Business

Shirley Leung

C.A. Webb a new face for an evolving city

C.A. Webb is executive director of New England Venture Capital Association.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
C.A. Webb is executive director of New England Venture Capital Association.

If you don’t know C.A. Webb, you should.

She came close to being — and some day could still be — the next chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

She can’t talk about it, but two reliable sources have told me she made the finals. Jim Rooney, the head of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, has been offered the job and is expected to take it.

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Many will view Rooney as the safe choice to succeed longtime chief Paul Guzzi, who is retiring after 19 years. Rooney, 57, is the known quantity, the usual suspect, the Southie kid who has been in the public eye for more than three decades.

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Webb is the 39-year-old transplant from Atlanta, who like many others, came here for college (Wellesley) and never wanted to leave. She got her MBA from Simmons and became marketing director of Care.com.

Then she got the itch to do something more than stare at spreadsheets.

“I want to help write the next chapter of Boston,” she would tell anyone who would listen.

Her venture capital friends humored her: “That sounds like a fun job.”

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But then they had a great idea — because that’s what they do all day, thinking of the next big thing: Why not wake up the sleepy New England Venture Capital Association?

The organization had been around for decades and felt more like a dinner club. In 2012, Webb became its executive director, breathing new life into the operation. It’s now grown by a third with close to 90 members, and its annual budget increased to $1 million, up from $160,000.

The additional funding will go toward initiatives such as tech internships for college students and efforts to get more women into venture capital and tech firms.

The group is probably best known for leading the charge on Beacon Hill last year to end noncompete agreements that can prevent entrepreneurs from starting their own companies and even keep wages of employees down because they can’t easily jump from firm to firm.

The venture capitalists got the Patrick administration behind them but couldn’t beat down the opposition from big business organizations, including . . . the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. The establishment believed noncompete clauses protect intellectual property and prevent companies from raiding each other’s workforce.

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On paper, Webb — whose full name is CynthiaAnn — seemed like what the century-old chamber needed in a new leader. Last fall, business honchos made a ruckus about wanting to create a “Chamber of the Future,” one that incorporated startups and the innovation economy. Many believed a woman or a person of color would have signaled real change.

Her Twitter account alone, @ca_webb, screams cutting edge, complete with a photo of her holding a beer and a tweet about ordering dinner from startup Bite Kitchen. She rated the experience a “#sold.” Guzzi she is not.

So why couldn’t the chamber search committee pull the trigger on Webb?

Perhaps Boston venture capitalist Jeff Bussgang frames it best. The local business scene, in his mind, is rapidly evolving. It is innovative, diverse, and creative. The future is here.

“The Boston business community is already there,” said Bussgang. “The question is whether the chamber is. Is the chamber ready?”

With the search committee recommending Rooney, it was as good a sign as any that the chamber is not. You can look at this and say it’s business and politics as usual in Boston, or you can say the chamber knows itself too well.

Rooney was bound to be a controversial choice, but to the search committee he was the aging white guy who also could be the contrarian. His vision for the chamber was compelling, and he had a track record at the convention center to back it up — from pushing diversity to creating the innovative outdoor space the Lawn on D.

In other words, just because Webb is so good doesn’t mean that Rooney is necessarily bad. He’s just safe — and for the moment the right pick.

If Rooney does become the next chamber chief, it doesn’t mean we should all go back to our office towers and old ways and ignore the C.A. Webbs of the world.

In fact, job number one for Rooney is to set the right tone from the beginning when the guard changes in May at the chamber’s annual meeting. He has talked about how we should be one Boston business community, not divided between the new and old. So let’s act like it.

Webb should get a front-row seat, and Rooney, as the chamber’s new leader, should make sure that longtime members fill their corporate tables with people who have never been to a chamber function. Instead of holding the cocktail reception outside the main ballroom, gather everyone on the Lawn on D and invite all the other business groups in town.

Maybe Rooney can even institute a “no suits” dress code. OK, maybe we’re not ready to see that yet.

My point is this: Webb may be a creature of Kendall Square and Cambridge and Rooney of the Seaport District and downtown Boston, but the two have something in common: a desire to make Massachusetts the best place in the world to do business.

Let’s not forget that no matter who gets to run the chamber.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.