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Mass. tech council makes a diversity push for boardrooms

Rapid7 chief executive Corey Thomas will be among the instructors at the April 11 “boot camp.”
Rapid7 chief executive Corey Thomas will be among the instructors at the April 11 “boot camp.”(Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File)

Many of the older white guys who typically fill Boston’s boardrooms appear to be growing tired of looking across the table and seeing other directors who look like them.

Case in point: The Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, which has its roots in the software biz, is launching a “Board-Ready Boot Camp” aimed at putting more women and people of color on tech company boards. These sessions will play dual roles: teaching candidates about the rules and rigors of board work, and cultivating a diverse roster of potential board picks for the group’s corporate members.

Board diversity has been a priority in the business community for a while now, but there seems to be a newfound sense of urgency. Massachusetts likely won’t go as far as California, which recently became the first state to require public companies to include women on their boards. But the public pressure for boards to better reflect their workforce, and the broader population, continues to increase.

Diversity also can be a smart business move — for decision making and employee retention, among other reasons.

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We’re seeing some progress. A recent census of public company boards by The Boston Club showed a record number of female directors. They occupy one out of five board seats now.

But the tech industry remains a laggard. Women hold one out of eight seats on boards of local technology firms, based on MassTLC’s estimates. The representation shrinks considerably for blacks and Hispanics.

Katie Burke, chief people officer at the HubSpot marketing software firm, points to two factors. For one, many tech firms get launched with venture capital, an industry dominated by white men who often place themselves or their associates on startups’ boards. Plus, when tech executives seek new board members, they often don’t stray far beyond their personal networks. Again, more white men.

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MassTLC has taken some heat, despite its previous efforts over the years: The council reopened nominations for its annual awards for top executives in 2018 after a backlash over a male-dominated shortlist.

But Tom Hopcroft, the group’s chief executive, says this launch is unrelated to that imbroglio. Instead, it grew out of discussions he has had with executives who are frustrated about the issue. Some wanted to serve, but couldn’t figure out how to get on boards. Others wanted a more diverse candidate pool for their own companies.

MassTLC expects to accommodate 40 to 50 would-be board members at the first of these camps, scheduled for April 11 in the Seaport. Hopcroft says the $1,500-per-person registration fee simply covers the council’s costs. (Many employers will presumably pick up the tab for employees who participate, and the council will offer scholarships.) The day is geared for senior-level executives, and will feature sessions on the basics of board governance and networking.

Corey Thomas, one of Boston’s most prominent black chief executives, will be among the boot-camp instructors. The Rapid7 CEO, a MassTLC board member, says he has been particularly frustrated by a lack of attention paid to under-representation of minorities on boards. He says public companies seem to be doing a better job at diversifying their boards, in general, than privately held firms. One example: His suggestion that the board at publicly traded Rapid7 should be more diverse was well received.

Few people in Boston are more determined at diversity matchmaking than Colette Phillips, who runs a PR firm. Phillips says these MassTLC boot camps could play an important role in changing the makeup of the city’s boardrooms. Imagine, she says, if other business groups and associations launched their own board prep programs. The laggard could become a leader.

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.