Innovative strategy helps engage diverse service providers in University business

The University of Chicago’s annual Business Diversity Professional Services Symposium has been reaching out to and creating new opportunities for women- and minority-owned service providers since 2009. Now in its fourth year, the event continues to draw larger numbers of participants as the program grows each year.

The 2012 event, held at the International House on the Hyde Park campus and the Gleacher Center in Chicago’s Loop, hosted 350 participants from the University’s senior leadership and local and national professional service companies for a two-day opportunity to network.

The symposium began as an experiment initiated by the offices of business diversity for the University and for the University of Chicago Medicine. “After the first year, we felt an enormous confidence that we were on the right track,” said Robert J. Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago, at a kick-off reception. “And indeed, over the last three years we’ve seen a great deal of progress in the number of minority- and women-owned firms that we hire in the entire range of professional services.”

Opportunity knocks

University trustee John W. Rogers, Jr. praised the University for following through on its commitments to increasing diversity and inclusion across campus, and especially through innovative strategies like the professional services symposium. “When it comes to diversity, some of the institutions talk a good game, but nothing ever really changes and opportunity never really comes. In the past 30 years of entrepreneurship I’ve had, I’ve never really seen anything like this.”

Senior leaders from the University began the event at I-House on Thursday, Oct. 18, with five-minute presentations about their current service needs and possible future needs. Business owners then briefed University and medical center decision makers on what their firms offer. The exchange also gave the business representatives a chance to promote and present their services to each other.

Tammy Napoli of Ossanna Consulting Group, a human resources consulting firm, said the symposium’s benefits are two-fold: Business owners are introduced to new potential clients as they develop relationships with University leaders, and they can connect with representatives from other firms. “It’s a chance to really talk to other vendors, particularly those outside of your field. Making connections through meeting people in person is the best way to network.”

Mark Schmid, vice president and chief investment officer for the University, appreciates the chance to build sustainable relationships with diverse firms and the opportunity the event offers his team in hiring. “It’s fantastic to go out and meet people in small firms you’ve never met before,” he said. “It’s also great to have six or seven key decision makers all at one place at the same time, which is very productive and efficient for us. We’ve hired two firms in the past couple of years thanks to this event.”

The participants reconvened on Friday, Oct. 19 at the Gleacher Center, where the business representatives gave 45-minute presentations to University officials.

Fully engaging new partners

Since its inception, the symposium has led to approximately 20 new business relationships, including collaborations with Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Ebony magazine, and with the financial services firm of Washington, Pittman and McKeever. About 40 new businesses were invited to participate this year, across the fields of legal, communications, accounting, human resources, money management and information technology services.

“We are so pleased that our efforts have resulted in so many partnerships with exceptional minority- and women-owned professional service firms, which are now fully engaged in the business of the University,” said Nim Chinniah, Vice President for Administration and Chief Financial Officer.

The initiative complements the University’s overall diversity commitment by creating opportunities to contribute to the economic development of the communities in which the University conducts business.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a frequent guest speaker and supporter of the program, also addressed the participants gathered at I-House. He pointed to the new partnership between the University, the State of Illinois and the private firm Gigabit Squared, which will build the infrastructure for high-speed Internet access—up to 100 times faster than current speeds—on the mid-South Side of Chicago. The Gigabit Community Initiative will begin with business corridors in four neighborhoods, as well as providing gigabit-speed access for the University of Chicago Charter School campuses and several South Side community health clinics.

“My mother was born 95 years ago, and it’s her birthday today,” said Quinn, whose mother was born in the South Shore neighborhood. “Just imagine, at that time in 1917, women didn’t have the right to vote in our country. There is a long line of progress and breaking down barriers to make sure everyone is included. That’s what the University is doing here with this initiative.”

One of the early partnerships the University established out of the business diversity program was with Washington, Pittman and McKeever. A 53-year veteran of the firm, Lester McKeever concluded the reception by reminding the group that the importance of good business is the ability it provides to do good for others.

“We want to do well so we can do good. Material possessions that wealth may bring you have their place, but personal fulfillment and reward come best through personal service to your community and to those less fortunate than you.”