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Opinion | Jeffrey Bussgang and Wendy Estrella

Teamwork makes Lawrence a city on the move

An aerial view of the mills along the Merrimack River in Lawrence, with Route 495 in the foreground. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

In office buildings throughout the city, few Boston business leaders have Lawrence on the brain. A city of 80,000 just 30 miles north of Boston, this old mill city is not something most movers and shakers in Boston think about. If they do, it’s likely in the context of last year’s gas explosions.

While Lawrence is a city on the rise, it is rarely connected to the growth and opportunity of Greater Boston. But a group of business and civic leaders from Lawrence and Boston, somewhat serendipitously, have come together to change that narrative.

Several Boston leaders became focused on Lawrence’s potential in early 2017, when the city became a hot topic of discussion as a Gateway City to watch at the Boston Foundation’s annual “Commonwealth Summit.” That spring, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera spoke at the Alliance for Business Leadership’s “Leader Lab,” and raised the concept of a “possibility gap” in his city — that while the raw materials for Lawrence’s success are largely in place, some people struggle to envision the wealth of possibilities ahead.

In the months that followed, a relationship was forged between the Alliance for Business Leadership, a progressive business group, and the Lawrence Partnership, a collaborative nonprofit dedicated to creating a thriving Lawrence.


That relationship sparked the development of Lawrence Leads, an executive education program hosted by Harvard Business School and designed to lift up a diverse group of 30 of the city’s business, civic, and nonprofit leaders as a key strategy of investment in the city. Over the course of seven months, the cohort came together in Lawrence to learn more about each other and about examples of success in their community, and spent five days in classrooms at Harvard Business School.

Participants also met with the team behind the launch of the Boston Public Market and the founders of Hack.Diversity, and they networked with more than 40 top business and civic leaders in Greater Boston.


Additionally, Lawrence Leads tackled systems change, such as small-business support and the opioid crisis. Lawyer Socrates De La Cruz worked alongside mill owner Marianne Paley Nadel on a comprehensive plan for downtown revitalization. City planner Jessica Andors worked alongside the director of the city’s workforce investment board, Abel Vargas, to craft a workforce development strategy emphasizing diversity and inclusion (Lawrence is 80 percent Latinx). Participants were encouraged to think about both how to grow their own organizations and how to make positive change in their community.

Lawrence boasts the homegrown talent necessary to chart its own path forward. Silos are breaking down, and key players from all corners of the city share an understanding that systemic change won’t come from a single leader, organization, or even sector.

And they’re getting results: The average wage in Lawrence went up 24 percent between 2012 and 2017, and unemployment dropped by more than 11 percentage points to 6 percent in the past 9 years. The city was featured in the Boston Globe Magazine’s “Top Spots to Live in Greater Boston 2018.” The four-year drop-out rate at Lawrence High School is down, the number of new residents is up, and so is the value of single-family homes in the city. Perhaps most important, Lawrence is recovering from last year’s devastating gas fires with grit and grace.

Like many small cities, Lawrence’s future is rooted in collaboration. Government alone can’t meet every need. The private sector does not have all the answers. And innovative nonprofits are not the sole solution. Systems-wide change in this community — and in other Gateway Cities throughout the Commonwealth — will require strategic planning and intersectionality. Business leaders in Boston should look past the city’s limits to engage in this process. The whole Commonwealth will be the better for it.


Jeffrey Bussgang is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and immediate past chair of the board of directors of the Alliance for Business Leadership. Wendy Estrella is an attorney, real estate developer, board member of the Lawrence Partnership, and a member of Lawrence Leads.