Partner, Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin, P.C.
She’s Made It Her Mission to Help Others Get Connected
‘Hi, Ellen. I hope all is well. I can’t wait to see you soon and hear all about your trip! My colleague Erica is very interested in getting even more deeply connected to the philanthropic life of the Greater Springfield area. Your name immediately came to mind, and I thought you both would have a lot to discuss.
Erica: Ellen is incredible! Please feel free to connect directly.’
Ellen Freyman doesn’t know how many e-mails like this one she’s received over the past few decades, but she does know it’s a big number. And she’s proud of each one.
The subject matter varies slightly (she’s obviously not recently back from a trip in all cases), but there are similar themes and like words and phrases used, and, yes, probably lots of smile emojis.
In short, this missive she agreed to share, sent by an executive at a large local employer, sums up perfectly why Freyman, an attorney with the Springfield-based law firm Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin, is a Woman of Impact and, well, what makes her tick, to summon a phrase from another time.
In short, Freyman’s name is the one that immediately comes to mind when people such as the executive who sent this note want to help others get more connected to the philanthropic life of this region.
“What I like to do is bring together people who should know each other, who should be working together and collaborating.”
That’s what Freyman does. It’s not all she does, as we’ll see. But that’s mostly what she does, and that’s what she believes is her biggest impact within the region.
She connects people with opportunities to get involved with their community, especially people new to this region and its business community, and also members of what would still be called the ‘minority community’ even though they’re not the minority anymore in Springfield, Holyoke, and other communities.
“What I like to do is bring together people who should know each other, who should be working together and collaborating,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she regularly gets e-mails like the one above asking her to make connections and introduce people to one another. “That’s what we need in this community — people working collaboratively — and that’s what I like to do.”
These sentiments explain why she founded an organization called OnBoard, which works to make some of those connections she spoke of and help organizations achieve not only diversity but cultural sensitivity by enlisting women, people of color, and other under-represented populations to their boards.
The nonprofit organization stages a biannual event at the Basketball Hall of Fame designed specifically to help organizations and people looking to get involved make much-needed introductions.
“I call it a cross between speed dating and a job fair,” said Freyman, noting that the event involves a host of area nonprofits with small tables arranged in a horseshoe. Attendees — those individuals looking to get involved — move from table to table looking for good fits.
The next event is slated for December (no specific date has been set), and Freyman is working hard to secure strong representation on both sides of the equation.
As she talked with BusinessWest for this story, Freyman brought along a cheat sheet of sorts — and she really needs one. It’s a running list of the boards and organizations she’s serving on or has served on in the past. There’s also a compilation of awards she’s won — and there have been many.
They range from BusinessWest’s Difference Makers Award (presented a decade ago) to the Pynchon Award; from Rotary International’s coveted Paul Harris Fellowship to Mass. Lawyers Weekly’s Top Women in Law Award.
The board-activity list is quite impressive as well, and includes everything from the Community Music School to Elms College to the World Affairs Council. Equally impressive, though, is her desire, as she put it, to replace herself on all those boards and get other people involved with those organizations and the community at large.
“I want all of these boards to have younger people on them — new blood,” she said as she ran her finger down the list. “And I want these boards to have memberships that look like the community today — not what it looked like years ago.”
She said this process of replacing herself will take place over the next few years and certainly by the time she retires — six years from now is the plan. In retirement, she might sit on a board or two, but her real ambition is to return to the classroom (that’s where she started her career) and teach adult basic education to refugees and others. But that’s another story.
This one’s about making connections and creating diversity, and those are the reasons why Freyman is a Woman of Impact.
Creating a Deeper Pool
Freyman said she’s made it a habit in recent years to stop for a minute at each event she attends — and there are several each week, and often a few each day, during the busy seasons in the spring and fall — and also at each board gathering, and do some counting.
Specifically, she’s counting the Hispanics and African-Americans in whatever room she happens to be in, hoping that the number will represent something approximating the demographic profile of the Greater Springfield area.
Rarely, she said, does it meet that threshold.
“No one wants it to be that way — no one,” Freyman told BusinessWest, adding that there are reasons why boards and gatherings lack diversity. For starters, while there are some candidates, the number is not as high as it should be given this region’s demographic profile, she said, adding that many groups need introductions to the many fine candidates that are in the 413.
Creating a larger pool of candidates, and then making these connections, has become Freyman’s life’s work outside of her life’s work.
And that is a law practice focused on several specialties, but especially commercial transactions and commercial real estate.
She segued into law after stints in the classroom and as a commercial banker, and joined Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin in 1988. Even before that, though, she was getting involved in the community.
She started with Jewish Family Services (JFS) in 1984, not long after she relocated to this region and joined Third National Bank as an auditor training to be a loan officer — and also not long after she enrolled at Western New England University School of Law.
“I want to help empower people who haven’t been involved and contributing and volunteering, and give them entrée to all that.”
She recalls having lunch with Steve Dane, principal with the accounting firm Themistos & Dane, and asking how she could get involved. Dane was on the JFS board at the time and asked her if she wanted to join him.
She did, got very involved with the group’s efforts to assist Russian refugees, and soon added the board of the Springfield Museums to her schedule. And many others followed.
But her work in the community has involved much more than board sitting. Indeed, she has been very active in raising money for many of the groups she’s been involved with, and also with identifying, and in many cases mentoring, the next generation of leadership for those organizations.
Indeed, looking back to that lunch with Steve Dane, she said she’s doing for others what he did for her nearly 40 years ago — helping them get involved in their community.
Freyman said the initial impetus for OnBoard, which she created in the mid-’90s, was to get more women involved and on area boards.
“But immediately afterward, I realized that we’re not the only voice that’s missing,” she said. “We need to focus on all under-represented groups, and we have.”
In December, the nonprofit will stage its sixth board-matching event, she noted, adding that, to date, the initiative has had a good amount of success with connecting members of those under-represented groups to opportunities to get involved. But there is still work to be done when it comes to making boards, businesses, and, yes, those myriad events where Freyman takes a head count more diverse.
Overall, she wants other boards, commissions, and businesses to look like the Springfield Rotary Club, which is much smaller than it was years ago (all service clubs are), but more diverse, in large part because Freyman, who has been a member for nearly 30 years now, has recruited members of minority communities. And like the Springfield City Council, which is far more diverse than it was years ago because candidates from underserved constituencies have come forward and become candidates for those seats.
“The Springfield City Council looks like the city,” she said, putting a verbal exclamation point on that statement, adding that other groups need to take on that quality, not for the sake of numbers, but because boards and commissions are more effective, she believes, when their membership mirrors the community they’re serving.
How can boards become more diverse?
Well, Freyman, without exactly saying so, suggested this goal could be achieved if more people worked as she does to make connections and help others get involved.
This, as she said, is her most meaningful contribution locally, far more than her work on any specific board — or all the boards she’s served on over the past 35 years.
“I want to help empower people who haven’t been involved and contributing and volunteering, and give them entrée to all that,” she told BusinessWest. “What’s nice is that people do think of me as someone who can help them connected. People will say, ‘someone told me you’re the person I need to talk with if I want to get involved’ — I get those calls and e-mails all the time, and it makes me feel like I am helping to create progress.”
And these efforts extend to replacing herself on many of the boards she’s currently on.
“I want to open up my seat — I don’t want to take the spot of someone who should be there,” she said, using that phrase to reference younger people and those of color.
Overall, she believes progress is being made on this broad front — she noted that Springfield’s hiring of a diversity officer is a significant step in the right direction — but that much work still needs to be done.
Walking the Walk
The OnBoard website features a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that sums up not only its mission, but Freyman’s considerable impact in the community: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?”
Freyman has always done a lot for others, whether it’s donating time and imagination to a board, helping to raise money for a nonprofit, or assisting refugees as they try become part of the community.
But her biggest contribution has been prompting others to ask that question posed by Dr. King — and then answer it in a resounding, meaningful way.
And that’s why, as the e-mail writer noted, “Ellen is incredible.”
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]