UChicago symposium focuses on business diversity in professional services

Women- and minority-owned business leaders meet with University officials

Carefully honed business pitches, keen questions and casual conversations were all part of the 11th annual Professional Services Symposium, recently hosted by the University of Chicago’s Office of Business Diversity. 

The two-day event, held Nov. 19 and 20, brought together women- and minority-owned businesses with leaders from the University and UChicago Medical Center to network, discuss business opportunities, and pitch professional service offerings.

Over the last 11 years, leaders from the University and medical center have engaged with more than 350 women- and minority-owned businesses in the professional services industry, resulting in contracts with more than 90 companies. The services include legal, communications, financial services, human resources, information technology and engineering. 

Advancing business diversity is integral to the University’s commitment to building on its position as the South Side’s leading economic anchor and to making a strong, lasting contribution to Chicago's economic health.

“Business diversity goes to the core of who we are—find talent and give it an opportunity to flourish,” said President Robert J. Zimmer to a crowd of 300 people at the symposium’s closing reception at Gordon Parks Arts Hall.

While the professional services industry is the fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy and a major contributor to high-wage employment and economic development, winning contracts can be a challenge for women and minorities. At many corporations, foundations and educational institutions, professional services contracts are awarded through long-standing relationships with senior leaders within a company, not traditional bidding and purchasing channels. As a result, minority firms are often excluded.

Nadia M. Quarles, UChicago’s assistant vice president for business diversity, who organizes the symposium, said fundamental changes were needed to ensure that the University has access to the most qualified talent. 

“This work requires a culture shift and a change of mindset,” she said. “It takes an intentional, focused effort by everyone who influences these decisions across this institution.”

Quarles has found no shortage of qualified minority- and women-owned businesses in Chicago and elsewhere. “They simply need a seat at the table to show their capabilities. And that’s really what this symposium is about: It’s about building relationships that ultimately create great opportunities.”

‘The right time, at the right place

Participants attended a pre-symposium meeting, in which UChicago vice presidents in areas with professional services needs gave departmental overviews and talked about potential areas of opportunity. The next day, the business owners met privately with vice presidents and members of their leadership teams.

Anna Ninoyu and Kris Gorospe of METIS Design left their meeting excited about the potential opportunities with UChicago. METIS Design is a woman-owned and minority-owned architecture firm based in Chicago that provides full architectural design and construction management consultant services.

“I believe the interest and opportunity is there, and we feel we are with the right people, at the right time, at the right place,” said Gorospe, business development and project manager of the seven-employee firm. “We’d like to be someone they think of whenever there are opportunities and projects, and we want to plug in our consultants and colleagues into the University of Chicago community.” 

Attending the symposium to observe were officials from Princeton University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who are exploring how to organize their own business diversity forums.

Ninoyu, owner and principal architect of METIS Design, said her company is always looking for networking opportunities, “especially with the University of Chicago, which is a prestigious institution, both the academic and medical sides. We didn’t really have to think too hard to want to be a part of this symposium.”

The setting looked formal, but the interaction was conversational, Gorospe said.

“I went to bed last night thinking it would be like Shark Tank,” added Ninoyu, referring to the popular TV show. “But it was far from it.”

Investment leads to opportunity 

After last year’s symposium, Art on the Loose won two contracts with the University. The 20-year-old design firm specializes in branding, full-scale museum exhibitions, and print, website and social media work. 

“After the presentation they approached us and said they wanted to talk about some projects, and about a month later we were working with them,” said Vernon Lockhart, co-owner of the South Side company. “My experience with them is, they follow up.”

The firm’s work has included creating the brand and logo for the Office of Business Diversity, designing its website and reformatting its social platform. At this year’s symposium, they were showcased as a featured vendor and handled social media for the event.

At the symposium’s closing reception, Kim Taylor, a general counsel for the University and a vice president, received the second annual John Rogers Jr. Business Diversity Impact Award for her commitment to finding and hiring diverse talent. Through the symposium, her office has retained 20 diverse attorneys and firms over the last five years.

At the symposium’s closing reception, Melody Spann Cooper, chairman of Midway Broadcasting Corporation, emphasized the importance of forming new community partnerships and praised UChicago for its efforts.

“When you only do charity, it’s only going to last so long,” Cooper said. “But when you make an investment, when both of us are benefitting, when we’re aligned, the opportunities are endless.”