ONE YEAR AFTER GEORGE FLOYD'S MURDER: The Role of Corporate and Business Leadership - An Interview with Quincy Miller

May 25, 2021
QuincyMiller

By Mary Jo Meisner

Quincy Miller is Vice Chair and President of Eastern Bank. Eastern Bank is a full service commercial and retail bank with $17.0 billion in total assets and over 100 banking and insurance locations serving communities in eastern Massachusetts, southern and coastal New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Quincy spends his time focused on helping lead the overall strategic direction of Eastern, which has served its customers, colleagues and communities for over 200 years.

Quincy is the former President of Citizens Bank, Massachusetts, and President of its Business Banking division.

Quincy is committed to supporting the communities where he lives and works with a focus on equity and youth. He is a founding member of The New Commonwealth Racial Equity & Social Justice Fund. He also serves on the Board of Directors for The Boys and Girls Club of Boston, The Bottom Line, The Alliance for Business Leadership, Blue Cross Blue Shield of MA, and NACD New England.

He has been recognized in the community as an inaugural member of the GK100 “Most Influential People of Color in Boston” by Get Konnected, as a “Power 50 Most Influential and Impactful Leader in Boston” by the Boston Business Journal, and as “The 100 Most Influential People in Boston” by Boston Magazine. In 2020, Quincy was honored at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast with the MLK 50th Anniversary Award for his commitment to Diversity & Inclusion that expresses Dr. King’s commitment to justice and equity.

 

Mary Jo Meisner: Quincy, thanks so much for this opportunity to talk to you about one of the most important issues facing our nation -- the continuing need to confront racial inequities in our society and the moral imperative that we all face to bring about sustainable change.

With the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder on May 25, the recent guilty verdicts in the trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the momentous events that have occurred in the United States in the year in between, the Harvard Social Impact Review wants to explore how America has changed and what the year ahead might hold.

Of particular interest for our conversation today is the evolving and emerging role that we have seen the private sector play in a growing number of social issues in recent years, but most particularly how the business community initially responded to the George Floyd murder and whether there has been a demonstrable shift in outcomes a year later.

And while Boston is not at the top of the corporate headquarters heap, it is a particularly interesting city in which to take stock, given the diversity of its economy, its recent record of economic growth and success, and its highly talented workforce. At the same time, it continues to be perceived as a city where race relations are challenging and leaders of color have had a difficult time advancing.

But there appears to be change underway and a good portion of it seems to be coming from a new and emerging group of business leaders -- including, but not limited to, people of color -- who have seized these events and this time to catalyze a whole new set of efforts around racial equity.

You have been a major player in those efforts and we’re interested in your views not only about how things are playing out here in Boston, but also your perspective on these issues within the United States.

So, to kick us off, I’d like to ask you to talk a bit about yourself and your personal and professional journey. You are Vice Chair and President of Eastern Bank, a historic, more than 200-year-old, Boston-based bank with $17 billion in assets. You also are African American. Even in 2021, I would expect that puts you in a pretty rare cohort. Tell us about yourself please.

Quincy Miller: I am originally from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I was raised by a single mother. I am actually biracial -- my mother is white and my father is Black -- but in this country you are considered African American and so for my entire life I have considered myself Black. In today's world, many people would say they would select biracial, but that wasn't even an option when I was in school.

I was raised in lower-income areas of Harrisburg by a single parent and was the first in my family to go to college. Luckily, I had athletics, which helped me get into a good college (Lafayette College) and it was there that I figured out that getting a good education was equally as important. At that time, no one in my family had the lens of the value of going to college and what that could do for you from a financial stability perspective and from a career perspective. I went to college to play football, to go to the NFL like many other kids wanted. There was no part of me that ever thought I was going to be a bank president, that's for sure! But what I did learn from my family was this idea of hard work. My mother worked 12-to-16-hour days at the K-Mart family restaurant.

Here is an interesting story that I tell a lot to students, because it speaks particularly to students of color in inner-city communities. After college, I actually was given an offer to be a free agent for the New York Giants, which out of a little school like Lafayette is a big deal. But I had already accepted my job to start as an assistant manager at M&T Bank in New York City and that job was going to pay me $38,000, which was significantly more than my mother had ever made in her entire life. I tell students all the time, I chose the job, and -- 24-plus years later -- it was clearly the right decision.

My career goal at the time was to be a successful branch manager. At that time, there were no Black people in senior executive roles in the bank. The most senior people of color were branch managers, so to me that was the logical career. Within three years, I had already advanced beyond branch manager and became regional manager. That's really how my career has gone -- it has been working hard at every job and then asking, “How do I get to the next step?” Never thinking I'd get to be a president, but here I am today. I was always the youngest and only person of color in the room, in every job I’ve ever had. Just prior to coming to Eastern, I was President of Citizens Bank’s business banking division and then President of Citizens Bank Massachusetts, when Bob Rivers (CEO and Chair of Eastern Bank) asked me to join Eastern.

I tell people all the time, as long as I have known Bob -- for my entire career -- I did not join Eastern because of him. I don't believe in moving to a company just because of a person, because you just never know what's going to happen. It has to be the right cultural fit. I came to Eastern because I really saw it as one of the most unique banks in the entire country. My first meeting with the board was with Wendell Knox, an African American former President and CEO of Abt Associates, who was then the chair of the Eastern board. I can count the number of Black board members that I remember throughout my entire 20 years on one hand. And then I sat down with Deborah Jackson, who was also on the board and ultimately became our next board chair. She is Black and is president of Cambridge College. This was the diversity that Eastern presented. Add the work that Eastern was doing within the Boston community, as that was critical to me as well. Everybody talks about corporate social responsibility, but Eastern presents the idea of really being committed to your community and to know your customers and your colleagues in a way that was very unique in our industry. These are the reasons I joined Eastern.

Meisner: How do you approach your role as president of Eastern and your role as a Black business leader and how did these dual roles come to the forefront, particularly last May and the murder of George Floyd? And how have these two roles continued to coalesce for you?

Miller: You really have to talk about this on two time lines. You have the pre-George Floyd murder and the post-George Floyd murder. Any person of color in our country has to contend with -- particularly in the financial services industry -- working in an industry that's not very diverse. That isn’t any different than what you experience if you attend an elite private school in this country, such as Lafayette. I tell young students of color at Lafayette that Lafayette is no different than the corporate world you're going to walk into. This is the way the world is and that was how so much of my time pre-George Floyd was spent.

All of my philanthropic work and much of my community ties have been focused around equity, whether it was an affordable housing organization or a youth organization. The almost 10 years I was on the Urban League board here, which was really about adult education, reflects my personal volunteer work focusing on equity and helping to strengthen and support communities of color. But before coming to Eastern, it was more separate. In my professional work, I obviously was supporting people of color and women in my role in terms of hiring and the jobs themselves. But I've also known that to really have an organization that's committed to true diversity, equity and inclusion it can't just be a hiring manager. The company has to have that commitment from executives at the top the whole way through to frontline employees.

I had my personal philanthropic work and then a separate corporate world life, before I came to Eastern and before George Floyd's murder.

Most financial institutions have talked a good game about diversity but very few have actually lived it. And this isn't just about financial institutions. It is about corporate America. For those that have lived it from a diversity perspective, we're just now getting into the real conversations about equity. If then you look post-George Floyd, there has been no period in my lifetime when this dialogue about race has become so transparent.

From the day I became president, I understood the responsibility that I had to lead with is being a person of color in a senior executive role in Boston. I think about how I represent myself in every aspect of what I do because, rightly or wrongly, people make associations, based on you as an individual in a senior leader role. Post-George Floyd, corporations and the community at large have never asked for as much, particularly from Black and African American leaders. I have heard that from a lot of other Black executives. After George Floyd, their corporations were asking them, “What do we do in this moment? How can we respond? How do we actually drive real change?” The news media were calling to do stories about how companies were responding. It's a sometimes-awkward situation because while I've been blessed to be in this position, by no stretch of the imagination do I speak for all Black people. We don't all have the same lived experiences. The same lived experience we have is the melanin in our skin and the racism that we have had to endure because of that. But how that has manifested itself is very different from person to person.

In that George Floyd moment, I felt I had to make sure I was going to be a voice to help drive change and not let this just simply be a moment. How do we really keep it and create an actual movement, so that we can once and for all finally make everyone look at this? And this isn't just a one-year, two-year, five-year time frame. It’s not realistic to eradicate racism in two years or with $20 billion. This is something that is going to take us as an entire country -- both the private sector and the public sector -- coming together and breaking down those parts of our society that, by their very nature either intentionally or unintentionally, have been designed to suppress people of color. We are in that moment right now.

Meisner: In some ways, it must be both incredibly clarifying and actually unifying that those two things have come together for you in one job. That kind of pre-George Floyd way of acting where I’m doing this over here and I'm doing that over there. And now you’re in a position, perhaps, where those two have come together.

Miller: You always hear that you should bring your authentic self to work. But most Black people and a lot of people of color, particularly in the executives’ world, would say they've historically lived sort of a dual life. What their life is when they walk through that corporate doorway and what their life is when they are home with their family and their friends. So you're absolutely right and this is really the first time in my life, sort of post-George Floyd, that I have felt like I could bring my full and authentic self to work.

Meisner: What a great segue to one particularly unique and powerful initiative in Boston that directly grew out of George Floyd’s murder. It was the creation of the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund. And you were crucial to the birth of that initiative. Within weeks of it coming on the scene last June, it had raised $20 million in seed money. Please tell us about the fund and how it came about. It is such a compelling story.

Miller: This was very organic in that it's not like we set out and said, “We're going to create a fund.” Almost two weeks after George Floyd's murder, which was the most mentally and emotionally exhausting time of my life, many executives of color were having the same shared experience. I got a text from Damian Wilmot (senior vice president and chief risk and compliance officer at Vertex Pharmaceuticals) and he said, “What do you think about getting some people together this Sunday and just talking about everything that's going on, and how we could use our influence to continue to drive change? This has to stop!”

That's literally how it started. I gave him some names, he had some names, and we texted. We got together on a Zoom call that Sunday, about two weeks after George Floyd was murdered. There originally were nine people on the call and we asked, “How are you doing?” That really was the first conversation. “How are you doing?” We had had that shared experience. Everybody was emotionally exhausted. Everybody's corporation was coming to them in this moment, asking, “What do we do, what do we say to our employees, how do we have these conversations now and what do we say to the public?”

Then we talked about how we could direct our companies to do more. We said, let's bring in more people and by that Tuesday we were up to the 19 people who eventually founded the fund. I think this is very positive for Boston, the fact that in Boston you have 19 Black and Brown executives who didn't all know one another but came together in an organic way, over three days, on a Zoom call, to have this discussion about the idea of forming a fund that is led by Black and Brown people with the specific intent of dismantling systemic racism. The idea was born and we set out a couple of key fundamental principles that we coalesced around. That it was going to be Commonwealth-wide -- that it wasn't going to just be about Boston because there are many Black and Brown communities across the state. Particularly in the philanthropic world, the reality is that Boston is the sort of center of the universe, and a lot of other organizations outside of Boston are left behind, so we were very intentional that it was going to be statewide.

We also were very intentional that it wasn't going to be the 19 of us sitting at the top, divvying out this money, but we were going to be closely engaged with the community of people on the ground that know the organizations making a difference and driving change.

We were also going to help drive corporate philanthropic dollars. The fund ultimately has expanded to include individual dollars and foundation dollars, but the focus on corporate was our initial thinking.

Then we decided that because dismantling systemic racism is a massive undertaking, we really needed to coalesce around four key pillars.

One was policing and criminal justice reform, since those issues were the reason we came together in the first place. We all know that the data shows that Black Americans are two and a half times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police. Many of us, if not all of us, have had the experience of being pulled over for doing absolutely nothing. And we know that there needs to be reform.

The second pillar we established was health equity. Obviously, with COVID-19 you could no longer deny the health inequities in this country when you look at the disproportionate impact it has had on communities of color.

The third was economic empowerment. In Boston, most of us are familiar with the shocking Boston Federal Reserve Bank study from a number of years ago that showed that the median net worth of a white family in Boston was $247,000 while the median net worth of a Black family was $8. Those are generational inequities that have created that gap. And whether it's from the lack of home ownership or the chronic underfunding and support for businesses of color, economic empowerment is needed.

And then the fourth was youth education, empowerment and civic engagement. All you have to do is look at the test scores to know that Black and Brown children are way behind, even here in Massachusetts which has arguably the greatest education system in America. And yet less than one in three Black and Latinx students are hitting the benchmarks of reading and math, compared to two thirds of their white counterparts.

If you look at those four areas, if we can't get them right here in the Commonwealth, how are we going to get them right anywhere else?

The final piece we found as we did the research was philanthropic redlining taking place. Nonprofits led by Black and Brown executives were 74% smaller when you look at unrestricted net assets and that only two cents of the philanthropic dollar here in the Commonwealth were supporting those organizations. It was just amazing and so that became a key focus of ours, supporting Black and Brown-led nonprofits that have been chronically underfunded.

Meisner: Let’s also talk about other ways that the business community overall has responded in the wake of George Floyd. There's this incredible list of national corporations that took a public stand in the wake of Floyd’s murder. There are 18 pages of commitments made by more than 75 of the largest corporate brands. An analysis shows that there were $50 billion worth of commitments, ranging from donations to civil rights organizations to targeted investments to overhauling corporate recruitment, retention and training. But what the analysis also shows is that only $250 million has actually been spent so far. As you have noted several times, we're not going to have an immediate turnaround in spending that kind of money, but what are your thoughts right now on that issue of the promise and the delivery.

Miller: Well, I'll do one more New Commonwealth Fund connection here because we were worried about your point when we originally talked about engaging corporations. Everybody that is currently committed to the New Commonwealth Fund is all in. But as we start to go out to other corporations and say, “We're looking for you to support the fund in this work that we're doing here,” we're going to see real time the staying power of the commitment from these corporations. For the corporations that have already been involved with the fund, we were very intentional about what we said. What we said is, “We don't want single-year grants.” The example that I've given before is, if you want to give a million dollars, I'd rather you give our fund $250,000 a year over four years. Don't write a check for a million, because we need you to be engaged in this work. We don’t want you writing a check and then saying, “Okay, I feel good because I've supported that cause.” Almost 98% of all of our grants from corporations are multi-year -- three- to five-year grants. It was for this very point that you highlight. We're worried about two issues. One, corporations will make this big commitment and then life would happen, other priorities would happen, and their support would wane. Right now, unfortunately, the murders continue in this country, so the spotlight has not gone away. That's the unfortunate truth. The other unfortunate truth is what you've shown -- companies are behind in their commitments now. My hope is that those organizations that made those big commitments, they are working on their own businesses and improving them, first and foremost, because that's economic opportunity for people to come. So let's hope that becomes the case.

The other piece is the significance of these public commitments. Now we need the public to hold these companies accountable to their commitments. That's what we need to do as a society.

Meisner: Your company Eastern Bank has been very progressive in using other business levers and corporate philanthropic vehicles to bring about racial justice change. Would you talk about how the bank has deployed these vehicles to create a platform to support Black and Latinx businesses?

Miller: One of the great things about Eastern Bank has been the Eastern Bank Foundation that we have funded for a very long time, with the idea of strengthening our communities. As we have grown, so has our ability to be able to help drive impact. One area is advancing economic inclusion and mobility. About six years ago Bob Rivers, our CEO, and Nancy Huntington Stager, President and CEO of the Eastern Bank Foundation, had the idea of doing something transformative. After the Boston Federal Reserve Bank report around the wealth gap that I referenced earlier, Eastern acted upon what has been a strength of ours -- supporting small businesses. We've been the number one SBA lender in New England, for over a decade and we discussed how do we take that to another level. About five years ago, we decided to invest $10 million in Black and Latino/Latinx businesses. That wealth gap for these communities as compared to white families was the widest and is why our focus was on helping these small businesses of color grow and scale. From this we created a new foundation called the Foundation for Business Equity (FBE). It was about creating an ecosystem to support small businesses of color so we also brought together partners such as the Boston Foundation and The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. It was capital, it was capacity and it was contracts. Historically, there has been support for small business, but it has primarily approached one piece of the equation (capital), and the reality is the capacity piece became FBE’s Business Equity Initiative -- embedding a former CEO and senior-level business consultant in a Black or Latinx-led business for 12 to 18 months to help them think strategically about how they scale their business and grow. Again, these businesses have been underfunded, under supported and under-resourced, so this was a way to provide the capacity building piece. It was then that we approached the Boston Foundation and asked them to also invest in this mission. We seeded the first $2 million into the Business Equity Fund to create patient growth capital. It operates outside of the banking industry and provides a platform to gain capital that supports and enables growth in a more flexible way. Then we approached the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce which created the Pacesetters Initiative to support businesses of color through contracts with large corporations, making a commitment to supplier diversity and helping businesses of color who have had a glass ceiling in terms of getting into large corporations with lucrative contracts. This was the ecosystem we looked to build.

Five years later, we've had 50 companies go through the Business Equity Initiative and the capacity-building side. Those are all companies with $750,000 or more in annual revenue. We focused on companies of this size because they are best positioned to hire people and create meaningful, life-sustaining wage jobs in the community. We're expanding beyond them now. And, the fund at the Boston Foundation has been very successful; they have allocated the initial $2+ million and we also brought on other capital partners such as Mill Cities Community Investments (MCCI) out of Lawrence.

Meisner: As we come to the end of our conversation, I’d like to swing back out to the national scene and ask you about the recent, very high-profile call to action by CEOs Ken Frazier and Kenneth Chenault, who brought together more than 75 Black CEOs to denounce the wave of voter restriction bills that we are now seeing throughout the country in a full-page ad in the New York Times. I am wondering what your reaction to that was. It was similar to your New Commonwealth Fund weekend set of phone calls and conversations among a group of people who felt strongly.

Miller: My reaction was a bit of the adage of, “We stand on your shoulders.” The fact that in this moment a group of people that powerful can come together and make that message was really rooted in the civil rights movement. If you think about it, now this is our movement and this is really the first time that we've had this conversation on race this publicly and to this extent since the civil rights movement.

As I sit here and think about the future and as we sat a year ago wondering if we can make sure that this moment became a movement, seeing that group stand up and say we were fighting for the same rights to be able to vote and for equality as back then in the civil rights movement. What they're saying is this is an attack on those basic rights that we thought that we had won, but are now trying to be taken away. This fight for equality isn't just about equal pay, it’s not just about ending systemic racism, it's about our very democracy.

We're back to that same fight again, which is at the same time both disheartening, but also motivating, that we can't go backward. This is the moment that we need to make sure that we go forward, so that we're not sitting here a decade from now or 20 years from now, saying, “Oh, this is another George Floyd moment.” We're talking about trying to build on the civil rights movement. Now we have to drive real change.

Meisner: The last question I would like to ask is, where is your head right now? I think you've given us a little bit of that, but where is your head, right now, as a business executive, a leader of color, post-pandemic, post-George Floyd? How would you like to end our conversation?

Miller: I am a hopeful. And I am inspired by the conversation. I will remain concerned, because this isn't something that's resolved in a year or two or five. I am hopeful that particularly the corporate community remains engaged in this commitment to drive change, and there is also a sense of urgency to lay the groundwork now that doesn't allow us to go back. In my industry, I’ve had more conversations about race in the last year than I’ve had in my entire 24 years in the industry. That's a positive sign for an industry that really isn’t inclined to talk about it a lot. The willingness to talk and engage permeates across our country and so that inspires me. But I also feel, to your point about the future, about what I have to do as an individual and collectively with other people of color -- we have to make sure that this change actually happens. I also know that people of color alone can’t do it.

This has to be imperative, and my analogy is as I drive around the town of Milton where I live -- the town is roughly 15% Black -- I’ve been inspired because I’ve seen thousands of Black Lives Matter signs in people's yards. And that's just a microcosm of the support. We can't just be looking to people of color to rise up and create the equality. We need all Americans to rise up and, finally, make this country what its intent really is, which is to be unequivocally the greatest country in the world.

Meisner: Quincy, with that I want to thank you very much for spending your time with us and being so willing to express your views on one of the most important issues of our time.

Miller: My pleasure, Mary Jo. Thank you so much for the opportunity.

 

About the Author:

MJMeisner

Mary Jo Meisner is a senior business executive specializing in communications, media, government relations, and public policy. Over the course of a 30-year career, Mary Jo has been a journalist, a newspaper and business executive, and was the architect of a groundbreaking civic leadership arm of the Boston Foundation. After spending a year as a 2017 Advanced Leadership Initiative fellow at Harvard University, Mary Jo formed MJM Advisory Services, a bespoke consulting firm that advises senior leaders in the private sector on their social impact initiatives.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

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