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Business community tries to make Boston more inclusive

July 19, 2018

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce has embarked on a serious initiative to make the city’s business community more welcoming to minorities.

 Now, the chamber wants to mix a little fun into that effort.

 The chamber and a number of its members will host a five-day festival beginning Sept. 20 with programs geared specifically for millennials of color. Events will range from networking opportunities at Fenway Park and the Museum of Science, to discussion panels about increasing diversity in sectors such as finance and media. For a title, the festival will borrow a phrase used by Martin Luther King Jr.: the “Fierce Urgency of Now,” or FUN for short.

 The event is part of a two-year-old effort by the chamber to better connect minorities with the entrenched business establishment, and to help shed Boston’s lingering image as a city that’s unfriendly to people of color. Other initiatives include a service that matches minority-owned contractors with big employers, and an internship program that is being developed.

 Farrah Belizaire, a Haitian American who grew up in Brockton, said she is hoping to participate in the September festival. A diversity and inclusion manager at the Boston University School of Medicine, Belizaire also runs a side venture, LiteWork Events, that brings together young urban professionals. In particular, she worries many young minorities begin their careers in Boston expecting they will move away at some point because of the city’s reputation.

 “I think a lot of professionals come here already with a time limit in their heads,” Belizaire said. “I’m hoping that through this festival, it starts to bridge the gap around ways to maintain a diverse talent pool.”

 Before he became chief executive of the chamber, James Rooney ran the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, and recalled trying to persuade minority-focused conventions to come to Boston. The city’s reputation hampered those efforts, he said, and it also hurts local employers trying to recruit minorities to work here.

 “Time and time again, it comes up,” Rooney said. “There’s no silver bullet to this question. But it requires each of us, given the platforms we have, to think about how we can make a difference.”

 More than 30 companies have volunteered to host events for the upcoming festival; The Red Sox will hold a mixer before a Baltimore Orioles game, for example, and MFS Investment Management will host a panel of high-level people of color discussing working in financial services.

 The chamber’s matchmaking program has helped some contractors. Tufts Health Plan recently hired Done Right Building Services, a minority-owned business, to handle janitorial work at the Watertown health insurer. Juan Lopera, vice president of business diversity at the health plan, said the matchmakers program enabled companies from different sectors to share their experiences.

“We’re in different industries,” Lopera said. “But we all have a shared objective around helping to close that economic wealth gap.”

The internship program, meanwhile, will try an unusual approach to developing a diverse roster of candidates for employers: Rooney said the chamber plans to look beyond schools such as Harvard, MIT, and Northeastern, and instead recruit students from smaller schools and community colleges, and inner-city residents who go to college out of state. The launch date will be either in late 2018 or early 2019.

“Boston competes based on its educated, talented workforce,” Rooney said. “We can’t afford to leave people on the sidelines.”

Influential black business leaders such as Fletcher “Flash” Wiley have also pushed the chamber to be more aggressive in addressing the diversity issue. Wiley, a chamber board member, said he’s happy with the progress he has seen so far.

“Can more be done? Yes more can be done,” Wiley said. “We’ve got a major, intractable problem.”

Read this piece at BostonGlobe.com