Is Mayor Michelle Wu giving the cold shoulder to the business community?
Depends on who you ask. Take, for example, Boston venture capitalist Jeff Bussgang.
“I’m representative of the tech and entrepreneurship community so I can only speak about my experience,” said Bussgang, who met Wu a decade ago when she first ran for City Council. “She has always been thoughtful, engaged, proactive, and reactive.”
In March, when customers of Silicon Valley Bank were frozen out of their accounts and feared it would fail, Bussgang recalled how Wu immediately reached out to him and other tech players about what the city could do. Wu and her administration worked closely with state and federal officials to help avert a crisis — one that was resolved when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation took the unusual step of guaranteeing all deposits.
Wu also leaned on Bussgang, a general partner at Flybridge Capital Partners, shortly after she was elected mayor in November 2021. She asked him to organize a sitdown with other top venture capitalists on how Boston can remain a leader in the innovation economy and a magnet for talent, in particular entrepreneurs.
Previous mayors have welcomed tête-à-têtes with real estate developers and other captains of industry to discuss projects or other matters. Often, those were one-on-one meetings. But that hasn’t been Wu’s style. Instead, she prefers to assemble groups of leaders to help shape specific policies and forge public-private partnerships. Sometimes these meetings take place at City Hall, other times they are held at companies. For instance, Vertex CEO Reshma Kewalramani hosted Wu and other business leaders in April to discuss workforce development in the life sciences industry.
Still, the noticeable change in approach continues to ruffle the feathers of those who are used to having the ear of the mayor, all of which is perpetuating a narrative that Wu is indifferent to business interests.
“Candidly, the people who are grumbling, they are sensitive,” said Paul Bernon, a longtime supporter of Wu and a principal of Rubicon Real Estate. “She absolutely does care about the business community.”
Here’s another example: After Wu read about restaurant software company Toast terminating its massive office lease in the Fenway, she called CEO Chris Comparato to say she hoped the company would stay in Boston.
Part of the disconnect between the mayor and some in the business community, Bernon surmises, is that Wu is not as extroverted as her predecessors, Marty Walsh and Tom Menino. Wu believes in empowering her cabinet chiefs and staff to hold meetings with business leaders.
“I don’t think it’s bad or good,” said Bernon. “She came in with a new plan. This plan is more of our times.”
Another longtime supporter, C.A. Webb, the former president of the Kendall Square Association in Cambridge, said Wu takes a “holistic view” of the business world, one that values major employers as much as small business owners.
CEOs used to having an audience with the mayor shouldn’t expect that kind of relationship with Wu. “Everyone is not going to get the air time they are used to,” said Webb, who met Wu during her first run for City Council.
Webb said the chasm can seem bigger because Wu is the first woman, person of color, and millennial elected mayor, and it can be hard for the establishment — which remains primarily older, white, and male — to relate to her.
Tensions are also high because the mayor is barreling ahead on a campaign promise to blow up the planning and development process, an agenda that has made many in the real estate community nervous at a time when the industry is facing headwinds. The future of commercial real estate is uncertain with the rise of remote work, while higher interest rates and expensive construction costs further complicate the economics of new buildings.
“It’s a tricky convergence,” acknowledged Webb. “It’s really important that business leaders don’t retreat to their corners. If there is not an open line of communication about the reality — opportunities and threats — we are all going to lose. … She is keeping lines of communications open. I hope the business community will reciprocate.”
Since January, Wu has started to bring together leaders of business groups for a quarterly lunch at City Hall to talk about what’s on their minds, from the foot traffic in downtown Boston to improving public transportation. The invite, sent by her economic chief Segun Idowu, describes the meetings as a way for Wu to not only get feedback from the business community but also to help them stay informed about the administration’s efforts to close the racial wealth gap and make the city more family-friendly and green.
The second of those meetings took place last Thursday in the Eagle Room. Many of those who attended represent the changing face of the Boston business community.
Sure, the stalwarts were there: Jim Rooney of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Jay Ash of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, JD Chesloff of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable. But so were women and people of color who run other associations: Nicole Obi of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, Eneida Roman of Amplify Latinx, Q.J. Shi of the Asian Business Empowerment Council, Grace Moreno of the Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce, JC Morales of the Alliance for Business Leadership, and Cait Brumme of MassChallenge.
Brumme said while she only met Wu last year after taking the reins of tech accelerator MassChallenge, she has found the mayor and her staff accessible. When Wu recently wanted to learn more about the impact of artificial intelligence, Brumme was among a group of tech leaders who met at City Hall to brief the mayor.
“There is an understanding of the important role that startups and innovation play from an economic perspective and cultural perspective,” Brumme said.
Brumme said it’s apparent to her that the mayor is listening and gathering information from the business community, but also wants to proceed differently.
“As Mayor Wu and her administration think about building a city that’s both economically vibrant and more inclusive, that does require a degree of thoughtfulness and experimentation around how you bring many voices to the table with very different power dynamics,” she said.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.