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Maureen Alphonse-Charles has championed diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Boston business community for decades. As the first African American president of the Boston Club, the influential career development and networking group for women, she led an effort to bring more women of color into the group, which currently has more than 700 members.
And as an executive recruiter with a passion for social justice, Alphonse-Charles (CAS’85) has spent the last 20 years striving to help businesses and nonprofit organizations grow sustainably and equitably. Prior to her current position as managing director at national executive recruiting firm Koya Leadership Partners, Alphonse-Charles was senior vice president and COO of the Partnership, Inc., a Boston-based nonprofit specializing in working with organizations to build diverse leadership pipelines. She has also been City Year’s vice president of talent acquisition and managing director at global executive search firm Horton International, LLC, where she worked on building the firm’s financial services and philanthropic practices.
She is deeply involved in the Boston community. She serves on the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston Board, is a member of the Boston University Board of Overseers, has been on the nominating committee of the WGBH Board of Overseers, and has been a New England Conservatory of Music overseer. She has also chaired the board of the Boston Center for Community & Justice and been president of its signature program’s alumni organization, the Lead Boston Community Board.
Alphonse-Charles has received many honors, including being named one of Boston’s Most Influential Women by the Harvard Club and a Local Woman of Influence by the Boston Business Journal. She has two children, ages 23 and 17, and lives with her husband, ophthalmologist Jean-Bernard Charles (MED’85), in Milton, Mass.
Bostonia recently spoke with her about her career, what drives her to help others, and the pace of change in making the workplace more diversified.
Alphonse-Charles: A friend and mentor, Elizabeth Powell, said, “You have to try the Boston Club.” I said, “Really?” And so I went and walked in and I thought to myself, oh my goodness, no.
Like many other organizations of its kind, in those years there were few people of color. Everybody was a little bit the same. It wasn’t even as if people thought they were missing; it just wasn’t a part of anything. I would have never in a million years thought I would ever become president of the club. It was difficult. It took me a long time to apply.
When I joined, they were talking about ways to get involved. The president at the time tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Someone like you needs to be part of our governance committee.” And she didn’t stop. She emailed and emailed until I said, “OK, I will do this.” So once I joined, I was able to bring my voice to the fore around what I was seeing and add value to a long-standing organization for women.
I started putting a plan together and working on having a council. The council became a committee. Then it became: this group is doing such interesting work, let’s keep it going. Let’s have a town hall meeting. We did all kinds of interesting initiatives. And that finally led to, would you lead us and figure out how this can be embedded? And my quid pro quo was, I will lead this, if you will ensure that this becomes part of the fabric of what you do. This is never to change. This has to be. It is vital that this be an integral part of the work.
What I didn’t know was how [being steeped in social justice issues] was going to play out in my own life. At first I thought I was going to become an ambassador. What I did know was that I was passionate about environmental issues, passionate about women’s issues. I did a stint at the UN and a colleague said to me that you won’t be able to affect change in the same way because the United States had pulled back its program funding. So I shifted to the corporate sector, corporate finance. I was on the asset management side of the business, and as I did that, I realized that I was veering a bit away from my social justice piece. I wasn’t seeing all of the components come together, but I was gaining a lot of skills.
I was flying all over the country—way too much—and thinking about having children. That’s when I shifted. I stumbled across an executive recruiter and he said, “Have you thought about recruiting? I think you’d be good at it.”
I was with him for seven years and that’s how I learned the search business, and as I learned it, I began combining it with this social justice component. In that day, there was no social justice component to executive search; it was just business.
I became involved in leadership programs. I went to LeadBoston, a professional development training program that aims to end race and gender disparities. That helped me home in on not only what I was going to do, but how to do it.
The other piece is coming to the United States as an immigrant from Jamaica, coming here to study and then realizing that I wasn’t studying to go back to my country, but was studying and was actually going to be here. It was a game changer. That’s why I did these leadership programs, because I thought it was really important to understand Boston, understand its history, understand all the values that I cherish. What is Boston’s evolution? Whether it’s history, housing, education, or its religion? Thinking about that through all the various social justice prisms is cause for reflection.
I then started attending a lot of different events, whether it was Boston Business Journal events or events held by the Chamber of Commerce.
It’s been an interesting journey…because there were some years where [diversity and inclusion] weren’t the popular thing. But I had made my decision, I wanted to focus on social justice issues within the corporate sector or in the nonprofit world, wherever I found myself.
I’m Jamaican and Panamanian, but my formative years were actually in Britain. So I faced a lot of these issues very early on. I grew up with this mindset of, geez, you always have to look out and see how you can make it better. You must always think about that moral compass. Is there a way that we should be including others?
My snapshot that I think is important was being on the playground, being a child of color with thick hair, dark complexion, and having children stepping on my feet or pulling my hair because it was perceived to be different. Learning how to channel that early on created resiliency in me.
They represent two different centuries of inclusion work. Different voices with a similar mission. My grandfather, Rev. Dr. Ephraim Alphonse, worked hard to give the Ngobe Bugle people (Panama’s remote island people) a voice and agency by publishing the first Guaymi dictionary and translating segments of the bible. He dedicated 75 years of his life and ministry to work with the Indians.
Decades later, my father, his youngest son, Rev. Dr. Alford Alphonse (STH’87) worked hard to bring ethnic minorities to the attention of the United Methodist Church in metropolitan Boston. Today, in a modest way, I dedicate my focus to including diverse voices in places of leadership in Boston and beyond. We have all been inspired by the call of inclusion and we deeply value diversity and access. The overwhelming notion of understanding our shared humanity propels us to decipher others and in so doing, enables us to better decode ourselves.
Andy “Durant” Hunter and E. Pendleton James at Pendleton James Associates [now Whitehead Mann Pendleton James Associates]. Once I joined his firm, I could see, wow, this is really interesting. We’re influencing processes.
Katherine Busboom Magrath [ValueQuest Ltd. partner and chief investment officer] was another mentor I regard incredibly highly. She was in the corporate sector and one of the first woman portfolio managers. She taught me the business of asset management, but she also taught me how to sell. Working with her ultimately led me to doing big pieces of business, like working for CalPERS, the largest public fund in California, and finding their chief investment officer. I couldn’t have done that work without the network she had exposed me to by bringing me into asset management.
Subsequent to that, I had a number of female role models, like Helen Chin Schlicte here in Boston. She’s an Asian woman I met through LeadBoston, and she would champion me and bring my name up at various not-for-profit board meetings, which helped me advance.
My major at BU was in international relations and a minor in Spanish language and literature. And then I went on to the Fletcher School, focusing on Latin America, issues of environmental policy, self-sufficiency. I was very heavy on diplomacy—that’s my real field. Conflict resolution, those kinds of fields interest me hugely. Studying ways in which you manage situations and scenarios so that you bring groups along with you, but don’t lose sight of their uniqueness, yet you’re moving towards a goal.
The truth of the matter is that people go where they’re most comfortable. And they go to the space that’s most expedient because business demands that you be expedient, right? So when you put those things together, everybody moves with: this is my friend, this is someone that I know. The reality is, if you want to round out your team, if you want the best and new ideas, or you want to be really creative and innovative, you’ve gotta go outside that. Go beyond your comfort zone and identify and build networks where they’re not like you.
So often, people think, oh, diversity and inclusion, that means I’m leveraging my brand or I’m not going to have the quality that I had before. No. Every network has high-quality players. And we’re all actually more alike than unalike, as Maya Angelou often says in her poetry.
We have made progress. I feel like it’s a lot different than the way it was, for sure. There’s a little bit more of a comfort level and a sense of understanding, but we still have a long road ahead.
It’s just inching along, inching along. And part of it is making sure that men become advocates and that they’re not seen in an adversarial role, but as facilitators. So where you can, bring them in and celebrate them as opposed to thinking, wow, we women, we just have to hang by ourselves. All around my tagline would be inclusion, inclusion, finding like minds. We don’t have to look alike, but our value systems have to be similar. Our thought processes around our humanity, our ability to speak our truths, all of those elements need to be bonded and respected. I feel very passionate about this because I feel we’re taking way too long to figure this out, and it’s not that difficult.
One of the issues that we’re faced with is that it has been hard for so many women for so long that they’re still in that state of trying to hold on to what they had to create. So there’s little room for thinking about another person—that I’m going to bring them along. So I think there’s a real need to figure out that segment of the work.
I think the other is “critical mass.” I believe we have to be comfortable with the notion that it is not good enough to be “the only one.” It’s about being part of the team. Because then you have support systems, then you can finesse what you’re doing and it becomes less lonely. I am convinced the mind-set of sharing must be inculcated in our girls so that they internalize that early. We’ve got to share our experiences, because when we are doing this together, we’re a lot more impactful than when we do it alone.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at email@example.com.
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