On the Tech Trail: Walks with Strategic Leaders

S2E1 The Boston Brand Problem

April 06, 2021 MassTLC & Matter Season 2 Episode 1
On the Tech Trail: Walks with Strategic Leaders
S2E1 The Boston Brand Problem
Chapters
On the Tech Trail: Walks with Strategic Leaders
S2E1 The Boston Brand Problem
Apr 06, 2021 Season 2 Episode 1
MassTLC & Matter

Boston’s Brand Problem is more than an unfortunate reputation. It’s a sad, historical fact, rooted in the lived experiences of countless people of color who have come to Boston (or avoided it entirely) over time.  

This episode of On the Tech Trail, we look at Boston’s earned reputation as unwelcoming to people of color through the lens of those lived experiences. Does the city deserve its racist moniker, and can Boston be an incubator for leadership and innovation if it’s true? What steps are leaders taking to stay accountable and to reimagine Boston’s role as a tech hub? These are serious questions that can only be answered by those who’ve lived it and who actively work to fix the problem. So on this episode, we listen — and we let those personal stories of the Boston Brand Problem speak for themselves, uninterrupted. 

Highlights from this episode: 

  • Sheena Collier (Founder and CEO of The Collier Connection and Boston While Black) recounts how she ended up in Boston after desperately wanting to move anywhere else, what kept her here, and how she uses her access to uplift others in the community 
  • Phyllis Barajas (Founder and CEO of Conexión) tells her story of building a career in a city best known for excluding people like her, and how that pushed her to fix the systemic problems that she lived through 
  • Pratt Wiley (CEO of The Partnership) shares his story of traveling the country, seeing disparities and inequities everywhere, and ending up back in his home city, where he’s dedicated his life’s work to closing these gaps and providing better opportunities to people of color in Boston 

So, follow us on our journey this season as we investigate Boston’s challenges as a microcosm for bigger issues of equity and access. Through topics like access to technology, healthcare innovations, the future of education, and forward-thinking DE&I strategies, we take Boston’s Brand Problem out of the shadows — and onto the Tech Trail. 

Show Notes Transcript

Boston’s Brand Problem is more than an unfortunate reputation. It’s a sad, historical fact, rooted in the lived experiences of countless people of color who have come to Boston (or avoided it entirely) over time.  

This episode of On the Tech Trail, we look at Boston’s earned reputation as unwelcoming to people of color through the lens of those lived experiences. Does the city deserve its racist moniker, and can Boston be an incubator for leadership and innovation if it’s true? What steps are leaders taking to stay accountable and to reimagine Boston’s role as a tech hub? These are serious questions that can only be answered by those who’ve lived it and who actively work to fix the problem. So on this episode, we listen — and we let those personal stories of the Boston Brand Problem speak for themselves, uninterrupted. 

Highlights from this episode: 

  • Sheena Collier (Founder and CEO of The Collier Connection and Boston While Black) recounts how she ended up in Boston after desperately wanting to move anywhere else, what kept her here, and how she uses her access to uplift others in the community 
  • Phyllis Barajas (Founder and CEO of Conexión) tells her story of building a career in a city best known for excluding people like her, and how that pushed her to fix the systemic problems that she lived through 
  • Pratt Wiley (CEO of The Partnership) shares his story of traveling the country, seeing disparities and inequities everywhere, and ending up back in his home city, where he’s dedicated his life’s work to closing these gaps and providing better opportunities to people of color in Boston 

So, follow us on our journey this season as we investigate Boston’s challenges as a microcosm for bigger issues of equity and access. Through topics like access to technology, healthcare innovations, the future of education, and forward-thinking DE&I strategies, we take Boston’s Brand Problem out of the shadows — and onto the Tech Trail. 

Pratt Wiley:

Boston has a reputation.

Sheena Collier:

We have this moniker as the most racist city.

Stephanie Browne:

Boston is clique-ish. Even for white people it's clique-ish.

Phyllis Barajas:

And so that brought us, myself and other social entrepreneurs to the realization that we had to do something. It was either stop complaining or do something.

Tom Hopcroft:

Welcome to season two of On the Tech Trail. I'm Mass TLC CEO, Tom Hopcroft. In this season, we hear candid stories of the pandemic from some of Boston's most influential voices. From issues of equity and access to technology and talent strategy. We're building off last season's insightful conversations as we tackle some of today's most burning questions. This episode, we're jumping right into Boston's brand problem. That is the unfortunate reputation that Boston is unwelcoming to people of color. Does the city deserve its racist moniker? And can Boston be an incubator for leadership and innovation if it's true? What steps are leaders taking to stay accountable and re-imagine Boston's role as a tech hub?

Tom Hopcroft:

These are serious questions that can only be answered by listening to the lived experiences of those who are actively working to fix it. We wanted to give each of our guests the opportunity to tell their personal stories of life in Boston, and discuss the important work they've been doing to ensure future generations have a more equitable experience of our City on a Hill. After the break, our first guest, Sheena Collier, tells us more.

Sponsor:

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Sheena Collier:

My name is Sheena Collier. I am founder and CEO of The Collier Connection and Boston While Black. I founded The Collier Connection in 2016 as an agency focused on creating inclusive spaces, events, and programming for people of color, and really wanted to show individuals, organizations, and companies, how to build networks and create community. It came out of this need I saw to guide black people as they navigate the social, cultural, political, and economic landscapes of Boston. I'm from Albany, New York. I went to college at 17. My first time away from home. I attended Spelman College in Atlanta. Growing up in Albany, I went to majority black schools, and then Spelman is a historically black college and university, our HBCU. So when it was time to go to grad school, Harvard was actually not my first choice, which is where I ended up going.

Sheena Collier:

But I was very apprehensive about moving to the Boston area. I came up here to visit with my mother and brother, and it further confirmed, I was like, "Absolutely not." My mother essentially was like, "No one turns down Harvard. So I don't care how you feel. You will be going there." I came up here with the mindset of leaving immediately, either going back to Atlanta, or even going to New York City. So like in most schools where you're in the minority, you kind of find other folks like you. So most of my colleagues that I hung out with were black at Harvard. Vividly remember an evening going out in downtown Boston one night, and we were trying to get back across the river, and we decided to split up, because there were so many of us.

Sheena Collier:

And so I split up with two of my friends who were both black men, literally, no cab. We spent an hour trying to get someone to pick us up. And I don't know how this happened, this is way pre-Uber, this was 2005. We flagged down this couple, and we're just like, "We will pay you. Can you please just bring us back to Harvard? We have no other way to get back." And they let us in, and we paid them. But it was experiences like that, that I was like, "Yeah, I'm definitely not staying here. It's not somewhere I want to be." Many, many years later is when I actually decided that this was my home, but that was what drove me to taking on this role, eventually, as someone who connected other people.

Sheena Collier:

There's this brand of exclusivity. Who do you know? Who knows you? Who will vouch for you? And particularly for transplants, you're not initially trusted because there isn't really someone who can co-sign you. People often say, "Boston's resource rich and coordination poor." And I think one of the main issues is there's not a lot of central vehicles for information to flow. So though those of us who are in the know, know that there is a lot here, many people don't know what or who is here. They don't know what they can access or how to access it. And before I lived here, and even a few years after I'd already moved here, I had no idea, one, about the large communities of color that are here and then the rich history of black people who have been here for generations.

Sheena Collier:

And so I think it's an overall Boston issue. I think the problems get exacerbated when you are a person of color, because of Boston's perception and reality around issues related to race and racism, and who gets access. I personally think that Boston misses out on a lot of talent, and a lot of people who could be contributing to continuing to improve the city because of, one, not engaging the people that come here for these amazing opportunities, and not cultivating I think the people who are already here to be people that help to lead and change the city.

Sheena Collier:

There's articles every day about how all the way from the disproportionate impact that our rate at which black and brown communities were getting COVID to now the disproportionate rate that people are not getting access to the vaccine. And I'm intrigued by those articles, because I think that is kind of like, "Yeah, there were already inequities that existed. So of course, if you add on more layers of trauma, and pandemic, and things like that, it's going to continue to widen the gap." I think particularly for Boston, what COVID has done is made it so that people no longer need to come to Boston to work, to go to school, to benefit from the many institutions that have attracted people to the city for so long.

Sheena Collier:

If I could have gone to Harvard from Atlanta, I would have done that. And so we're no longer able to rest on that competitive advantage. We can't assume that our reputation alone is going to attract the best and brightest, or create the city that we want. And actually, I think we're learning more and more that our reputation is what is actually keeping the best and brightest away, particularly as it pertains to us being unwelcoming to people of color. So now we have this rare opportunity to really re-imagine, remake, rebuild with everyone in mind, and optimize and make better use of all the talent we have in our city right now. And also be smarter and more strategic about attracting the people that we want. I think investing in culture, access, like placemaking opportunities for belonging, economic revitalization that centers the experiences of black people, we will have a different Boston. And this is a rare glitch in the matrix, and an opportunity for Boston, particularly Boston's civic and business community, to take advantage of it.

Sheena Collier:

We have this moniker as the most racist city, which I don't debate with people about that, because I'm not sure, because how do you measure that? But what I do think is absolutely true is the erasure and the lack of visibility of the contributions and experiences of people of color in Boston, and if we invest more in that, all the things we're talking about, the educational access, the healthcare disparities, the business ownership, it's all related to that. When people are seen, and know that they belong, and they're valued, those things shift, and I don't mean a kumbaya scene like making friends, I mean like real true investment in people. And the more that we, particularly black people, are leading in those different spaces, the more we can create the city that we want to live in.

Sheena Collier:

So I think in order for Boston companies, individuals, leaders, to take accountability for Boston's reputation and do better, one way is recognizing the importance of creating space for black voices, and investing in black talent and businesses. In 2020 when George Floyd was murdered, and then from there there's been this heightened awareness by everyone that black people are having a different experience in America. One of the things that I've said continuously to people that ask about what to do was, "Let black people lead." I think black people actually know what they need, and we need the resources to make it happen. I only have a very specific black perspective. I am black American from the Northeast, heterosexual woman, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Sheena Collier:

So I even have to check myself in our programming, and the things that we... to make sure that I am being inclusive of all the diaspora of black experiences that people are having, and not feeling like I can prescribe things for other people. It's a very hard thing to do. You have to be living with a lot of intention, and know how to keep your ego in check, but it's something that I try to be intentional about, and in all of these spaces in this work, other people need to be intentional about as well. My mission is to open up the access that I've been given, and that I've worked for to the people that would not normally have that access.

Sheena Collier:

I don't think that that access is to serve Sheena. I think it's to serve, in my case, black people, and give people more access, and information, and resources, and opportunities, and most importantly, connection to each other. So though I do feel pressure at times. I'm very honest with people when I don't know things. And again, I'm very clear that I am here to be a guide and a resource.

Tom Hopcroft:

Thanks to Sheena Collier, Boston While Black founder for sharing her unique experience of the Boston brand problem. After the break, Phyllis Barajas tells us her story of building a career in a city best known for excluding people like her, and how that pushed her to want to address the inequities she encountered.

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Phyllis Barajas:

My name is Phyllis Barajas, and I'm the CEO and founder of an organization called Conexión. Conexión is Spanish for "connections," and that's what we do, we're an organization that works with our client companies who are focusing increasingly on the Hispanic, Latino demographic to help them make connections with this growing population. What motivated me to launch Conexión really came about as the culmination of my entire adult life. It's in three sections. One is growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, being an elementary teacher in the Omaha public schools, and getting politicized then as a young woman to the fact that people viewed people like me of Mexican heritage, we weren't called Hispanics or Latinos then, as somewhat of a deficit and a drag on resources.

Phyllis Barajas:

Moving forward to the nineties, I got involved in even more politics and diversity, both at the Kennedy school at Harvard, and then moving on to Washington DC where I served as a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education, traveling all over the country. And again, echoes of my younger life, recognizing that the issue of differences, and specifically Latinos, was clearly still an issue all over the United States. And then coming back to the Boston area in the early 2000s. Once again being faced with we had 9/11 and other things that continued to repeat the theme that if you weren't from the dominant culture, which then was defined as white, non-Hispanic of Western European heritage, that you are likely to be seen as less than.

Phyllis Barajas:

And so that brought us, myself and other social entrepreneurs, to the realization that we had to do something. It was either stop complaining or do something, and Conexión was created. Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska of Mexican immigrants, my dad, he came as an immigrant with the clothes on his back, and ended up being quite successful in Omaha, Nebraska. One of the few Mexican businessman in Omaha. So that when I came along, I didn't know that I wasn't allowed in certain places. So going from Omaha, Nebraska to Harvard and the Kennedy School, there were a few stops along the way, of course. I had traveled around and seen other parts of the country. I felt like Boston had its issues. It's still a parochial city. Compared to Omaha at that time, however, I really felt that there was more acceptance of the fact that the growth of the Hispanic population is due increasingly to native birth and less through immigration for lots of reasons.

Phyllis Barajas:

And so coming back, here it is the early 2000s, I'm saying, "Oh my god, we're still invisible. We're still not at the table. We're still not in the room where the sausage is made." And I got together a group of people that were like-minded, some from here, some from outside Massachusetts, and we launched Conexión based on Putnam's work around social capital and access. The issue of inclusion, the issue of the second largest demographic being primarily in mostly overlooked and underutilized is still the case. The only thing that changed actually is sort of a perverse silver lining. From March 2020 to this moment, there now has been a recognition that these problems exist. They've been existing since I've been born. And now more people recognize that the issue of access, the issue of resources, just normal resources, the quality education, reasonable health care, safe streets, clean water, you name it, those are still issues that have been there, and been part of the reality for diverse people, Hispanic, Latino, Latin X, black African-American, other groups.

Phyllis Barajas:

And those have been there all the time. And I keep saying to people, even when I worked at Harvard, I said, "We're less than five miles away from someplace where some kid is going to bed hungry, and now here we are." So coming back to current times, the work on which we're focused is the same. The difference is that I now believe we have seen a dramatic increase in the interest on the part of major corporations, across sectors, other segments of the government, professional associations, increasingly coming to us to want to network with us. And as one gentleman said who runs one of the associations, he said, "I want to socialize my network with your network." So I guess in some ways people are woke, and I hope and pray that that awareness doesn't go away as things open up again.

Phyllis Barajas:

We talk about diversity. We talk about inclusion, but let's look at what we're doing. And really being in a position to talk to people of influence about are we really walking the talk? And in one meeting, somebody said, "Well, Phyllis, we can't. We know we have to have diversity, but we have to have quality." And I said, "Under what scenario would it be in my best interest to give you a substandard candidate just because they're Latino or from some other underrepresented groups?" And so began to push on the idea that I would always present qualified people who also were from underrepresented groups. So it began to chip away. On one side, I was able to be a spokesperson for the concept of diversity, the concept of inclusion. Going back to 2020 and the experience of the pandemic, the reason that makes this more important now is it appears that more people have been woke.

Phyllis Barajas:

More people have become aware. They can't ignore that we are becoming a multicultural region, a multicultural company. Where are you going to get your workforce from? You have to start thinking about, "How do I tap into that talent pool?" What we recognize is that we needed to create a program that would connect those that are aging out, executives, with our growing community of mid-career and early career professionals. Access changes everything. What if we engage these executives, many of whom like to mentor, to match them with our talented, mid and early career. So our clients are companies, not individuals. And so we work with companies, and I think this is important, I see these companies that are investing in Hispanic, Latino talent, many of them have no Latinos in leadership whatsoever, recognize that there is something afoot, and that they need to really be more intentional about developing that talent pipeline, about ensuring that over time their leadership begins to be more reflective of the country, of the region, of the city.

Phyllis Barajas:

Conexión works very closely with the dominant culture, with the leadership. I'm very proud of our affiliate. Most of our mentors are white and men. There are some women, some Latino, some black, some Asian. So our mentors are diverse. However, given that our mentors are taken from that demographic of executives, you all know, everyone listening knows, that we still have probably more than half or even more than that, that are still men and white. The experience from the executives, their feedback to us is it really does change their perceptions. They gain deeper insight. They talk about understanding the lived experience of their mentees and the other members in the cohorts that they meet.

Phyllis Barajas:

And it really does lead them to think differently about who we are, and it makes a difference in their own leadership as well. Conexión is not about casting blame, it's about building positive relationships, about creating community, and about value added, and for a brighter future for our children and our grandchildren. I'd like to think that I've made a difference in the lives of others in a way that's helped them to make a contribution to the greater good.

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Tom Hopcroft:

Before the break, Phyllis Barajas shared her vision of hope for the city of Boston. Thank you, Phyllis. Our final voice this episode is CEO of The Partnership, Pratt Wiley. He's a Boston native who traveled the country witnessing disparity everywhere. He ended up back in his home city where he's dedicated his life's work to closing these gaps, and providing better opportunities for people of color here in Boston.

Pratt Wiley:

I am Pratt Wiley, the president and CEO of The Partnership. We are a professional service organization dedicated to attracting, retaining, advancing, and convening professionals of color, and working with companies and organizations to create corporate cultures where all professionals can thrive. That's something that still is the reason why I get out of bed each morning. So I now live in West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. I grew up in Brookline, and spent the early part of my childhood, we lived in Roxbury, and I went to school in Cambridge. I was a corporate attorney for a number of years with the law firm of Nutter McClennen where I did mergers and acquisitions, venture, finance, and public finance. There was a moment when I was at the law firm, and I was hitting a milestone both professionally and personally, and reflecting upon where I was, and what I wanted that next chapter to be.

Pratt Wiley:

And I wanted to make an impact that was different than and more personal than the impact that I could have at the law firm. And to more directly help those communities, and help solve those issues that I found that made my blood boil, quite honestly. Then I was offered the opportunity to work with President Obama first on his reelection campaign, and then during the second term of his administration leading the voting rights and voter protection initiatives for the democratic party. It brought me first to Chicago, and then to DC. I traveled the country learning quite intimately about different communities, and cities, and states, and how they function, who has access, who doesn't, what are the major pain points across the cities and the states. And came away with a much greater appreciation for my hometown, that the challenges that we have weren't as unique, and that actually many of the institutions we had, including The Partnership, positioned us well to solve some of these challenges, including racial equity.

Pratt Wiley:

When we travel around the rest of the country, we forget how lucky we are at all the various opportunities that are here right under our nose, whether it's in life sciences, whether it's in technology, whether it's in higher education, whether it's in financial services, and Boston offers a platform to write that next chapter that it would be hard to find elsewhere. I came back to Boston after the 2016 election, and eventually found my way back home to The Partnership. There wasn't in a lot of cities an organization like The Partnership that could convene professionals of color, and help advocate for policy and change, that we're making change, and demonstrating the impact that that leaders of color can have. And because we are a smaller community as communities of color go, compared to our peer cities like New York, or Chicago, or Atlanta, or Los Angeles, we are able to collaborate, and coordinate, and execute in ways that many of our other communities across the country aren't able to do.

Pratt Wiley:

So I actually came back to the partnership as a consultant. As of February 2021, I will have been CEO of the partnership for 18 months. And some of that is important, because for about half of my tenure, we've been in quarantine. One of the former board chairs of The Partnership, Richard Taylor, started talking about 2020 as the year of COVID 19, and the year of COVID 1619. And that we have seen issues of equity and inequity demonstrated because of both the pandemic of a virus, and the pandemic of race and racism. The difference between the folks on the top floor of a company and on the bottom floor of the company were radically different, oftentimes expressed in race.

Pratt Wiley:

How do you deal with grief, and how do you deal with folks who are really going through trauma? And how do you manage towards that? How do you recognize that, and then manage towards that? And then those conversations in a lot of ways, flowed directly into the responses that companies had after the murders of Brianna Taylor and George Floyd. And as companies, regardless of where they were on their diversity and inclusion journey, everyone stopped, assessed, and said that we need to do better. The Partnership, at our core we're a community. We know that when our marketplaces change, then our entire neighborhoods change. And that's really what we're talking about, right?

Pratt Wiley:

We might be talking about the city. We might be talking about the commonwealth, but at its core, it's about marketplaces and the neighborhoods that they serve. Boston's brand of racial tension is deserved, because what that means in a very practical way, and this is something that we see at The Partnership each and every day, is that the city is unable to attract and retain the top talent of color. One of my board members was reflecting upon when she first moved to the region 15 years ago, and how important it was for her to find restaurants that reminded her of home. These are subtle signals that this is a place where you will feel a sense of belonging and place. And the challenge, oftentimes, in the conversations with professionals of color, talented professionals of color, is they have options available to them, especially in this new dynamic, where everyone has doubled down on their diversity and inclusion goals.

Pratt Wiley:

Those of us who are in a position to choose where we wish to go, the decisions are often based more upon the personal, "Is this a place where I want to establish roots?" As much as the professional, "Is this a place where I think I can succeed?" And culture matters, culture matters a lot. And there are things about Boston that will be almost impossible for us to change, right? It's always going to snow, right? The weather is always going to be unpredictable, and we're always going to be New Englanders. If you root for the Yankees, then just get out of here, right? But if we don't smile at you, it's not because of who you are, and that we're glad that you're here.

Pratt Wiley:

The partnership community of 5,000 alumni, it's a fairly small sample size. And again, we have CEOs, and entrepreneurs, and chair people of fortune 100 companies, and folks who are some of the most prominent and accomplished business leaders, civic leaders in the state, and in some cases nationally. And if that's representative of the type of talent from a relatively small organization, and a relatively small ecosystem in the Northeast corner of the United States, imagine all that talent that's being overlooked and under invested in across the country. The risks that we take in hiring people of different backgrounds, they're not greater, they're just different. And once we develop a tolerance for those different risks, then the rewards that we reap can be simply extraordinary.

Tom Hopcroft:

Boston's brand problem won't go away on its own, we know that. Only through dedication and hard work can we begin to address the reputation for racism that hangs over this extraordinary city. So thank you to our guests, Sheena Collier, Phyllis Barajas, and Pratt Wiley for sharing your stories, and continuing to build connections in our community to close gaps in opportunity and access. Through your hard work and dedication, Boston can move forward and become a better, more innovative, and inclusive place for everyone. Follow us on our journey this season, as we investigate Boston's challenges as a microcosm for bigger issues of equity and access. Through topics like access to technology, healthcare innovations, the future of education, and forward thinking diversity, equity and inclusion strategies, we take Boston's brand problem out of the shadows and onto the tech trail.

Beth York:

On the Tech Trail is a joint effort by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council and Matter, a brand elevation agency, and is made partnership with Invest Northern Ireland. Our host is Tom Hopcroft. Special thanks to Kristin Keane and McKenzie LeBert from Mass TLC for booking our incredible guests. Our producers are Gabe Gerzon, David Riemer, and me, Beth York. Without our editors, David Riemer and Mandy Lawson, each episode would have been three hours long at least. Our graphic designer, Tanner Bjorlie, makes us look good, and writer Shaw Flick make sense of it all. Our executive producer is Tim Bradley, who works inside a closet. Our theme music is by Mikey Geiger.

Beth York:

Thanks to everyone involved for contributing, collaborating, and bringing season two to life. If you loved it too, keep the conversation going by sharing on social, or by leaving us a rating or review in your podcast app, it makes a huge difference. And if you've got an idea for a pod, let us know at [email protected], and maybe I'll be reading your name in the credits one of these days. Until then, see you next time On the Tech Trail.