The people in charge of buying supplies for large institutions can be a tough group to reach, according to Jackie Dyess, owner of Inter-City Supply, a Chatham-based distributor of janitorial and office supplies and a certified minority- and women-owned business enterprise (MWBE). “Purchasing professionals are never open for solicitation; you can’t cold-call them,” she said. To pitch those executives and win large accounts that fuel growth and create jobs, small local businesses like Inter-City need a way to get in the door. 

For several years, the company had a small contract to supply paper towels, soap, and hand sanitizer to UChicago Medicine. When a major research project in 2014 required a 50 percent increase in soap orders, the UChicago Medicine purchasing team saw a chance to help Inter-City grow by connecting Dyess with a pilot consulting and technical assistance workshop from the UChicago Local initiative of the Office of Civic Engagement (OCE). 

The program was created to help small businesses build capacity as well as skills to pitch themselves to large institutions — and, crucially, to introduce business owners to procurement executives at universities, hospitals, government agencies, and other community anchors. Program coaches advised Dyess on inventory management and process efficiencies, and helped her connect with the right decision-makers. As a result, Inter-City was able to become a preferred supplier of janitorial products to UChicago Medicine and to the University’s building services vendor. Since taking part in the pilot, Inter-City has increased its staff by 50 percent and its revenues by 30 percent.

UChicago Local connects businesses like Inter-City to a wide range of opportunities at the University and UChicago Medicine, providing support to more than 250 companies every year. “We’re continually looking for ways to expand our support for local businesses,” said Alyssa Berman-Cutler, OCE’s executive director of community development, “because we believe that when local residents and businesses thrive, everyone benefits.” 

Making connections that matter

Ensuring MWBEs’ access to opportunities all over the University is a key part of UChicago’s commitment to using its economic power to build sustainable partnerships that help businesses grow. In 2011, Edilberto Ortiz, founder of the Chicago-based accounting firm E.C. Ortiz & Co., attended his first Professional Services Symposium. This annual, two-day gathering — an innovation of the UChicago Office of Business Diversitythat now serves as a nationwide model for other institutions — brings MWBE owners to campus from around the country to develop relationships with UChicago senior leaders and present their capabilities in areas such as architecture, investment management, and information technology.

“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 UChicago President Robert J. Zimmer at the 2018 Symposium. “For us, it’s a huge advantage if we can tap into this talent when other people are not.” 

After the Symposium, Ortiz was invited to pitch to University leaders; as a result, his firm was awarded contracts to provide accounting services to the Urban Education Institute and the Argonne National Laboratory. In turn, he says, being able to list UChicago as a client has helped him land additional business with other major institutions. In 2018, connections made at the Symposium resulted in the University’s spending $17 million with MWBE firms, up from $7.5 million in 2010. Over the last decade, the Symposium has led to more than $100 million spent with 108 participating businesses — more than fifty of which secured UChicago contracts of five years or more.

Another University program focused on MWBE business owners is the Inclusive Construction Initiative, a joint effort between OCE, University Facilities Services and UChicago Medicine to create opportunities for minorities, women, and local residents on campus projects. Over the last decade, UChicago has invested more than $720 million in MWBE construction firms; ambitious new goals adopted in 2017 aim to have each University construction project use:

•    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

Keeping it local

As the leading economic engine on Chicago’s South Side, UChicago and UChicago Medicine leverage their buying power to purchase more than $20 million worth of goods and services annually from more than 300 businesses located in the eight ZIP codes near campus. The University also provides businesses with free assistance such as workshops, business consulting, and marketing help. 

Many of these efforts are housed in Polsky Exchange, a state-of-the-art business incubator and co-working space in downtown Hyde Park operated by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation which serves more than 4,200 members from the University of Chicago and the surrounding neighborhoods. Community members without a University affiliation can join the exchange for a small monthly fee, which gives them access to co-working space, mentors, networking opportunities, a state-of-the-art fabrication lab, and more than 100 events annually. 

Personalized consulting services form the heart of the Polsky Small Business Growth Program, through which business owners work closely with Chicago Booth School of Business faculty and students, along with coaches from the Polsky Center. The program is supported by JPMorgan Chase through its Ascend 2020 initiative: In Chicago, Chase is investing $40 million to support neighborhood-based, minority-owned businesses that have the potential to grow, create jobs, and build economic opportunity in their communities on the South and West Sides. 

The Polsky Exchange also hosts free events open to anyone in the community, including Community Business Workshops co-hosted by OCE and the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship, a provider of free legal assistance, support, and advocacy for low-income entrepreneurs in Chicago. Recent workshop topics have included negotiating 101, basic bookkeeping, how to procure business from large institutional customers, and the ins and outs of equity crowdfunding. The Polsky Center and OCE also collaborate with the South Side Business Development Network, fifteen local business associations working together to help small companies build their capacity through skills development workshops. More than 250 owners of firms ranging from startups to second-stage growth companies have attended workshops to date; half of their companies are women-owned, and 85 percent are minority-owned.