University celebrates business diversity program’s decade of success

Leaders of women- and minority-owned firms discuss transformative opportunities

The Office of Business Diversity recently celebrated a decade of success in connecting women and minority-owned firms with key decision makers at the University of Chicago.

What began in 2009 as 80 individuals gathering to discuss fostering diversity in UChicago’s business relationships has grown to include 250 leaders from various professional services companies. On Nov. 14, the University looked back on the achievements of the Business Diversity Professional Services Symposium, a two-day event that has become a national model for other institutions.

Since its inception, 285 different businesses have gained exposure to UChicago through the symposium, leading to more than 80 new business relationships.

“The concept of this program is amazingly simple. It’s based on the observation that there’s an enormous amount of talent, and it’s not getting enough opportunities to express itself,” said President Robert J. Zimmer at the symposium’s closing reception at Gordon Parks Arts Hall. “For us, it’s a huge advantage if we can tap into this talent when other people are not.”

On Nov. 13-14, representatives from 30 potential vendors specializing in money management, communications, HR, legal and architecture/engineering gave 45-minute presentations about their companies, after listening to University officials speak briefly about their current and future needs.

In 2011, Edilberto Ortiz was invited to the annual reception, and the following year the CPA and his firm gave a presentation that led to accounting and auditing work. “The university engagements that we have acquired in the past few years have given us the experience to pursue other opportunities and have helped us grow our business,” he said.

A few years ago, CTS Impact, a hands-on business consulting firm focused on Finance, HR and IT, was invited to the symposium. After their presentation with University of Chicago Finance leaders, they were engaged by the University’s Budget Office to assist with various process improvement and systems integration activities.

“Success breeds success,” said Julie Scott, the firm’s president, CEO and founder. “With our many thanks to UChicago, these successes have led to other opportunities for our firm.”  In addition, Julie added that “UChicago’s business diversity program is a game-changer compared to other corporate diversity programs our firm has participated in, since UChicago’s program ‘walks the walk’ not just ‘talks the talk’ of the importance of creating opportunities for diverse talent.”

Lorraine Tyson, a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig, LLP, participated in her first symposium in 2012 (while a partner at Pugh, Jones & Johnson, P.C.). Shortly thereafter, she was invited to serve as sole underwriter’s counsel on a bond transaction while at Pugh, Jones & Johnson, P.C.. “You can have opportunities at the University,” she said, emphasizing the importance of giving chances to women of color such as herself. “I’m a testament to that.”

About five years ago, the University of Illinois at Chicago began its own professional services symposium to increase diversity, which they explicitly modeled after UChicago’s.

“We are the first educational institution to have an initiative that solely focuses on connecting minority- and women-owned firms within the professional service industries directly to leadership and actual decision makers,” said Nadia Quarles, assistant vice president in the Office of Business Diversity. “A majority of supplier diversity programs focus on low-hanging fruit opportunities, such as catering, construction and janitorial services.”

Enna Calderon, president of communications company Comadres, Inc., said that the fellow vendors she meets even at the closing reception have proven to become valuable contacts. And Molly Connolly, owner and president of Thorsen Consulting, added that participating has helped her strengthen relationships and feel included in the University’s mission.

The inaugural John Rogers Jr. Business Diversity Impact Award went to Mark Schmid, UChicago vice president and chief investment officer, for his proactive commitment to meeting with and referring diverse firms.

“They’ve met probably with the most firms over these 10 years, and they were the first ones to look at these firms seriously,” said Quarles. “We now have 22 minority- and women-owned firms investing in our endowment and our pension plans because of Mark and his team.”

“You have to give everyone a chance to excel to make the whole better,” Schmid said. “It’s important to set the tone from the top.”