Has Boston moved beyond its racially turbulent past? We asked five minority leaders why they decided to build their lives here. They offered reflections that took on more urgency following last week’s racist tweets directed at a black hockey player.
The numbers on race, Boston and business
The Commonwealth Compact surveyed its 125 corporate and institutional signers in 2008 and found that 13 percent of African-Americans, 10 percent of Asians, and 9 percent of Latinos were in midlevel to senior executive jobs, compared to 17 percent of whites. Among the executive committees of boards of directors, whites held 81 percent of seats, compared to 10 percent for blacks, 7 percent for Hispanics, and 1 percent for Asians. Another survey about national perceptions of Boston found that only 38 percent of African-Americans rate Boston as good to excellent in welcoming people of color. 62 percent rate the city fair to poor.
J. Keith Motley: Chancellor of University of Massachusetts Boston
The eighth chancellor of UMass Boston, Motley is a founder of the Roxbury Preparatory Charter School and sits on numerous boards. He holds degrees from Northeastern University and a PhD from Boston College.
When I came to Boston as a 17-year-old back in early ’70s, my friends used to give me a standing ovation when I came home to Pittsburgh. It gave me a lot of street cred. Everyone was aware of Boston’s troubled image, especially people of color. Around the nation, the famous Ted Landsmark photo [of an antibusing protester using an American flag as a weapon against an unarmed black man] was engraved in their minds.
So much has changed since then. Boston is not the city of the 1970s or ’80s. Although the change is not finished, Boston is becoming a city of diversity and inclusion. The racial turmoil that gripped this city in previous decades has disappeared, and we have a wealth of talented people to tap for leadership in all arenas.
We need to bring in more people of color, whether it’s in the classroom or workplace, to make sure it’s the norm in Boston. The feeling of a sense of community at home and at work will keep folks here.
It might sound simple, but a campaign that counters the negative would help. Young people need to see role models. We have Deval Patrick, the first black governor to be reelected, and, before that, Edward William Brooke, the first African-American popularly elected to the US Senate. When I was a young man, I wanted to be a professional, but first I needed to see mentors who would motivate me.
When my goal was to become a college president, there were no people of color I knew in this position, but I had those who built bridges for me, including Jack Curry, former president of Northeastern, who recognized my abilities and hired me as an admissions counselor after I graduated. At the time, I sat at the feet of presidents of universities, learning from them. I didn’t understand then how valuable that exposure would be.
We need to build a business case for diversity as well. Too many people think diversity is admirable, but don’t really think it will help their bottom line. But having an inclusive work environment sends a message that recognizes and values individual differences.
Have I faced obstacles? Throughout the years, especially at the beginning, there were unspoken stereotypes. As an African-American man, if you haven’t encountered racial profiling, it would be rare. It happens in airports, stores, almost anywhere you go - even when wearing a suit and tie. I can’t allow it to bother me, I just keep moving.
If I were to give advice to those who would walk in my footsteps, it is to work hard and develop systems for getting things accomplished. Nothing is going to happen without hard work - it’s not magic that propels you to success. I don’t think Chancellor Motley is a black chancellor; rather, Keith Motley is a chancellor who happens to be black.
Lydia Villa-Komaroff: Chief scientific officer at biotech Cytonomest
Villa-Komaroff, a graduate of MIT, was previously vice president for research at Whitehead Institute and Northwestern University.
I identify myself as Mexican-American or Latino; my parents were first in their respective families to go to college, and I was the first to get an advanced degree. Both my parents were firmly in the middle class, and with six of us, money was tight. I fell in love with science at a young age and paid my way through college.
I was a little stubborn and a lot thick-skinned; what would bother other people didn’t occur to me as something to worry about. My student adviser told me that the reason I had a tough time in chemistry was that “women don’t belong in chemistry.’’ I said OK, and changed my major to biology, because what did I know?
Massachusetts, like any other state, needs to bring in talented people. I’m on the governor’s Life Sciences Board, which has backed legislation to put aside millions of dollars to increase this industry here. It is part of our mandate to make sure the Life Sciences Board is an inclusive one.
In the upper ranks of any enterprise - management, academia, nonprofits, and others - it is hard to find people of color, which is why it’s a societal problem, not a geographic one specific to New England. The demographics of the country are changing so minorities are becoming the majority population, except in the upper ranks of business, so there is a dissonance there. We now have a president of the United States who is a minority, so the change is happening in a way that it never has before, but we still cannot afford to lose talent for any reason.
As a young woman, I had several mentors, which is very important for women and minorities. In the business world, you need an advocate in the background - someone of power who is in your corner, willing to give you advice as well as actively champion for you. Most of my mentors have been white males, because they were the only resource I had available.
As companies large and small try to formalize mentoring programs for women and minorities, these initiatives provide an important introduction for networking and leadership skills. This is how I did it, and it helps to see someone else’s path and find the lessons there for me. There are lots of other diversity efforts as well, but the needle moves slowly.
I believe we need to start role modeling for our youth at a very young age. Young kids will look around and say, “I can’t be a lawyer, scientist, or banker’’ because they don’t see anyone who looks like them. They close doors before they even know what they’re doing. It’s time to open more opportunities and embrace the potential of the emerging workforce around us.
Sushil K. Tuli: ‘Look toward the future’
Tuli has been president of Leader Bank since it was founded in 2002. Leader Bank has grown from a start-up to a community institution with $510 million in assets. He is a graduate of the Owner/President Management Program at Harvard Business School.
I came to Boston in 1976, and had not heard that Boston was a difficult or troubled place for persons of color. Although I since have heard more of Boston’s history with race relations, I think that it is important to look toward the future and change the narrative for Boston.
Boston is a very college- and youth-focused environment, but as people get older and want to start a family, they move away due to the expense unless they have some connection to the city. The more we can connect diverse candidates to Boston at the start of their careers and convince them of the wonderful things this city has to offer, the more likely they will be here when they are ready to take a leading executive role.
Having our graduate and business schools emphasize diversity in their student bodies also aids in ensuring that persons of color have the opportunities to be part of the next generation of leaders and executives in Boston.
For example, Harvard Business School has started Innovation Lab, a project that allows students interested in entrepreneurship to start their own businesses. Such projects are especially helpful to students of color and help foster connections with Boston.
Early in my career, I applied to a new position at my employer, and although I thought I was the best candidate for the job, I was passed over for someone else. I don’t believe that my race played a role in that decision, but it was initially very frustrating.
I focused on my job even harder and was determined to prove my worth. This dedication paid off when the person promoted left after three months, and I was promoted in his place. The take-away lesson is not to be scared of changes - rather, take advantage of new opportunities as they arrive.
I certainly believe my perspective as a global citizen has helped me think outside the box. Coming to the mortgage lending and banking industry as a relative outsider has also allowed me to rethink certain conventions.
If you walked into Leader Bank’s corporate offices, the racial and ethnic diversity among our employees is immediately apparent. Starting with a diverse workforce ensures a diverse management team as well. The key is to foster that diversity in a culture of collegiality and community.
Stereotypes unfortunately do happen, although I cannot recall any specific ones that I have encountered. It is important for executives and senior management to set the example for their companies to look beyond stereotypes and ensure that employees can succeed on the merits of their work alone.
For those looking to overcome stereotypes, the key is to focus on what you can control, such as your drive and the quality of your work. If you ensure that you do the best job you can, the recognition will come.
Michelle Shell: Convention center leader
Shell is senior vice president of research at LPL Financial in Boston and chairs the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. She is a graduate of Harvard Business School and MIT and sits on several nonprofit boards.
I recently met Carl Bernard Mack, director of the National Society of Black Engineers, who was in town to check out the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. During breakfast, I was introduced as the chairwoman of the board of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. He took one look at me and shook his head in surprise. “You’re the chair of the Convention Center? In Massachusetts? In Boston?’’
We’ve made a concerted effort at the convention center to attract multicultural events to the city of Boston. Last year, we hosted Blacks in Government as well as the National Urban League, a civil rights organization that hasn’t been here for 35 years. Because of the racial tension that has marred Boston’s reputation, honestly, there have been a few residual hurdles to cross in helping people understand that we do have a wonderful tapestry of color - particularly with individuals who have not been here for a long time, if ever.
The recent news about the racist tweets after the Bruins loss was disturbing. They do not reflect the Boston I know and love, nor do they show the world the progress we have made. It would be naive to think there is no longer racism in America or racist people in the Commonwealth. But I choose to focus on changes we can and should make to create the world we want to leave for our children.
As a black woman, throughout my career in financial services, there are certain perceptions I have had to overcome. As I’ve risen through the managerial ranks, individuals have been caught off guard by my level in the organization. I’ve seen the expression in people’s faces that say, “I didn’t expect you to be able to make that decision.’’
I haven’t been hurt by this, but have been interested in these reactions, though they are slight in the grand scheme of things. I can only think of one time in my professional career, early on, when an older role model quipped, “This is a really good time to be a young black woman at this company.’’ She meant it in the most genuine, sincere, and helpful way possible, but to me, this comment suggested that I was going to get something I didn’t necessarily earn, which is antithetical to the way I was raised and what I believe in.
If our region is ever to achieve its economic, civil, and social potential, I believe we have to highlight more of our success stories. We need to establish Massachusetts as a supportive community for diverse leadership if we are to be our best selves.
Many employers across the Commonwealth are investing resources in inclusion and mentoring and believe this is a model for helping organizations excel. With quality research and data such as the State of Black Boston report, as released by the National Urban League, or the Commonwealth Compact, there is now a defined series of benchmarks to mark our progress. During my tenure at the convention center, I have created a corporate social responsibility committee that is charged with making sure all our practices, whether suppliers or hiring, foster a more inclusive representation.
Our city is thriving. We have to keep facing diversity issues squarely in order to make real progress.
Philip Lee: CEO of tech firm PHT Corp.
Lee is president and CEO of the Boston provider of eDiaries, which automate patient data collection in pharmaceutical trials. Lee served as president of Clinsoft and eXcelon Corp. and held senior level positions at Oracle Corp. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cornell University.
A recent study from the Center for Work-Life Policy [a New York think tank] found that a “bamboo ceiling’’ keeps Asian-Americans such as myself from the corner office more than any other group. As an Asian-American, I have encountered and broken through the bamboo ceiling to reach the president/CEO office at software and clinical research companies.
My high school friends probably would be the first to vote me as least likely to go into sales or become a CEO, because I was shy and somewhat geeky. I got here through sheer determination and willpower. I like to think of the “Linsanity’’ around New York Knicks player Jeremy Lin. He was undrafted, then cut, then told he was too short, and now he’s an NBA star. He had to be better than the next guy to start in the NBA. As an Asian-American in the corporate world, I feel like I really shine to overcome racial assumptions.
My career began several decades ago in management consulting, but I felt that cultural bias was a constant undercurrent. I followed that with sales, where achieving sales quotas are objective and not subject to bias. Ultimately, you can’t argue with sales results. I not only made my quotas consistently - I often blew them away.
Even then, I felt I encountered the bamboo ceiling, when I got a 1 percent raise while a much less successful colleague got 15 percent. I didn’t fit the manager’s image of the typical salesperson, and the manager openly declared to me, “That’s all you’re worth.’’
I left and joined Oracle, where I achieved success in sales and sales management before becoming a director.
I first became a CEO when my employer’s CEO left the company. Fellow VP’s recommended me, but the board only agreed to interim CEO status. I didn’t look like the typical CEO, and an Asian CEO was just too risky. But nine months later, I turned the company around, and the board stopped looking.
For the past 10 years, I have been president and CEO of PHT Corp., where our mission is to get clinical researchers to stop using paper diaries to collect patient data, and to start using eDiaries on devices.
Decision makers in the Boston area need to be more objective when hiring, promoting, and recruiting and create a level playing field. Since innovation remains a high priority for most corporate leaders, minorities can help think outside the box.
For Asian-Americans to achieve top jobs, they also need to do their part, learning to speak up, demonstrate, and communicate their value and accomplishments to the organization and ensuring that their contributions are recognized.
Finally, find a mentor and be a mentor. The more Asian-Americans help each other reach the corner office, the easier it will be to break through the bamboo ceiling.