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Face to face with talent

This profile is part of a series that highlights the work of government, business and community leaders in creating a more equitable and inclusive Chicago region.

Ten years ago, the University of Chicago’s Office of Business Diversity launched a symposium to connect minority and women-owned businesses to the University and the University of Chicago Medicine for contract opportunities. The model is now being replicated across the US.

As the largest private employer in the city, the University of Chicago has a lot of spending and employment power.

How is the university’s budget and financial prowess connected to the institution’s commitment to diversity and inclusion?

“Deeply,” says Robert J. Zimmer, the University of Chicago’s President. “In fact, we see critical links between how we spend and invest our dollars with our vision of creating a campus and institution that is welcoming to people of all backgrounds.”

Twelve years ago, Nadia Quarles, Assistant Vice President for Business Diversity, was hired to run the newly created Office of Business Diversity. In her role, Quarles is responsible for advancing business diversity and inclusion across the institution. In 2009, she launched the university’s Professional Services Symposium, a first-of-its-kind initiative to increase the university’s contracts with MWBEs within professional services industries such as legal, money management, financial services, and communications, to name a few. 

“Hiring decisions within the various professional services industries do not go through the normal purchasing channels and are highly driven by relationships. I designed the symposium to provide a high-level platform for qualified minority and women-owned firms to introduce their services directly to senior decision makers at the University and UChicago Medicine.” says Quarles.

At the annual symposium, minority and women business owners from around the country meet face-to-face with senior leadership at the university and begin building relationships that could ultimately turn into contract opportunities. “It’s been a total game changer,” Quarles says. To date, the University has awarded more than 70 contracts, including the historic hiring in 2011 of the first African-American money management firms to invest endowment funds.

The symposium has become a national model, and anchor institutions and universities in Chicago and around the country have launched similar programs, citing the University of Chicago as inspiration.

“Organizations that are serious about diversity and inclusion take deliberate actions to aid diversity and inclusion,” said University Trustee John W. Rogers, Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Ariel Investments. “The University of Chicago is a large institution whose wide-ranging needs present significant economic opportunities for professional services providers, and I am pleased that the University has taken a leadership position in expanding those opportunities to women and minorities through deliberate efforts such as this annual symposium.”

While the Symposium is critical to the university’s goals of diversity and inclusion, when it comes to hiring and services, the event offers just one strategy. In 2014, the university’s Office of Civic Engagement launched UChicago Local, an institution-wide initiative to connect businesses and job seekers in mid-South Side neighborhoods to opportunities at the University, the University of Chicago Medicine and their vendor networks.

“We created UChicago Local to complement existing diversity initiatives and add a distinct place-based component to the University’s broader procurement strategy,” says Derek R.B. Douglas, Vice President for Civic Engagement and External Affairs, whose portfolio includes the offices of Civic Engagement and Business Diversity. “Today we annually spend $23 million on goods and services on the mid-South Side and purchase from more than 300 local businesses.”

UChicago Local has three priorities: buy, hire and live local. Related initiatives include the Small Business Growth Program at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation that connects student consultants to growing South and West Side businesses; and a partnership with the university’s dining vendor to train community members for open culinary and food service positions on campus.

“The University of Chicago is in the business of educating people, but we recognize it’s a huge institution that spends money and hires people, says Zimmer. “We believe we are stronger if our local community and businesses are also strong. We are proud that we can help achieve that while staying true to our core mission.”

Explore more of the stories in this series.

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