A person can’t do everything at once, but Ernest L. Greer ’88 gets close. He is the chair-elect of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. He is on the board of directors of Atlanta’s Center for Civil & Human Rights and The Woodruff Arts Center, which includes Atlanta’s main art museum, theater, and symphony. He has been on other boards as well—the Atlanta Historical Society, the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta, and the Carter Center to name a few—and yet between these various affiliations he makes time for his law career at Greenberg Taurig LLP; he is the co-managing partner of the Atlanta office and one of eight global officers for the international law firm. Amidst all of this Greer is happily married with two children. He somehow keeps everything going at once.
Some students worry that choosing a job necessitates leaving behind other interests to focus only on a profession. While choosing a career that matches one’s interests and talents is important, a person’s daily work need not encapsulate all of her ambitions at once. There are ways to contribute to organizations and work for change in different spheres independent of one’s particular sector or workplace. Greer embodies this multi-faceted involvement.
“People ask me how I do all of these things,” says Greer, his voice pointed and intentional. “That question presumes that my priority is my economic success and the job that I work. Doing what I am doing in terms of my efforts to create inclusion is just as important to me as my 9 to 5 is.”
Greer’s personal mission is to foster a culture of inclusion in Atlanta—a mission that he works towards through a combination of community involvement, his board membership with many organizations, and his law practice. He strives for a city where people of all backgrounds feel welcome and empowered to pursue what they want to prioritize, whether they aspire to be involved in business, education, the arts, or other fields entirely.
Greer has not always been an Atlanta man. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri to hard-working parents whose combined salary amounted to $44,000 at the height of their careers. He attended St. Louis Country Day School on scholarship, then came to Harvard where he played on the varsity football team. He met his wife Patrice, a Wellesley graduate, three days before the start of his freshman year and the two have been together ever since.
With graduation in sight his senior year, Greer chose to turn down an investment banking job offer to instead attend Northwestern Law School on a fellowship. Then he spent a year doing clerk work in Detroit before he and Patrice moved south to Atlanta, her hometown, and started to build their careers in Georgia.
“Atlanta appears to be a town of great progress and integration, but if you look at the numbers it’s not,” Greer says, explaining how Atlanta is lauded for its superior professional opportunities for people of all races, but there is still much work to be done. Atlanta remains one of the best cities for African-American economic progress, Greer says, because the business community supports African-American advancement far better than Detroit, St. Louis, and most other cities do. Even so, Greer points out that none of Atlanta’s Fortune 500 companies have a black CEO, CFO, CMO, or COO, and that very few African American lawyers in the city have achieved his level of seniority in their firms.
“Atlanta is a wonderful town with unbelievable potential, but if we don’t create inclusion then we will never get to the point of reaching that greatness that lies before us,” he says. “I realized as I watched this wonderful city grow that the big issue is not people desiring not to be inclusive, but people fearing inclusion, fearing the unknown.”
Greer draws an example from his work on the board of the Atlanta Historical Society. The society had traditionally shown exhibits on topics like the Civil War or Bobby Jones, a famous Atlanta golfer, but Greer encouraged the Historical Society to consider putting up an exhibit about Thomas Jefferson and Monticello that also chronicled five slave families who had lived on Jefferson’s plantation. The exhibit was expensive, but Greer raised enough money to sponsor the exhibit for eight weeks with weekends free so that even those without the discretionary income to pay for tickets would visit the Historical Society.
Greer mentions that he prioritizes this sort of inclusive work on the other boards he works on as well, and Patrice is making similar progress as a trustee on the Atlanta Ballet Board. The two frequently host events at their home, always making sure that the guests come from as diverse an array of backgrounds and careers as possible. “I think there should be an affirmative effort to expose yourself to and surround yourself with people of difference,” Greer says, noting that he tries to put himself in situations of difference and create those situations for his friends, too. By opening up social spaces and organizations to include people of difference, the city becomes more accessible; its potential ripens.
Greer hangs up the phone. He needs to get back to his day job.
Ginny C. Fahs ’14 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. Her column looks at Harvard alums who pursued unconventional career paths and appears on alternate Fridays.
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