Every time Jason Bonaparte drives by UChicago Medicine’s Center for Care and Discovery (CCD), he says, “I look up at that tall, shiny masterpiece and think: There’s my work.” Bonaparte’s electrical company, B3 Integrated Solutions (B3i), installed the fire alarm system on the CCD’s third and fourth floors — one of the University contracts that has helped his business grow since its founding in 2013.

From a company of one, B3i has grown into a company of 17 employees and $3 million in annual revenue from a wide range of clients. “Being a small, diverse company, it was tough for us to get into large medical facilities,” Bonaparte said, “but because of the University’s excellent program for minority contractors, we’ve worked on multiple projects on campus. That has led to great relationships with larger companies, who now hire us as a subcontractor.”

To ensure that B3i and similar firms get a fair shot at the economic opportunities offered by campus construction and renovation projects, the University and UChicago Medicine aligned in 2017 on ambitious goals for increasing the participation of minorities, women, and local residents. On each project, the University and UChicago Medicine aim for:

  • 35 percent minority-owned contractors
  • 6 percent women-owned contractors
  • 40 percent construction workers who live in the city of Chicago
  • 30 percent of hours from minority journey workers and apprentices
  • 5 percent of hours form female journey workers and apprentices
  • 40 percent of hours from minority laborers
  • 5 percent of hours from female laborers

Comer Children’s Hospital, which opened in 2005, was the first construction project completed by UChicago Medicine after the hospital created its construction diversity initiative. “When I walk on every floor there, I can point to the work of minority contractors,” said Joan Archie, executive director of construction compliance at UChicago Medicine. “It’s very important to this campus that people who reside in the surrounding area have the opportunity to get the economic benefits stemming from construction.”

New website tracks progress toward diversity and workforce goals

Together, the University and UChicago Medicine are the largest employer on the South Side — and are intentional about channeling that economic power for the benefit of Chicago’s residents and its minority and women business enterprise (MWBE)-certified companies.

“We’re committed to enhancing business diversity and increasing opportunities for business owners and residents on the South Side — and we’re also committed to being completely transparent about our progress toward the goals we’ve set for ourselves,” said Alyssa Berman-Cutler, UChicago’s executive director of community development.

You’ll find a quarterly report on performance against those goals on the new Inclusive Construction Initiative website, part of a joint effort between the University’s Office of Civic Engagement, Facilities Services, and UChicago Medicine. In the first quarter of fiscal year 2019, projects subject to the new goals had nearly 34 percent participation from minority-owned contractors, 12 percent from women-owned contractors, and 40 percent hours worked by Chicago residents.

The Woodlawn Residential and Dining Commons is one large project currently on track to meet the increased M/WBE goals. In addition, its workforce already includes 41 individuals from the University’s target zip codes on the South Side. To date, minority journey workers and apprentices have worked 37 percent of the total hours on the project, minority laborers have worked 71 percent, and female laborers have worked 5 percent.

Behind those numbers are thriving families and businesses. One of the laborers on the David M. Rubenstein Forum, Camille McKenzie, is a single mom who lives in South Shore. “In the past, these jobs have not necessarily been available to people in the surrounding area,” she said. “Opening them up changes things economically for people here.” And she’s happy to be able to show her five-year-old daughter that women can do anything. “Women working in these jobs used to be taboo, but I’m showing her that whatever you want to do, you are capable. She always wants to put on my boots and my tool belt.”

Taylor Electric, a 97-year-old black-owned firm based in South Shore, has grown significantly since working on the CCD, its first UChicago Medicine project. Credit for that growth goes in part to the University, said Kendra Dinkins, Taylor Electric president and CEO.

“I feel like the University is at the forefront of helping out minority contractors — our work there has put us on the map and enabled us to expand to do more kinds of work,” including projects at other schools and hospitals.

Taylor Electric’s office staff has doubled in size since it was one of 103 MWBE contractors working on the CCD — which was the largest campus construction project in University history — and the number of its employees consistently working on projects has tripled. Currently, the Taylor team is working on UChicago Medicine’s River East ambulatory care facility.

African American woman smiles and stands in a concrete building interior under construction

“I’m a South Sider,” Dinkins added, “and 50 to 60 percent of our staff live on the South Side as well. It’s a point of pride: When I’m riding around with our project managers, they always point to the buildings we’ve done and talk about the impact on the community. People in the neighborhood see us working on a job and ask how they can get hired, so I work very closely with the union (IBEW) to recruit people for entry into their apprenticeship program.”

Education, mentoring, and internships help strengthen skills

The University also supports a number of pipeline programs and development opportunities that help people enter the construction trades or grow their small businesses.

  • The Turner School of Construction Management is a free, seven-week class, co-sponsored by UChicago and held at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, that helps minority- and women-owned construction businesses grow and succeed. Participants learn from industry experts about every aspect of running a construction business. 
  • Through a partnership among UChicago Local, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, Turner Construction, and the Illinois chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, participants in the Core & Carpentry training program gain hands-on construction training, earn construction credentials and work with YWCA workforce specialists to secure jobs. 
  • Construction trades apprenticeship fairs in neighborhoods near campus are designed to help residents connect with representatives from trade unions and workforce development agencies. 
  • Facilities Services summer internships, open to undergraduates and to high school students from Hyde Park Academy and ACE (Architecture, Construction, Engineering) Technical Charter High School, offer students hands-on experience in a variety of fields including finance, procurement, business systems, design, construction project management, and facilities operations. 
  • UChicago’s mentor-protégé program pairs large, established contractors with smaller minority- and women-owned contracting firms. The small businesses gain technical and administrative expertise that enables them to compete successfully for construction projects at UChicago and elsewhere.
African American man in a suit leans against a desk inside a modern office

Turner School graduate J.R. Fleming, co-founder and director of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign and its construction arm, CAEC Marketing Consulting and Development Group, says that the program gave him an education in the construction business that he’d thought would take years to acquire. “When you’re a carpenter, you know how to do that work, but you take on all these other responsibilities when you start your own company,” he said. “This program sets businesses up for success — hats off to UChicago for doing innovative things with the community.”