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Yvonne Abraham

Doing better business

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / October 10, 2010

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WALTHAM — So who moved my stereotype?

There I was, in a college auditorium full of high-powered executive types, expecting my eyes to glaze over. It didn’t seem a likely place to find idealism and inspiration, much less a column.

But I found all three Friday at Bentley College. There, a couple of hundred besuited corporate bigs gathered to talk about market share and profits — and changing the world.

They sat captivated as Gary Hirshberg, chief executive of Stonyfield Farm, spoke about transforming his seven-cow dairy operation into a phenomenally profitable, socially conscious yogurt powerhouse. They gasped as he talked in terrifying detail about the mess we’ve made of agriculture and health in this country, nodded as he exhorted them to get involved publicly in issues they care about.

“You are the start of a grass-roots,’’ Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter told them. “You will endure long after the elected officials you are trying to influence.’’

It was like a Be-in, with PowerPoint.

The big-shot lawyers, investment advisers, technology executives, manufacturers, and others are members of a newish outfit called the Progressive Business Leaders Network.

The name will seem like an oxymoron to a lot of people, who tend not to think of business groups at this end of the political spectrum. That’s especially true lately, with the US Chamber of Commerce mired in controversy over the huge sums of money it’s pumping into the midterm elections on behalf of conservative candidates. The immensely powerful organization has fought health care reform, tighter finance regulation, and saner energy policy.

The group gathered at Bentley is trying to become an alternative to those very loud corporate voices. They worry about climate change, our messed-up health care system, and the abysmal educations some kids are getting. The US Chamber doesn’t speak for them: They believe you can make profits without squeezing the little guy and wrecking the planet. Imagine.

“A lot of our people feel like the business agenda of ‘cut my taxes and cut regulation’ has contributed to the economic disaster,’’ says Andy Tarsy, who cofounded the group and is now its executive director. “There’s a lack of vision of what’s good for the country, as opposed to narrow business interests. Business has to be more creative and think about the long term. ’’

Tarsy’s name may be familiar. He was the head of the Anti-Defamation League of New England who broke ranks with the national ADL a few years ago over its refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide.

The progressive business group started as an informal network while Tarsy was still at the ADL. Now it has 140 members. They include people you might expect, like Jim Gordon, president of Cape Wind. And people you might not, like George Matouk Jr., president of a luxury linens manufacturer based in Fall River, where workers are well cared for and the factory gets 40 percent of its energy from recently installed solar panels.

Tarsy’s group connects guys like Gordon and Matouk and marshals their clout to influence policy. It goes beyond contributions to political candidates: Tarsy has taken members to Washington to argue for health care reform and limits on carbon emissions and to Beacon Hill to make their voices heard on education policy. He urges them to speak publicly in interviews and op-ed articles.

“These are people who want to be part of big solutions, and they don’t necessarily have a community,’’ Tarsy says. “We’re giving them structure and impact.’’

Who knows if this gathering can become a real force? They’re vastly outnumbered, their resources puny compared with a group that can afford to drop $75 million in a single election cycle.

But sitting in that auditorium, in the midst of all of that well-heeled hope, you can’t help but set aside your skepticism — and cheer them on.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Abraham@globe.com.

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