a shot. Only MassBio knows if it has done everything it can to run an inclusive search process. If Boncore is the choice, then the board needs to make sure he is as deeply committed to diversity and equity as his predecessor.

But big picture, giving the top job to someone who is pale and male is a condition that afflicts most business advocacy groups in this state. When they prioritize former legislators and connections on Beacon Hill, the fix is in for white men because that’s who has them.

Changing that means electing more women and people of color, or reimagining the CEO role at these influential groups.

Advertisement



Otherwise, we’ll keep getting the same results.


Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.