Equity From Disparity: Oakland CEO Works to Build a More Inclusive Business Community

By Keith Burbank, Bay City News Foundation - September 21, 2022


Eleanor Ramsey, president and CEO of the firm Mason Tillman Associates, has been creating change for Black people and other minorities long before she started consulting.


In a recent interview at her office in downtown Oakland, Ramsey said she first worked on easing racial conflict by serving on the student relations council in high school. The goal was to integrate the lunchroom in a school that consisted of 80 percent white students and 20 percent Black students.


Ramsey went on to get a doctorate in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley and has been operating Mason Tillman Associates since starting it in 1978. Her firm’s name is a combination of Ramsey’s maiden name, Mason, and Tillman, a last name by which her husband was known.


Among many things, Mason Tillman Associates conducts disparity studies that show how equitably or inequitably governments distribute contracts to outside businesses.


“We have been able to improve the lives of many minority and woman business owners,” Ramsey said, adding that the work has been by helping them secure contracts and improve profitability.


Mason Tillman Associates’ statistical research has revealed institutional practices systemically limiting minority businesses’ access to public contracts.


The company’s disparity study research and policy recommendations have helped identify and modify governments’ practices. Consequently, billions of dollars have been distributed more fairly in over 150 cities, counties, and states since 1978, she said. For example, New York State’s current minority business law is predicated on a Mason Tillman disparity study.


Oakland officials were at first reluctant to release a disparity study for their city, causing an outcry from the Black community. The study — kicked off by Ramsey’s firm — was eventually released in November 2020. Mason Tillman Associates plans to update it following a year of talks.


The company is also credited with preparing the nation’s first competitive disparity study, which was done for Maricopa County, Arizona, in 1990.


Glass ceilings made of concrete


Disparity studies aren’t just the right thing to do, they’re the law. Following a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson, disparity studies must be prepared to document the need for awarding contracts to minorities. Lawmakers can no longer give preference to minorities without evidence from a study.

Ramsey suspects 300 to 400 studies have been conducted since the SCOTUS decision.


She has also been at the forefront of breaking through ceilings for businesswomen.


“The notion of the glass ceiling was very real,” she said, adding that for Black women, the ceiling was made of “concrete.”


Starting Mason Tillman Associates gave her an occupation when doors were closed for Black women following her attempt to become a university professor, she said.


“You walked a fine line,” said Ramsey.


Women could not come off as too intelligent without offending men. She refined the art of levity to make people feel comfortable.


Before Mason Tillman Associates, Ramsey worked as a flight attendant for the now-defunct yet iconic Pan American Airways. She was the second Black female flight attendant to be hired by Pan Am, which was the only international carrier in the U.S. in the 1960s. Pan Am was known for its stewardesses — now called flight attendants, another positive change for women in the workforce.


Ramsey managed to earn her doctorate in 1977 while raising six children. Then she applied for jobs as a professor and neither UC Berkeley nor the University of Colorado Boulder would hire her. Society wasn’t ready for a Black female professor, she said.


Her experience has taken her on some interesting journeys. While living in Boulder, she secured a contract with the National Park Service to investigate whether Wilberforce, Ohio, was once part of the underground railroad. That, she said, was the start of her consulting business.


Since starting Mason Tillman Associates 44 years ago, Ramsey has trained many professionals in the company’s Oakland headquarters. The firm continues to help redefine managers’ views of Black businesses in agencies nationwide.