Boston alumni offer a network solution

A few years ago, a group of Boston-area alums sent a message to Bates. It was a sober version of the Smothers Brothers’ old “Mom always liked you best” routine: Mother Bates, these alums felt, wasn’t that proud of alums who had pursued business careers and, by implication, wealth.

The message was delivered during an April 2003 lunch meeting at the Downtown Harvard Club attended by eight alumni volunteers, including trustee Joel Goober ’70. Then with State Street Global Advisors and now an investment advisor for wealthy families and endowments, Goober was the alum elder that day.

“I was somewhat taken aback,” he says of his fellow alums’ comments. “But it was a sentiment all around the table. They felt Bates didn’t foster or esteem their careers in business as the College did careers in the professions or teaching.”

Peter Mertz ’03 chats with fellow alums at the Jan. 18 Boston Bates Business Network gathering. Mertz works at ORA Clinical Research and Development, a firm founded by Dr. Mark Abelson P’97 that employs nearly a dozen Bates alums. Photograph by Paige Brown ’96.

The working lunch was convened by Marianne Nolan Cowan ’92 of the College’s alumni office in response to alumni interest in a Boston-area business networking program, a so-called Boston Bates Business Network. “We talked about what a new program might look like,” she recalls. “But there was also a fair amount of conversation about how Bates was anti-business.”

Whether that’s true or not — the topic is not new at Bates — those alumni volunteers soon realized that any new programming couldn’t be built around bitterness. “It was a funny catalyst, but that’s what galvanized some of us to get involved,” says longtime Bates volunteer Jennifer Guckel Porter ’88, CEO of Galileo Health Partners, a provider of personal health- and wellness-assessment tools and services. “We realized that nonaction on our part would allow this other, negative force to go forward. So we united and worked hard to make it be different.”

With momentum building, the College’s alumni office devised ways to support what the Boston alums wanted: a regular chance to build networking relationships. “It’s important in any field,” Porter noted. “But people jump around a lot in the business world, and the ability to move is fueled by having relationships.”

Staffers, meanwhile, guided the volunteers on organizational and logistical issues, and expressed their hope that events not devolve into thinly disguised trade shows or job fairs. The overall College sentiment, however, was expressed by one senior staffer’s words, recorded in a memo: “They need to be clear about the objective…but our business folks seem to have good instincts and values…. Go to it!”

Today, the runaway success of the Boston Bates Business Network may make the issue of Bates’ relationship with business alums seem moot. Since its initial reception in September 2003, the Boston group has offered 17 programs. New attendees show up all the time, with 40 percent of each audience in 2006 attending their first network event. Assisted by Alumni and Parent Programs staff, volunteers have created similar networks in New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Portland, Maine. In the Bates tradition, of course, all alumni and parents in each region are invited to attend events.

The Boston steering committee is savvy about programming, perhaps because they tend to understand the need to deliver strong content to their “customers.” Rather than simple receptions, “we learned that we have to have a speaker and a topic,” says the Boston Network’s steering committee chair, David Greaves ’80, who heads up national accounts for InterSystems, a Cambridge, Mass., software company. “We also learned that people will come to events that are germane to their work, and they will come to an event that is simply interesting.”

So some programs have been field-specific, like “The Private Equity Industry: Why This Is a Growing Asset Class and How You Can Participate,” with Trustee Michael Chu ’80. Others broach general-interest topics that you might find in a lifestyle magazine, like the dazzling 2005 panel discussion “From Research Bench to Patient Bedside: Today’s Hot Topics in Healthcare.” The event featured host Mike Bonney ’80 and David Barlow ’79, both CEOs of pharmaceutical companies, plus former American Medical Association president Robert McAfee ’56, Bates bio professor Pamela Baker ’70, and Bill Carlezon ’86, director of the Behavioral Genetics Laboratory at Harvard’s McLean Hospital.

Students are invited, too, with the idea of helping them network with alums. At the same time, students see the real-world Bates culture at work. “People are genuinely interested in each other, how they are doing, and what they are doing,” says Vaibhav Bajpai ’07. Indeed, for participants the events are like a cup of cocoa on a cold afternoon. “The business world can be a cold and competitive place,” says Porter, the first Boston steering committee chair and now a Bates trustee. “The network gives people the ability to connect with people who share Bates values, and to also bring those people into business relationships.”

A typically busy guy, Greaves got involved with the Boston network when, of the thousands of proposals for his time, an invitation to the first network event caught his attention. “I said, ‘That’s interesting.’ It was very evident that it made sense.”

“At these events, I get connected with different people in different lines of work, at different points in their life,” Greaves adds. “In my work life, I don’t necessarily cross all those intersections as frequently as I do through the Boston Bates Business Network. At one event, I talked to somebody who sold a business and somebody buying one, someone who got engaged, and someone expecting, someone who lost a job and some who just got one.”

Then there’s another business concept at work, the notion of adding value. “If we can help others finds jobs, change careers, and capitalize on their education, alums will feel a Bates degree has more value,” says steering committee member and trustee Bruce Stangle ’70, chairman and cofounder of Analysis Group, a economic consulting firm. “And prospective students will see that the investment in a Bates education is worthwhile. If that happens, then we are helping the College.”

“That’s important,” agrees Porter. “I want people to enjoy seeing friends and making new networking relationships. But I also want them to sense a connection back to Bates, to feel that Bates is giving value to them, still.”