Executives from 20 minority- and women-owned businesses recently spoke with leaders from the University of Chicago, UChicago Medicine and the Obama Foundation as part of the Office of Business Diversity’s annual Professional Services Symposium.
Representing the legal, communications, money management, human resources and information technology industries—executives gave PowerPoint presentations and fielded questions to determine if their firms’ capabilities matched the University’s needs.
The Nov. 17-18 virtual event also included a fireside chat with the Rev. Al Sharpton, who discussed the importance of fostering greater diversity in business.
“There is a lot of work to be done in the area of diversity, inclusion and equity,” said symposium organizer Nadia M. Quarles, assistant vice president of business diversity at the University. “It's time for companies, universities, foundations and nonprofits to all seek diverse business talent. It's time for diverse businesses to seek opportunities. That is what this symposium is all about: building relationships and expanding opportunities.”
Widely recognized as a national model for advancing business diversity, the symposium is part of the University’s efforts to increase the number of contracts awarded to minority- and women-owned firms. Since the event began 12 years ago, University officials have met with more than 350 minority- and women-owned professional services firms and paid over $106 million to more than 90 firms.
President Robert J. Zimmer said in his opening remarks that the business diversity program is integral to the mission of the University.
“How do we ensure that, in our business activities, we are bringing in professional service firms that are going to give us a different perspective on complicated problems, and that we are bringing in people who are going to increase our diversity of thought?” he asked. “And how do we help a group of people have an opportunity to realize their talents?”
Supporting minority- and women-owned firms
The professional services industry, the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. economy, is a major contributor to high-wage employment and economic development. But securing business can be challenging for women and minorities, who often lack the personal and professional networks to win contracts.
During the event’s fireside chat, John W. Rogers Jr., co-CEO and chief investment officer at Ariel Investments, commended Zimmer and Quarles for their leadership in supporting minority- and women-owned firms.
“We want the University of Chicago to be a role model and inspire other institutions with what we've been able to do here,” said Rogers, vice chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees and a longtime proponent of business diversity.
Rogers said universities, hospitals, museums and other institutions often limit their diversity efforts to construction, catering and janitorial services. He said that developing opportunities in sectors such as money management, legal services, advertising services and public relations can require sustained effort to overcome “implicit, unconscious bias.”