David L. Cohen, EVP of Comcast Delivers Speech During the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting

Philadelphia, PA.

Annual Meeting, Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce Speech

Thank you, Mark/Joe - and good morning.

In just thirteen days, either Barack Obama or John McCain will go before the TV cameras and declare victory.

If tradition runs to form, he will thank his loyal supporters, offer a less than convincing tribute to his opponent, and then say something about a new day dawning in Washington.

There are also traditional expectations for a speech from a newly installed chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.   

You'd expect me to express my heartfelt admiration for the incredible leadership of my predecessor, Joe Frick.  I'd thank Mark Schweiker and his talented staff for making this Chamber the strong, clear, and effective voice of the region's business community on our traditional bread and butter issues - taxes, economy building, and regionalism.  

And of course I want to salute Joe and Mark for their great work in building this premier Chamber of Commerce.

But these are unusual times, and I think they require a different approach.  Rarely have the famous words of Charles Dickens been so appropriate:  These are "the best of times and . . . the worst of times."

None of us has lived through an economic meltdown as pervasive or as scary as the one that has erupted this fall.  We're all wrestling with the uncertainties this brings to our businesses.  And as regional leaders, we should be concerned about how this meltdown impacts regional employment, our government budgets, and the quality of life in all of our communities.

But as a glass-half-full kind of optimist, I honestly believe that these are also the best of times for greater Philadelphia.

Why?  Because our region is on the cusp of greatness.  Greatness in terms of what we can accomplish by working together.  The challenges we face are bigger than either the government or the business community can solve on our own.  But together, we can make real progress in addressing some of our region's endemic problems and build on its incredible strengths.

We have a friendly and responsive Governor.  A new, business-friendly city administration.  And a spirit of regional cooperation that is virtually unprecedented.    

As your new chairman, I'd like to use the Chamber's infrastructure to help bring these public and private resources together in an unprecedented alliance - and together confront the opportunity gaps that still persist in our region. 

The urgency of closing those gaps is captured in the Urban League's comprehensive 2007 report on The State of Black Philadelphia. 

It tells a deeply troubling story.  In our region, African-Americans are twice as likely to live in poverty as whites. … more than twice as likely to be unemployed. …less than half as likely to have a college degree. … and twice as likely to lack health insurance.  African-American residents of Philadelphia are five times more likely than whites to be murdered, and five times more likely to be incarcerated. 

To borrow from Dickens again, Philadelphia remains a "tale of two cities."  One populated by a majority white middle and upper class -- and the other by persons of color still waiting for the opportunity to participate in all that Philadelphia and this nation have to offer. 

For those of you who think this is a problem isolated to the City of Philadelphia, I have some sobering news.  These issues are present throughout our region.  And as business leaders, we must take a broad regional view - because Norristown, Chester, and Camden face many of the same problems as Nicetown, Germantown, and Southwest Philadelphia.

So today I'd like to issue a call to action that might go a little beyond our traditional comfort zone and urge that we address three vital, closely related issues.  This is what I term the "No Excuses Agenda," because for too long work on these issues has produced more excuses than results.

First and foremost is the issue of quality public education and school funding and accountability.  This issue has seized the attention of Governor Rendell, Mayor Nutter, and other key regional elected officials.  And it demands our attention as well.

Adequate education funding has been elusive for too long.   Just on this side of the Delaware, the nonpartisan 2007 costing out study found schools in our region need an additional $1.4 billion in funding to provide kids with the level of education colleges and employers expect.  This is not just a City of Philadelphia issue --- in fact, 45 of the 63 school districts in Southeastern Pennsylvania are funded below the objective needs identified in the study.

When we shortchange our investment in education, we shortchange our children and our future.  And in the end, it is the region's employers who pay the price.  The time has come for our regional business community to advocate for adequate school funding as our number one priority.  Although this may sound heretical, I believe we must elevate funding for education to a place at least equal to, if not above, such core Chamber priorities as tax reductions.

I've often heard how the business community in Kentucky went to the governor and state legislature and made one demand -- fix school funding or lose our phone numbers.  We need to do no less.

Of course, it's no secret that money alone doesn't produce a quality education.  So as we demand fair funding, we must also insist on accountability.  And I mean accountability for teachers, students, administrators, and parents -- everyone involved in making a school work.

We also need to give our young people an incentive to stay in school and do their best.

Today's kids need to be exposed to a world of work where continued education is an obvious link to continued advancement.  And that brings me to the second issue on my agenda -- developing the region's talent pipeline.

The Chamber is well ahead of the curve on this issue, thanks to the success of the paid summer internship program advocated by Joe Frick two years ago at this meeting.  In response to Joe's challenge, we have more than tripled the number of high school interns hired by our business community in the last three years - and almost 200 businesses and nonprofits participated this summer, which is just amazing.  

This remarkable accomplishment gives me the opportunity to pause to announce a very special tribute to our outgoing Chair.  In Joe's honor, his colleagues on the Executive Committee are making a special contribution of $3,116 to WorkReady Philadelphia, our primary internship partner.  That's one dollar for every internship our business community has created under Joe's leadership.  Thank you, Joe. 

This symbolic gift reflects our appreciation for Joe's vision and perseverance.  But we can give Joe an even greater honor - by committing to increase the number of summer interns we hire through this program at a rate of 10 percent per year over the next five years. 

The third and final item on the "No Excuses Agenda" is diversity.

Now that's not a topic you would normally expect to hear discussed at a Chamber of Commerce annual meeting.  But in a community as diverse as ours, it's a business imperative - an essential link in helping to produce the kind of demand-side opportunity that gives our kids an incentive to stay in school. 

Diversity has been part of the business vocabulary since the 70s.  But our understanding of diversity needs to evolve beyond it being a government problem that will be addressed through government mandates and government programs.  You see, we in the private sector have some obligations here, too.

To its credit, the Chamber has signed up to do its part.  Our board is a prime example.  The percentage of women and minority members has doubled -- from 18 percent in 2002 to 35 percent today.  And as you saw during Joe's presentation this morning, half of our new board members are women or people of color.

And throughout the region, some of our members have demonstrated their commitment to diversity through innovative and effective action.

By way of example, the University of Pennsylvania, the Eagles and the Phillies, and Liberty Property Trust and Comcast have all engaged in major construction projects with voluntary plans that led to 20 to 30 percent or more of construction contracts being awarded to minority and women owned businesses - most of them local. And 20 percent or more of the workers on those projects were minorities or women.

And how about Cardone Industries, the leading global supplier of automotive parts located in our region?  They have over 4,000 employees from more than 50 countries who speak 37 different languages.  Cardone's diverse work force looks like the United Nations!

For some time, I have been suggesting in public forums that we all need to step up and embrace diversity as individuals and as companies.  We shouldn't do this because it's legally required (which it isn't) or because it's morally right (which I think it is).  We should do it because it's good for our business and good for the communities where our employees live and where we all work. 

Today, I'm delighted to announce the launch of a new Chamber diversity initiative.  It's called the CEO Access Network and it was suggested by four leaders of the minority business community who also happen to be involved with the Chamber --- Michael Pearson, Bill Reddish, Jennifer Rodriguez, and Blane Stoddart.

The CEO Access Network will pair the owners of small minority or women-owned businesses with senior executives from Chamber companies.

There's some mentoring involved.  But even more importantly, it will give small business owners a chance to network and find new business opportunities with people they might otherwise never meet. 

My challenge to us this morning is to have at least 10 Chamber companies participating in the CEO Access Network within a year.  And I'm excited to be the first participating executive.  I've met with my partner already.  He is Sam Patterson, President and CEO of Veridyne, Inc, a successful, minority-owned information technology company headquartered in Broomall, Delaware County.

Sam's with us today - networking already at a Comcast table -- and I'm going to ask him to stand up so you can greet him.  Sam . . . . .  Thanks for being my fellow guinea pig in this new program!

That closes out the three priorities of the No Excuses Agenda:

• Education funding and accountability;
• Developing the region's talent pipeline; and
• Diversity.

Would it be easier to put this agenda aside while we wait for the economic weather to clear?   Of course.  If we were in the market for excuses, the economy would provide a compelling one.

But that's an option we won't be exercising.

My confidence that we can move the ball forward on these critical issues is rooted in my respect for the members of this Chamber, and in my belief in the fundamental integrity and social responsibility of American business.

It's impossible to ignore the shortcomings of certain high-profile businesses that have filled the news this fall.  But history shows that most of the good things that have happened in America could not have occurred without the business community.

I look forward to working with all of you to make good things happen for the Greater Philadelphia region.  And, of course, those good things should start tonight, as the Phillies win their first game on the road to becoming world champions!

Thank you all very much - and Go Phillies!