Mayor Martin J. Walsh looked across the hotel ballroom at a sea of white faces.
And then he took to the podium at the business breakfast and devoted more than a third of his annual address to a subject that rarely gets openly discussed in these circles: race in corporate Boston.
He challenged business leaders at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce event to do a better job of confronting Boston businesses’ lack of diversity — and to assemble a workforce and leadership teams that are more reflective of the city’s demographics.
The response was immediate: Attendees cheered. Some called the speech a watershed moment for the city’s business scene, one that has sparked numerous conversations in the past two weeks.
“I was really stunned,” said Fletcher “Flash” Wiley, a prominent black lawyer who sits on the chamber’s board. “The mayor is courageously opening up the can of worms. . . . I don’t think any mayor has ever talked frankly to the general body of the chamber about the seminal issue of race.”
Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, said it was clear the Sept. 27 speech resonated. “It was what everyone was talking about when they left,” said Sullivan. Now Walsh faces a test:
How do you translate a speech, no matter how well received, into action? The mayor offered few specifics that day about what business leaders can do to address Boston’s longtime inequity problem. But many of them have expressed hope that even engaging in a dialogue about the thorny issue can improve the city’s climate.
The next step for the Walsh administration: The mayor wants to see business leaders join in community discussions about race, probably starting with one in November. City officials will prepare a guidebook of sorts — Walsh called it a “toolkit” — to serve as a reference for employers interested in launching their own discussions. And he said he wants to improve the city’s procurement process, to make the range of companies hired by City Hall more diverse.
Daryl Settles, a well-known black businessman who praised Walsh at the September event, said in a subsequent interview that he worries that he sees fewer minorities in suits than he did 20 years ago when he walks around the Financial District.
“I think people are aware of how dire things have gotten,” Settles said. “One conversation is not going to . . . change the environment, but it’s got to start somewhere.”
Getting traction won’t be easy. The issue of race is a sticky topic, one that can drag a well-meaning corporate benefactor into controversy. Executives, in general, will need to be more open to passing the baton to people who don’t look like them. And many business leaders said meaningful change won’t happen overnight.
“This is a long, hard road to travel which will take time, sweat and even some tears to make a true difference,” Goodwin Procter senior counsel Wayne Budd wrote in an e-mail. “[But] I believe that Mayor Walsh has the resolve and is determined to do what he says . . . to significantly move the needle.”
Walsh is well aware of the perception that Boston is not particularly welcoming to minorities, in part due to the legacy of the city’s school-desegregation crisis during the 1970s.
More to the point, he’s up for reelection next year. And race in general has emerged as a major challenge for his administration — from handling concerns of racism among students at the school system’s flagship institution, Boston Latin School, to finding a way to get police to wear body cameras on the job.
And given the high-profile problems in other cities around the country, he decided it was time to address the topic in a public venue, to help draw businesses into the conversation.
“We’re seeing what’s happening around the country with unrest,” Walsh said in a subsequent interview. “Some of it is police involved. But when you dive down deeper, it’s more than police-involved shootings. It’s income inequality. It’s lack of opportunity.”
The speech came soon after the chamber’s leaders had privately discussed the need to take a close look at the issues of race and inequality.
Many executives understand the issues’ importance. But some say it can be difficult to find the right recruits, and hard to start engaging their employees because of the topics’ sensitivity.
The dearth of specific solutions in Walsh’s speech underscores the challenge of addressing racial disparities.
Carol Fulp, chief executive of The Partnership, an organization whose mission is to help boost minority professionals, said the only way to make the floors of the city’s office towers more inclusive is to help top executives recognize that diversity is a smart business strategy.
“It’s important to deliver the message that in order to have innovation, you need diversity of thought around the table,” she said.
Eastern Bank’s president, Bob Rivers, said he has taken that approach to assembling his team, one that has put a black banker in line to succeed him. Among other steps, Rivers often attends networking events organized around specific minority groups, in addition to attending typical chamber breakfasts and business roundtables.
Rivers found his likely future successor, Quincy Miller, the old-fashioned way: The two had worked together twice previously, in New York and in Pennsylvania, and they reconnected once Miller arrived in Boston for a job at Citizens Bank. He hired Miller — who will become Eastern’s president in January, and potentially its CEO after Rivers retires — away from Citizens earlier this year. But Rivers said it’s not always so easy to find diverse candidates, which is why he devotes extra effort to getting to know potential recruits.
“I don’t think companies have really bought into the business case of diversity, in many instances,” Rivers said. “They see it as good and the right thing to do [but] they don’t see it as a strategic imperative. Otherwise, they would be all over it.”
And some minorities who do succeed in Boston say they find themselves fighting preconceived notions, because there are few peers like them.
“When I worked in the corporate sector, a lot of times I felt like I was carrying the weight of my race [and] if I screwed up, it would set back attitudes about all Asians in my work environment,” said Paul Lee, a lawyer who is of counsel at Goodwin Procter and is currently focusing his time on community work. “If you talk to people of color, a lot of people will tell you they feel like they have to be twice as good.”
For many, change can’t come soon enough.
Richard Taylor, director of Suffolk University’s Center for Real Estate, said he’d like to see Walsh bring together minority business leaders with executives from some of Boston’s biggest employers to talk about how to implement the mayor’s vision.
Could a solution finally be in sight for corporate Boston’s inequity? Taylor sure hopes so.
“If we really want to define ourselves as a world-class city, there must be significant growth in minority businesses and corporate leadership of color,” Taylor said. “There are cranes everywhere. There is enough prosperity for everybody to participate. But the table has to be expanded.”