HUBweek Change Maker: Jesse Mermell

President, The Alliance of Business Leadership

Jesse Mermell is the President of the Alliance for Business Leadership, a coalition of progressive business leaders united in the belief that social responsibility and sustainable economic growth go hand-in-hand. She previously served as a member of Governor Deval L. Patrick’s senior staff. As Governor Patrick’s Communications Director, Mermell was responsible for communications strategy and for overseeing the press operations of the Governor’s office. She is the former State Director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. She has also held positions as the Vice President for External Affairs at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, and as the Executive Director of FairTest and of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus. Mermell is an active community member, having been elected to the Brookline Board of Selectmen in 2007 and serving until 2013. Upon her election she became the youngest Selectman in the history of Brookline, and created a female majority on the Board for the first time since the Town’s founding in 1705. Mermell is also a former Brookline Library Trustee and Town Meeting Member. Most days you can find her in a new place doing a new thing.

As President of The Alliance of Business Leadership, what are the principal issues you are currently focusing on? Generally speaking, we’re focused on advancing economic equality and social mobility. Specifically, that means we’re working to educate and engage our members — progressive business leaders from across Greater Boston — on a range of issues from paid family leave to investing in education and transportation, from immigration reform or noncompetes to workforce housing, and from clean energy to workplace diversity, among others. Business leaders have a platform, and the Alliance is focused on providing our members with the tools they need to use that platform to advance economic equality and social mobility. We believe that everyone having access to opportunity is both good for business and the right thing to do.

What impact do you hope to have on society? Don’t we all just want to leave this place a little better than we found it? Personally, I hope that I am able to use whatever talents and privilege I have to lift other people up, and to encourage those people to leave the ladder down for the folks coming up behind them.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career? Just one? I’m not sure that it’s the biggest challenge, but leading organizations through transition is always fraught with peril — and with opportunity. Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter often says that “everything looks like a failure in the middle,” and that holds especially true when you’re trying to create change. You’re balancing personalities and history with innovation and progress, and it can be messy and scary. It can be tough to picture how you could ever come out on the other side and still be standing. And sometimes you don’t come through on the other side, and things falls apart. But that’s ok (see lesson #1 below). That failure leaves you better prepared for the next challenge.

What is one thing people might find surprising about you or what you do? I’m quite shy.

3 things you wish you knew when you first started out?

  1. There’s no better teacher than failure.
  2. The person who said that nobody gets anywhere on their own wasn’t kidding. Build a network to support you — and give as good as you get.
  3. Nobody is watching. Do/wear/say what you want.

The best and worst piece of advice you’ve ever received?

  • Best: Ignore anyone who says “it’s not your turn” or “that’s not how we do things around here.”
  • Worst: I was once told that if I wanted to move into certain levels of leadership there were some boxes I needed to check — and those boxes were part of a very traditional and gendered path. In the years since I was given that advice I’ve realized how terrible it was. Retro, inauthentic leadership isn’t good for anyone.

What’s next? Is this an episode of The West Wing (google it, folks)? The Alliance is celebrating our 10th anniversary this year, and so we’re very much in “planning for the future” mode. In the coming years you’ll see us expand our footprint and grow our ranks, and in turn our ability to advance economic equality and social mobility will increase.

We’ve read you often walk an hour and a half to your office, and we love it. What made you want to start? A combination of unreliable public transportation (which we need to invest in!), and being an incredible nerd about my daily step count. I try to walk at least one way to work each day, whenever the weather permits. I find that it’s great for my mental health, and that I get a lot of work done as I commute. I can make calls, or just take the time to think in a way I can never seem to manage when I’m stuck at my desk or sitting on the crowded Green Line.

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