CAN A SEMI-ANNUAL gathering of liberal-leaning business bigwigs provide a fresh jolt of private-sector energy into civic doings and public policy in Massachusetts? That’s the thinking behind a year-old organization that is looking to connect CEOs and other top corporate officials with initiatives that will let them play a role in shaping policy on such matters as education, health care, and the environment.
The Progressive Business Leaders Network grew out of a gathering in the fall of 2006 of an informal “kitchen cabinet” of business leaders supporting then-Democratic gubernatorial nominee Deval Patrick. The group was officially launched in June of last year. “Our goal was 100 members, and we’ve done that pretty quickly,” says organization president Thomas Dretler, the chief executive of Eduventures, a Boston–based research and consulting firm.
The group’s meetings, which alternate between Boston and Washington, feature presentations by business thinkers and political leaders. An April gathering in Washington included a panel discussion led by Andy Savitz, author of The Triple Bottom Line, which suggests that profit-making doesn’t have to conflict with socially responsible and environmentally “green” business practices.
Many of those drawn to the organization have already committed their business to various forms of “triple bottom line” thinking. The goal of the business leaders’ network is to help them stake a broader role in politics and policy. “We are committed to finding ways to help business leaders make a positive impact beyond business,” says Dretler.
“What it grows out of for me and for some of the other folks who were involved in the formation of the group is that business leaders weren’t being asked to do any more than write checks for campaigns,” says Jim Boyle, the 41-year-old executive director of the group, who runs a Cambridge consulting firm.
The leadership of the group includes some of the usual suspects from the region’s Democratic-leaning business crowd: Jim Roosevelt, Steve Grossman, Chris Gabrieli, (ex-Republican) Gloria Larson. But the organization is making a big play to draw in a new generation of younger business leaders, says Dretler, who is 39.
Membership in the group cuts a wide swath across business sectors, including venture capital firms, biotech, health care, and high tech. The organization operates at this point without paid staff on a modest budget that Dretler puts at “five figures and not even close to six.”
The group bills itself as a “peer-to-peer” education organization, and started out saying it wouldn’t take public stands on issues or engage in direct advocacy work. The goal was to help its members, especially those without lots of background in the political arena, plug into ongoing policy efforts. Several members served on committees of the Readiness Project, the year-long effort Gov. Patrick initiated to craft a long-term plan for new education reforms. One of the group’s co-chairs, Jeff Bussgang, a Boston venture capital executive, was appointed to a finance commission that Patrick named to develop recommendations for funding new educational initiatives.
But the pull of a direct role in policy seems to have been irresistible to the organization. In June, the group’s board voted to take up one or two public issues each year. No issues — or positions on them — have yet been identified, but Boyle suggests state corporate tax policy, federal health care legislation, and “cap and auction” bills on environmental releases could be on the radar.
Though direct involvement in public issues will not be the mainstay of the Progressive Business Leaders Network, Bussgang suggests it was a natural move for a group whose members are interested being more than just “an ATM machine” for left-leaning candidates and causes. “That’s not what we want to do,” he says. “We want to have an impact by being involved on the policy level.”