Annual Professional Services Symposium attracts diverse business talent

The University of Chicago’s seventh annual Professional Services Symposium brought together professionals from 40 minority- and women-owned service providers, continuing the impact of an event that connects diverse businesses with University offices seeking their services.

Since 2009, when the symposium began as one of the first events of its kind in Illinois, the University has signed professional service contracts with 60 firms that have participated in the two-day program. Other institutions have emulated UChicago’s approach, and many political leaders have attended the event, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Lab’82, and Alderman Leslie Hairston at this year’s symposium.

Diversity and inclusion have been central to the University of Chicago’s mission over its 125-year history. The symposium is one of many programs that advance the University’s commitment to attracting people of high ability from underrepresented groups.

“There is an enormous amount of talent seeking opportunity,” President Robert J. Zimmer said at the Office of Business Diversity’s closing reception for symposium participants at the Quadrangle Club. “It’s absolutely critical for what we aspire to be as an institution that we be here with you today, because you have talent, you have expertise, you have the ability, and we are trying to make the right match. That’s not just us making opportunity for you, it’s you making opportunity for us.”

New partnerships

The symposium was open to professionals from many local, state and national firms that specialize in communications, financial services, human resources, legal services, information technology and money management. Participants attended a pre-symposium meeting, at which vice presidents gave departmental overviews and talked about areas of possible opportunity. The following day, the business leaders participated in one-on-one business meetings with UChicago vice presidents and key decision makers.

Duncan and University Trustee John W. Rogers Jr., the founder, chairman and CEO of Ariel Investments, praised the University’s efforts to promote diversity in everything from business services to educational outreach in local communities. Duncan said the University has achieved exceptional results.

“Unfortunately you could probably count on one hand the number of universities that have this kind of commitment to business diversity—not just talk, but action,” Duncan said at the reception. “From a lifetime of work on the South Side, I have seen what our kids and adults can do when we give them an opportunity. To see this amount of talent and commitment and passion come together to make the University better is extraordinary.”

Hairston recalled when she and other South Side elected officials initially engaged in discussions with University leaders about doing outreach to minority and women professionals. Observing the number of business representatives at the reception, the alderman summed up her excitement for the University’s diversity endeavors.

“Many years later, this room is packed with entrepreneurs and businesses that are now engaged with the University,” Hairston said. “In all of the things that we see going on in the neighborhood with new development and growth, the University is being very inclusive.”

Rogers’ firm sponsors the K-8 Ariel Community Academy in the Kenwood neighborhood, which provides financial literacy as part of its overall course curriculum. At the reception, Rogers stressed the need for more business inclusion of minorities and women in the professional services sector of the economy.

“When it comes to professional services—legal services, financial services, consulting—all those types of areas where people can create real wealth and real job growth, we’ve been left out,” he said. “I think it is extraordinary how the leadership of the University has been able to make progress on this, and it’s a reason why we are here today.”

Leveling the playing field

Laurel Pyke Malson, partner at Crowell & Moring in Washington D.C., understands the obstacles that women and minority professionals encounter in building businesses. She also learned the value of the Professional Services Symposium, which introduced her last year to UChicago’s Office of General Counsel and Kim Taylor, vice president and general counsel for the University.

“From my perspective, as a female African-American partner in a large global law firm, this program has been a tremendous, tremendous success,” said Malson, as she addressed reception attendees. “The relationships that are being built between the University and my firm are what matter at this point.”

Malson said partnering with UChicago has brought her personal and professional rewards.

“You won’t be surprised to hear that securing the University of Chicago as a client of the firm has brought increased internal visibility to me and to my work in leading our higher ed practice at the firm,” she said.

Malson said if it hadn’t been for the symposium exposure, representing UChicago was an unlikely prospect, and she certainly would not be working on the institution’s behalf now.

“That is because, even in large, successful, diversity-aware law firms, women and lawyers of color, including partners, are all too often invisible,” Malson said. “This program endeavors to combat that isolation and invisibility by shining light on and calling out to women and minority professionals, and inviting us into the boardroom so we can compete for business opportunities on a more level playing field.”