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Big biz group makes strides with board diversity

It’s the type of scene that’s still all too common in board meetings around Boston: the same familiar faces, mostly white, mostly male. For the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, it was one time too many.

Because the Roundtable membership consists of top executives from the state’s largest employers, this lack of diversity might have once seemed inevitable. Not anymore.

The 80-plus member organization changed its policy last week to allow its executive director, JD Chesloff, to establish relationships with outside groups to bring “diverse new voices” to the board. The first one: a partnership with The Partnership, the nonprofit in Boston that fosters professionals of color.

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After tapping into the Partnership’s “C-Suite” program for board recruits, the Roundtable has landed three members who are minorities. They include execs from two newcomers to Roundtable membership, fund managers Loomis Sayles and MFS, and one from a company that was already in the room, Gillette parent Procter & Gamble.

A year ago, the diversity of the Roundtable compared unfavorably to many other major business groups in the state, as tracked by the Eos Foundation: 23 percent of board members were women, 5 percent were people of color. With the recent additions from the Partnership and a few others, those figures rose to 33 percent and 9 percent.

Chesloff said this isn’t about checking a box or chasing a score. Instead, it’s about ensuring the Roundtable membership better reflects the state economy as a whole. Otherwise, Chesloff said, his business advocacy group risks fading into irrelevancy.

Former Roundtable chair Marcy Reed and current chair Bob Rivers helped spur the change. They happen to lead operations — National Grid’s Massachusetts division and Eastern Bank, respectively — that already significantly emphasize diversity. It was time for the Roundtable to catch up. During the past year, Chesloff started working with Conexion, a networking group for Latino and Latina professionals, and became a mentor there. And he reached out to the Partnership to recruit board members from its “C-Suite” program, which serves high-level executives of color.

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Chesloff knows diversity of thought has been proven, time and again, to bolster management decisions in the corporate world. He also said a younger generation of workers is demanding a more diverse workplace. Plus, a wider variety of voices will help the Roundtable as it takes policy positions and strategizes on how to push them.

Eos Foundation president Andrea Silbert said the pressing problems that the state faces now — such as a failing transportation system and a housing shortage — underscore the need to have a more diverse group at the table, trying to solve them. She points to Boston’s failed Olympics 2024 bid as an example: Including more voices beyond the city’s business elite earlier in the process could have ensured a stronger effort, one with more community support.

The Roundtable isn’t the only business association mixing things up. Groups ranging from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce to Associated Industries of Massachusetts are trying to diversify their ranks. But the Eos Foundation’s report, released in March, shows that many trade groups still have a ways to go.

While Chesloff is not ready to declare victory at the Roundtable, he sees this policy change as an important next step. Maybe the Roundtable-Partnership program could serve as a model for others to follow. (Rivers and Reed sure think so.) Or maybe it sparks others to approach the issue in a new way.

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Reed, who now chairs the Partnership’s board, said the fact the Roundtable needed to adopt a special policy indicates just how much work still needs to be done. She envisions a future when women and people of color are no longer outliers in corporate boardrooms and executive suites, the places from which the Roundtable draws its members.

That kind of change doesn’t happen overnight. But efforts like this Roundtable-Partnership link can open more doors, bringing that ambitious vision a little closer to reality.


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