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Elite business group needs to add diversity

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From left: Suffolk Construction chief executive John Fish, Vertex Pharmaceuticals CEO Jeffrey Leiden, and former Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson. They’re all members of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership.

I did a double-take reading Tuesday's story on the exclusive, low-profile club of corporate bigs exerting outsized influence on state affairs.

Had I stumbled upon "This Day In History" by mistake?

But no, there it was, on the front page. Some wealthy chieftains — all but one of them white men — each plonk down $100,000 for entry into a group that pushes causes they believe are good for Massachusetts. Just like that gang of well-heeled guys who helped steer an ailing Boston through the 1960s and beyond.

Meet the new Vault, which looks a lot like the old Vault, despite decades of change.


The Massachusetts Competitive Partnership (members don't like "the new Vault") has put its considerable weight behind some important causes in the six years since it formed, like reforming the community college system and making the state more competitive. The members' hearts are in the right place.

But the makeup of the group is jarring: 14 white men and just one woman. That composition made more sense decades ago, with women and minorities barely visible in civic and corporate life. Today? It's embarrassing.

Now, before critics accuse me of reverse racism, or upside-down sexism: Yes, white men are capable of being committed and thoughtful public citizens. But they're not the only ones. And if there's nobody else in the room when the decisions are made about what the state needs, that's a problem.

They should better reflect the state they're trying to help, and including women and minorities would make the group smarter and more successful.

"There is ample research showing that diversity in leadership leads to better results ranging from creativity and innovation, to the bottom line," said Trish Foster, program director for The Center for Women and Business at Bentley University. "The partnership should be concerned about this."


It's hard to imagine the Boston 2024 Olympics — pushed hard by several members of this group — becoming such a debacle if more women and minorities had been at the table from the start. They would have helped clue boosters in to community concerns and lead them to seek more consensus.

"I cannot believe that in this city, that is supposed to be a world class city, we could still have this almost-secret society," said one person of color who has led a business for decades but who feared repercussions for openly criticizing these powerful players. "Why hasn't anybody around that table said, 'Look at us. We don't reflect the city anymore.' "

The group's chief executive, Dan O'Connell, told reporter Jon Chesto that members of the group are looking at ways to increase diversity (members did not return my calls).

But they've been around for six years. It isn't that hard. Especially if members look beyond the corporate world, to the region's hospitals and universities — huge, crucial sectors where there are stellar leaders like Harvard's Drew Faust and the Brigham's Betsy Nabel. The Boston Club could send over a long list of women who would be fantastic. The Partnership Inc. could suggest a truckload of big corporate people of color. Some candidates could afford the crazy entry fee. Others shouldn't be excluded if they can't.

These guys should do what the Alliance for Business Leadership has done and expand their networks. Of 10 new board members the progressive business association added recently, seven have been women or minorities. "The more we look like Boston, the more informed, credible, and valuable our voice is," said alliance head Jesse Mermell. "Homogenous leadership is straight out of yesterday's playbook."


Look, we can be glad that CEOs with mountains of money and heft want to combine forces to move worthy causes. But we should also demand that they take on another cause: making sure the next new Vault looks nothing like them.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at