On the Tech Trail: Walks with Strategic Leaders

S2E6 Building a Better Boston

April 06, 2021 MassTLC & Matter Season 2 Episode 6
On the Tech Trail: Walks with Strategic Leaders
S2E6 Building a Better Boston
Show Notes Transcript

Professionals of color have a very different experience of building a career in Boston, relative to their white peers and colleagues. Throughout the season, we’ve heard stories of these experiences and the work leaders in our community are doing to repair, among other things, our broken talent pipeline. 

In our final episode of season 2, our guests investigate issues of equity and diversity as they impact career development opportunities here in Boston (and beyond). Are candidates of color discouraged from coming to a city like Boston to pursue professional opportunities? What work is being done to fix this problem? And how are professionals of color able to find meaningful connection with the city? These questions, and more. 

Highlights from this episode: 

  • Stephanie Browne (Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts) recounts the challenges she faced while establishing herself professionally here in Boston 
  • Chair of the Commonwealth Institute, Pam Reeve, explains how the pandemic exposed pervasive issues of inequity 
  • Art Papas, CEO and Co-founder of Bullhorn, highlights the impact of social media on conversations around corporate social responsibility 
  • Chris Comparato, CEO of Toast, discusses new ways for leaders to communicate about complex issues  
  • Microsoft Airband Initiative’s Director of Digital Transformation, Aimee Sprung, talks about the impact and importance of keeping a diverse set of voices in the mix 
  • Pratt Wiley, CEO of The Partnership, illustrates why connecting people of color to cultural resources is integral to growing a vibrant and diverse professional community 

Thank you for following us on our journey this season as we investigated 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 worked to take Boston’s Brand Problem out of the shadows, and onto the Tech Trail. But the conversation doesn’t end here – keep it going on social and let us know what burning questions you have about equity, access, and the city of Boston. 

Art Papas:

In 2021, I think business leaders really have to think about, okay, what is diversity?

Stephanie Browne:

What in our policies is keeping us from being equitable?

Pam Reeve:

To me, the pandemic is almost like we finally drained the swamp. And what we found was all the big rocks that were there to begin with.

Tom Hopcroft:

Welcome to season two of On the Tech Trail, I'm MassTLC CEO, Tom Hopcroft. And 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, our guests investigate issues of equity and diversity as they impact the talent pipeline. Are candidates of color discouraged from coming to a city like Boston to pursue professional opportunities? What work is being done to fix this problem, and how are professionals of color able to find meaningful connections within the city? Let's begin with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts', Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Stephanie Browne, who's experienced these challenges firsthand in her life and career.

Stephanie Browne:

I've worked for a lot of different companies that, when I started working for them, there were very few women in the technical space. And I can't even remember anybody of color, honestly. I think about my career back then, I was always the only one. So I've managed architects, testers, installers. I've done a little bit of every role that was in IT. And so it's been a really good career. And sometimes I think back and go "Sometimes being the only woman and the only person of color, it was to my advantage." And it was extremely positive. But then on the other hand, it was extremely negative because it was really, really difficult to influence and get people to trust your skillset. I grew up in the Midwest. I grew up in a town where there were middle class, lower middle class, and lower class black communities. Moving through those as a young person with my mom and dad and the family, I think made me a stronger person because I could empathize and understand in my life, lived experiences over through all three.

Stephanie Browne:

I think what's different about Boston is you don't have those upper two. You don't have middle-class black neighborhoods and upper middle-class black neighborhoods. It's always going to be a challenge for people of color to come into Boston because we don't have businesses, the culture is very one-sided, when you think about the culture of the community. Now, that doesn't mean that we don't like arts. That doesn't mean we don't like all kinds of music. That doesn't mean we don't like all kinds of foods and dining experiences. It just means that there are other cities in the country that actually, you can have your choice. Now, here, you don't have a choice. Austin is rich in a lot of traditions and a lot of great people, but unless somebody kind of introduces you to them and tells you what you're getting ready to experience, you never really understand what you're getting ready to experience.

Stephanie Brown:

So I think we can do a much better job of, I use the word onboarding, but I would say acculturating people into the city. I don't think we promote the diversity of Massachusetts the way we should. I think the other piece that's really important is for companies to understand, you're going to run out of white people in a minute, so you got to figure out how you diversify, because the country is different than it was 30 years ago. If you're having problems finding talent now, and you're only looking at one demographic, you're going to really run out of the opportunity to fill those pipelines over time. So you've got to figure out how to diversify those pipelines, whether it's through diversity, from the standpoint of race and ethnicity, or just even gender. And I will just say finally, about the pipeline, we've got to fix our school systems. We've got to fix the fact that STEM is so important for the livelihood and the longevity of America. And if we don't fix the schools, which where 90% of our talent come from, then we're defeating our own purpose, we're in a defeatist mode.

Tom Hopcroft:

While the disparities in the talent pipeline aren't new, we're more aware of them now, in part because of the pandemic. As chair of The Commonwealth Institute, Pam Reeve, has seen how many people's eyes have been opened to the problem.

Pam Reeve:

I'll tell you, I really hope that this is also a time that we'll open the aperture on some of the equity issues that are in front of us right now. That we'll be willing to see and hear from the perspective of what we've historically called the underserved populations. What some of these new products and services need to look like, or how they need to be delivered, or what kind of problems they should be even addressed to, to make sure that they're more holistic. I think times when things are uncomfortable, which they really are right now, are times when you can either hunker down and put a blanket over your head or see that this is really a time when all the stuff that got kind of plaque and crusted and got to be same old, same old, gets broken. And you're able to think about new ideas, new people, new ways to do things.

Pam Reeve:

To me, the pandemic is almost like we finally drained the swamp. And what we found was all the big rocks that were there to begin with. COVID has been disproportionately horrible for women and for people of color, from all regards. And for working women, the responsibilities of trying to keep up with the job where, for the most part while we moved to home, we didn't reduce the expectations for performance and output. And now we've added either the care of young children or the education of children on top of it. And it's been really hard. So we've seen women drop out of the workforce, like I've never seen in a single year before.

Art Papas:

The pandemic has been particularly hard on two groups, people of color and working women. And the BLS jobs report, just highlight this in stark detail. It's like all the job losses were among women.

Tom Hopcroft:

Art Papas, CEO, and co-founder of Bullhorn had this to say.

Art Papas:

Why? Because of school closures. In September, schools were open briefly and then by October, a lot of them around the country were closed. And that hits women really hard. It also hits people of color really, really hard because they can't afford daycare or they're a single parent. And your 11 year old is home all day, they can't be by themselves. And so this pandemic has just had this unbelievable lasting impact on women and people of color in the workforce. And we got to do something about that. In 2021, I think business leaders really have to think about, okay, what does diversity really mean?

Art Papas:

Is it just one vector? Is it diversity of race, sexual orientation, religion? Is it also diversity of thought and diversity of politics? And I just got this question in a town hall and somebody asked me, they said, what is Bullhorn's position on diversity of politics? And I think that there are a lot of companies that are saying, this is our stand as a company. And I take a different view. I have an employee vision statement. My employee vision statement is that every employee has a sense of belonging, a voice that is heard, and a clear path for success. And that's really a statement about diversity, equity, inclusion. And if you think about the first part, a sense of belonging, we have an environment where there's only one political viewpoint and it's mine and I'm asserting it. I'm not going to have anybody with any opposing views who wants to work there. They're going to feel uncomfortable. They won't have a sense of bond. And they say, "I don't really belong here. I don't fit in."

Art Papas:

And then you get up, you get a bunch of group think, and that's how you end up saying things like, "Well, maybe we should try to steer the election this year." Which you can't have that. The company needs to be a safe place for people to come. And it doesn't mean that people should start debating about politics at work. I actually don't think that's really... That's how you make people uncomfortable. But you should just, I think be a welcoming employer to say, everybody has a place here. Right. But, it doesn't mean you can just make people uncomfortable with, with your crazy thoughts. If you've got crazy thoughts, you got to keep them to yourself like that's what you do in your personal life. Right?

Art Papas:

We're here to work. That's my view of it. And I know that a lot of people take the other side. That's okay too. But I think you just have to be really careful about, you're not creating an internal echo chamber at your company because that will have downstream effects, right? Who's going to be there to say, "Hey, what you just said, a lot of people in the world will have a problem with that." That's why we want diversity, so that you don't have product launches that offend people. And I think that applies to a lot of different things.

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Art Papas:

Well, I think about the challenges of 2020, certainly we had all the challenges that everybody had. When do you make the call about closing an office? How do you think about remote and how do you mobilize your team? How do you communicate? How do you build culture? These were the challenges that every business faced and most businesses figured it out. I think that we're in a mode where the truth has been deeply challenged. And if you just let me expound for a minute on this, what is true? Especially given everything we went through in the last year, from the pandemic to the crisis we saw last summer around race, to this election. You can find any vantage point in any position, and I can find 10 articles that I can use as evidence. And so I think that people are really struggling to understand, what is the truth?

Art Papas:

It's a crisis of trust in governments, in the media. Business leaders have a huge opportunity. People are looking to business and saying, "Okay, I trust my business leaders. How are you going to handle this?" I think there's been a tale of two cities with technology and the last 12 months. On one side, you have Zoom, which has been great. And it's a great way to connect people. Imagine the pandemic without the internet. People couldn't work. But on the other side of things, you have social media, which has absolutely proven to be isolating, putting people in echo chambers. And you have people reading things online, thinking all sorts of crazy things. And nobody goes into the office and says, "Yeah, I read this crazy thing." There's no diversity of thought for somebody to say, "That actually is crazy." You need to back away from that because that's... No, 5G isn't causing COVID.

Art Papas:

I had people say that to me. Fortunately, I was there to say, "That's actually crazy." I think that social media has really been, very much, a technology that... We've got to do something. That's really clearer than ever that it's time to figure out, as a society, how are we going to leverage this technology without it destroying us? I think that, if you look at Facebook, what is Facebook? It's a monopoly in a certain segment of social media. They own the Facebook channel, they also own Instagram. And, they are truly in a position of power. Like Bullhorn, we are the number one provider to an industry, and those customers rely upon us. And this is an ethics issue. The leaders of these companies know what they're doing. Yes, you can do something because it's going to make you money.

Art Papas:

I think where Twitter, Facebook, Google had really gotten into trouble is they think that they're doing the right thing by putting their thumb on the scale. Well, our algorithms help us make more and more money, but they know that they're addicting people to their platforms, and now they're hooked on it and they can't get off of it. The key is at the start of this journey, you have to have ethics, and you have to say, "That's wrong. I'm not going to do that to people." And they didn't do that. And, we talk about it all the time. Yes, we could do X, Y, and Z. It would be really great for shareholders, but it's the wrong thing for society. I don't think that happens at these companies, and it needs to, and hopefully it is. Hopefully they realize, we've created a mess. And ethics are really starting to come back into the discussion.

Tom Hopcroft:

And as these discussions have disparate impact in terms of access and education, continue, we're learning new ways to communicate about complex issues. Chris Comparato, CEO of Toast, weighs in.

Chris Comparato:

That's one thing that I carry with me moving forward, which is how to be a better communicator. What's the right cadence? What's the right tone? I'd say the second thing is, how to be an advocate. When we talk about a restaurant industry that's had massive impact, how do we leverage our platform and our voice to be a stronger advocate for restaurants, restaurant relief, for public policy, for different practices internally at Toast? But, how do you practice this art of becoming an advocate? And that had never been a critical part of my tool set before. As a leader, there's a speed at which decisions hit you in a normal business. And usually, leaders can adapt and figure out how to make effective decisions. I think coming out of 2020, I've learned to be more decisive and decisive at pace. So be able to identify the issues, the risks, the key decisions, and make effective decisions at a pace and quality that's much more rapid than ever before.

Chris Comparato:

And that will stick with me moving forward. And a lot of that comes back to, have you built the right team and is your team ready for these types of tests and crisises that may hit? But, when you have the right team around you, I think 2020 has at least shown me that you can do some pretty amazing things when you're surrounded by amazing people. I don't want to take credit for that because when I look at how we operated in the past 12 months, and then how we're operating, moving forward, I give the team a lot of credit for the level of collaboration and resilience to navigate some pretty difficult decisions at pace.

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Tom Hopcroft:

Equity requires that those voices that have traditionally been excluded, have a seat at the table. Microsoft Air Bands, Aimee Sprung.

Aimee Sprung:

I think that the main value around board leadership is certainly exposure to people outside of your organization. I think at a big company like Microsoft it is very, very easy to get very internally focused and to kind of lose yourself. You could spend a hundred percent of your day if you wanted internally focused. And by engaging and connecting with people outside of your organization, but people who have a common interest and common focus area, it helps to broaden your scope, broaden your perspective, be more creative with problem solving. And then the second, but maybe equally important, is certainly increasing your network.

Tom Hopcroft:

So, as Boston moves forward, we're able to look back and see the progress we've made in part by recognizing and taking accountability for our unfortunate historical legacy. Stephanie Brown of Blue Cross Blue Shield reflects on her experience.

Stephanie Browne:

There was a magazine when I was growing up. It was called Ebony and they used to, every year, do a story on the top hundred blacks in business and philanthropy. And when I would look at that and I was like, "Oh, I want to be one of those someday." I'm not the top hundred, but I feel as though the attributes of those people, I'm living today. I'm privileged to be in the position I'm in today. I'm privileged to have the opportunity to help change other people's lives today. Because I love the fact, when I think about how many people I hired, and some of those folks, I changed their lives through those jobs. I feel as though the work I have done in the community also, and continue to do in the community, is continuing to make people's lives better no matter who they are. So I feel like I'm living that dream. Actually, the reason why I stayed in Boston is because I could grow my professional career in a way that I didn't think I could in other places.

Stephanie Browne:

Because, I came in from the tech side. And so from a tech side, there's just all this great opportunity. All the companies are here. There are lots of different jobs. If you want a specific industry that allows you to give back in a specific way, you can find it here in Boston. So I think that that is one opportunity in why you would come here. But then there's also that other opportunity, is to live in a place where we're not hiding what's going on. And we know we need to dive in and do a better job.

Stephanie Browne:

All they ever see are the bad things that happen in Boston. They don't see the good stuff that happens in Boston. And there are good things that happen in Boston. If there weren't, then I wouldn't be here 30 years. So if I think about how you change the dynamics of wealth as it relates to tech, we have got to do a better job at looking for talent and not thinking all talent is found in the same places. If you think that that story around Boston and black wealth doesn't exist in the rest of the country, then you're a little bit naive, because it does.

Tom Hopcroft:

Boston isn't unique in the challenges that faces around equity. And we do have some resources here that have been working hard, for a very long time, to fix the broken talent pipeline. As CEO of The Partnership, Pratt Wiley connects professionals of color with culture, community, and businesses that need fresh talent.

Pratt Wiley:

The events of 2020 have been especially traumatic for professionals of color and to both recover, as well as to keep moving forward, attention and investment is required. And so companies are investing in their talent, quite honestly, like never before and creating opportunities for folks to begin to realize their full potential and help, ultimately, do what The Partnership has done for firms for 30 years, which is bring networks together and then help identify ways that those networks can then, together, achieve more than either of them could ever do individually. And that's a big piece of what we're seeing right now.

Pratt Wiley:

We're seeing companies change the way that they are recruiting board members and senior executives. We're seeing a tremendous advancement within companies in investments, in advancement, as well as recruiting. As a leader of color in my mid-forties, I am very much aware of the sacrifices that those who came before me endured in order for me to have the opportunity to enjoy all the professional and personal opportunities I've had. And as trailblazers, they were accustomed to being the first and to being the only. But my generation, we're the pathfinders. Our job is to follow those trailblazers and honor their work by ensuring that others, and even more, come behind us. What I envision for The partnership is really helping us along a path from going from trails to paths, and then from paths to streets, and from streets to avenues, and then from avenues to highways.

Pratt Wiley:

And then, if the partnership can help build a highway so that people of color, more of us, can go farther to a place where we feel as though we belong, in a place where we can prosper, where we can fulfill our ambitions, regardless of, again, the color of our skin or where we're from. That's what I want to do. And I recognize just how special it is to be part of that process. If you are somebody who is in Philadelphia and you are in life sciences and you are being courted to come to Massachusetts, the question that you're going to ask is, what will this mean for my family? Can I raise my children here? Will it be safe for them here? And you may pass up on those opportunities. If you are in Minnesota and you are in cybersecurity, and you're being asked to come to Cambridge, you're asking those same questions.

Pratt Wiley:

And that's harmful for two reasons. One is, our companies end up becoming less competitive. And two, is that people of color are ending up passing on opportunities, and that doesn't serve anybody well. Organizations like The Partnership and the companies that we work with are really key to reversing that dynamic so that folks can, across the country, can recognize that this is in fact, a place where not only are we hospitable, not only are the opportunities here, but you can thrive. You can achieve. And it's evident in the CEOs and chair men and women who are the alumni of The Partnership. It's evident in the entrepreneurs that we've produced. It's evident in the governors and the senators and the Chief Justice and the District Attorney that have all gone through our programs. That there is talent here that is achieving at the highest levels. And there is a whole pipeline full of them that are going through our programs each and every year.

Pratt Wiley:

And that it is only a matter of persistence and commitment that is standing in our way of achieving real equity. I think the greatest misperception around leadership development and certainly corporate DE&I initiatives is the false connection between increasing diversity and decreasing quality. It was a great example of how being thoughtful, in terms of your diversity and inclusion goals, being transparent, that does not in any way mean that you are sacrificing quality or you're sacrificing competency. And I think allyship has actually changed dramatically in the last year through that understanding, that allyship and advocacy, for a very long time, took the form that this is the right thing to do. This is who we want to be. Rather than this is strategically important for us to be a better, stronger, more competitive team. And the challenge that all leaders have, myself included, is recognizing when those biases serve us well as a form of shorthand, versus when those biases are a disservice to our organizations, because they are filtering out talent.

Pratt Wiley:

Questioning each and every one of those filters and asking, are they achieving the results that we want to achieve, has been another change that we've seen in allyship and advocacy over this last year that there's going to have a lasting effect.

Pratt Wiley:

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. But what, then, Vice-President Biden did in selecting, then, Senator Harris was, I think a great example. What he did is he looked around the table, the proverbial table, and asked which voices aren't being heard. Who doesn't have a seat? And then he was very intentional and transparent in his intention of bringing those voices to the table.

Pratt Wiley:

And then he selected someone who had every qualification and checked every box. And by seeing some very public examples of how both an action can be both the right thing to do, and also make you a more competitive team. I think it has greatly accelerated the impact that advocacy has towards shifting from advocacy to action. I think another piece of how allyship and advocacy has changed is the impatience of the workforce. And that it's really being driven by not just employee resource groups and employees of color, but it's being driven by employees across the board, regardless of race, regardless of gender.

Tom Hopcroft:

As we've heard from our guests, Boston's talent pipeline is, in many ways, broken. And everyone, no matter where they are on an org chart or what board they sit on, has the opportunity to repair it. We won't solve these problems in a day, but by bringing them to the foreground of our conversation, we can spotlight these issues and take a more active role in the healing process. So thank you to our guests, Art Papas, Stephanie Browne, Pam Reeve, Chris Comparato, Aimee Sprung, and Pratt Wiley. Each of whom continues to work tirelessly to bridge the opportunity and access gaps. Thank you for sharing and helping us understand the deep seated challenges we face. And thank you, listeners, for joining us today. 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 in partnership with Invest Northern Ireland. Our host is Tom Hopcroft. Special thanks to Kristen Keane and Mackenzie LeBert from MassTLC 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 makes sense of it all. Our executive producer is Tim Bradley, who works inside a closet. Our theme music is by Mikey Geiger.

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.