Diverse enterprises, University leaders aim to forge new partnerships at annual event

Professional Services Symposium highlights record of success with minority- and women-owned businesses

For more than a decade, the University of Chicago’s Professional Services Symposium has identified hundreds of diverse enterprises and invited them to campus to showcase their capabilities, with many ultimately securing business at the University.

Organized annually by the Office of Business Diversity, the event has resulted in UChicago contracting with over 100 minority- and women-owned professional services firms, paying more than $166 million over the symposium’s 13-year history. The latest symposium was held Nov. 16-17 at the David Rubenstein Forum.

“I’m glad to be with you here for the first time,” said President Paul Alivisatos, who began his tenure Sept. 1. “I certainly want to be here with you in the coming years, so that $166 million number becomes much greater over time, and we can celebrate together bringing even more people into this network, create a healthier society and see more of the benefits of that together.”

The symposium included a mix of about 30 firms invited to meet with UChicago, UChicago Medicine and Obama Foundation leadership responsible for retaining professional services. The businesses included those in legal services, money management, architecture/engineering, financial services, communications, information technology and human resources.

“Business diversity and inclusion is ingrained in the culture here at the University of Chicago,” said Nadia M. Quarles, who organized the event as UChicago’s assistant vice president of business diversity. “The commitment to engage diverse businesses starts at the top of the organization with our trustees and our University president.”

Quarles led a fireside chat with Ivan Alo and LaDante McMillon of New Age Capital, whose successful partnerships with the University emerged from the symposium’s effective formula. 

As co-founders and managing partners of the Dallas-based venture capital firm, Alo and McMillon landed funding from the University’s endowment office after participating in last year’s symposium.

“Understanding how difficult it is to get a university endowment, in a first-time fund, of two 30-year-old Black men, investing in Black and Latinx entrepreneurs? It’s just not a thing that happens,” Alo said. “We’ve said it before, and I don’t know if we can say it enough: The University of Chicago changed the trajectory of our careers.”

Building long-term relationships

The Professional Services Symposium has not only helped participating businesses. The event is also a growing success story for the University, which benefits from the unique talent and perspectives of symposium participants.

“When we’re thinking about who we want to partner with as a fund, we know that the names of who we partner with matter,” said Austin Clements of Slauson & Co., a  Los Angeles-based firm. “We want institutions that have long-term thinking and are thinking around building long-term relationships.”

The symposium also welcomed a number of entrepreneurs in the South Side community, such as Lenora Blackamore, a 20-year resident of Woodlawn. Blackamore is founder and CEO of MECCA Marketing Group, a digital design agency located just a few blocks from the Rubenstein Forum.

In her presentation to University officials, Blackamore shared how web development and digital technology have been her passion since 1997, and demonstrated her aim to help the University “create beautiful stories” and engage local communities.

Michon Ellis, CEO of CLOUT, a Chicago-based public relations and corporate communications agency, said the University’s work with local businesses and residents can help bolster efforts to become “a true partner of the South Side.”

“They’re trying to give back,” Ellis said of the University. “I think it’s smart for them to work with companies that are part of the community.”

Chancellor Zimmer honored

During the symposium, Chancellor Robert J. Zimmer was presented with the John W. Rogers Jr. Business Diversity Impact Award, honoring his commitment to the business diversity program during his 15-year tenure as president.

“Receiving this award is deeply moving to me and important to me,” said Zimmer. He thanked Quarles and other event organizers, as well as all the symposium participants who made possible the “opportunity for this interaction and partnership.”

Zimmer also commended Rogers, the co-CEO of Ariel Investments and University trustee for whom the award is named: “Thank you so much, John, for your remarkable commitment to the University, to diversity in so many contexts, and for your friendship, which I greatly value.”