Business diversity event becomes model for engaging diverse service providers

The University of Chicago’s Office of Business Diversity welcomed 26 new businesses this year to its annual Business Diversity Professional Services Symposium, which helps connect minority- and women-owned service providers with potential UChicago partners.

Three hundred leaders from the University and local and national professional service companies gathered together at the Oct. 17-18 event to spark new business relationships. From its roots in 2009 as one of the first such efforts in Illinois, the symposium has become a much-admired and imitated model for fostering business diversity and calling upon untapped potential in the business community.


The symposium also extends the University’s long-held tradition of inclusion and opportunity and encourages diverse skills and ideas at all levels of the University’s business partnerships.

"When the University of Chicago was founded, it was founded with a very different spirit than most of the universities that existed in the United States, indeed in the world, at that time," said Robert J. Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago, at the Business Diversity symposium’s kick-off reception at the Quadrangle Club. “Part of that was an absolute belief that everybody from every background and every persuasion had a role to play.

“From the beginning, this was an institution that did not discriminate on the basis of gender, race or religion,” Zimmer said. He said the symposium grew from recognition that the University must expand upon its tradition of diversity, and improve business practices by bringing a diverse set of talents to the institution.

Building a model program

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a frequent guest speaker and supporter of the program, also addressed the participants gathered at the Quad Club, noting that other schools have launched similar efforts since the first University of Chicago symposium in 2009. Both Northwestern University and the University of Illinois, which have looked to UChicago’s program as a model, have created their own networking events to enhance business diversity. Northwestern's first event took place in June 2012, and the University of Illinois followed suit in April 2013. 

Quinn, an alumnus of Northwestern Law School, said he hoped the UChicago initiative would continue to inspire other organizations "in this area of making sure everybody's in and nobody's left out."

University trustee John W. Rogers, Jr. who played a key role in conceiving the event, praised the University for setting an example for other institutions. “When I go around the country and talk about these events, people have no understanding because they've never really done it before. It really does create this opportunity for us to be a national model, and hopefully as the years go on we'll see more and more institutions follow in our footsteps."

Long-lasting impressions

In its first five years, the symposium has led to more than 30 new business relationships, including collaborations with Altusworks, an architectural services firm, and Earnest Partners, a money management firm. The 26 new businesses invited this year gave presentations across the fields of money management, accounting, communications, legal services, human resources, information technology and architectural services.

Julie Scott’s business integration company participated in the symposium last year. This year her company, CTS Holdings, obtained a contract with the University. Scott said the University’s approach is "diversity on steroids. This program is a dramatic departure from everything else we have seen. Everyone here really walks the walk, not just talks the talk."

Pooja Vukosavich, who founded Studio V Design 25 years ago, also was blown away by her first experience with the program at this year’s reception. "I'm very impressed with the ways the University of Chicago treats its vendors. To put an event like this together shows they really care and think of us as partners."  

Senior leaders from the University began the event at the Quadrangle Club on Thursday, Oct. 17, with five-minute presentations about their current service needs and possible future needs and then answered questions from business owners. The exchange also gave the businesses a chance to promote and present their services to each other.

Alicia Murasaki, executive director of planning and design for Facilities Services at the University, appreciates the opportunities the event offers her team to hire diverse companies, even if those partnerships don't happen right away. "I've already talked to an architect and engineer," she said at the reception. "It's great to make personal connections and meet face-to-face in an environment outside of the office. So much of business is built on good relationships."  

The participants reconvened on Friday, Oct. 18 at the Gleacher Center, where the business representatives gave 45-minute presentations to University officials. Those encounters leave lasting impressions. Murasaki recalled a presentation by an architectural firm at the symposium two years ago; she filed that information away until she knew she had the right project for them.

"You have to be patient," said Mark Wimer, of the female-owned money management firm Strategic Global Advisors. Wimer said he sees the event as a way for his company to plant important seeds that, sooner or later, will reap benefits.