Symposium connects diverse firms with University, South Side decision-makers

The promise of new opportunity was in the air for representatives of 230 minority- and women-owned firms attending the University of Chicago’s 2017 Professional Services Symposium reception.

“The symposium puts you in the room with key decision-makers,” said Diane Primo, CEO of Intralink Global, a digital integrated communications agency. “Anyone in business knows that’s a tough thing to do. It says a lot about the University’s commitment to put that kind of power in the room.”

Established in 2009, the two-day annual event helps minority and woman business owners make face-to-face contact with top leaders across many University departments. As a result, the University has established contracts with 70 minority- and women-owned firms with a focus on professional services, and has made high-level contacts with about 250 more. Such firms constitute one of the fastest growing portions of the economy, said Nadia Quarles, UChicago’s assistant vice president for business diversity. Quarles said the University has already retained a firm that participated in this year’s event.  

“These diverse partnerships have provided talent, skills and innovation to support the University’s academic excellence,” said President Robert J. Zimmer. “Cultivating a campus climate that welcomes people of all backgrounds is imperative for the work and the character of the University of Chicago.”

A national model

UChicago’s Office of Business Diversity annually invites 25 to 30 minority- and women-owned firms to make business presentations before heads of communications, financial services, legal, information technology and money management. The symposium is seen as a national model, said Quarles, because it provides a forum for business owners to build direct relationships with senior level decision-makers.

The finale of this year’s symposium was held in halls at the UChicago Laboratory Schools named after two highly successful minority entrepreneurs—filmmaker Gordon Parks and Ariel Investments CEO John Rogers Jr. It featured a networking reception and “fireside chat” with Connie Lindsey, Northern Trust’s executive vice president and head of corporate social responsibility, global diversity and inclusion; and William Von Hoene, senior executive vice president and chief strategy officer for Exelon Corp.

Lindsey and Hoene are co-chairs of the Obama Foundation’s Inclusion Council, whose responsibility is to ensure diversity and inclusion are considered at each level of the Obama Presidential Center’s development, from construction to professional relationships to employment. As an important University neighbor, the foundation was invited to participate in this year’s symposium, both to cultivate best practices and to establish relationships with diverse business owners.

Looking at the symposium’s high turnout, Hoene said: “This reflects the potential of our work, business and society. If we don’t seize the opportunity to have the talents of everyone recognized, appreciated and put on an even table, then we can never be successful. This is our key to success.”

The future landscape requires courage from top leaders to work for greater change in business, Lindsey said. “We can never stop seeking, knocking, asking and demanding our place at the table.”

“This year, we invited new firms and University leadership who haven’t been here before, and that keeps it exciting,” said Quarles. “Having the Obama Foundation in on meetings was also new and added to the excitement.”

“This is the largest crowd we ever had,” said Rogers, a trustee to the University of Chicago who has built the largest African-American-led money management firm in the country. “There’s a lot of energy and a buzz. It shows you that we are having results. People are busy. For them to come back year after year during the holiday season means that something really special is happening here at the University of Chicago. People are getting a real chance to do business.”