By Deva Woodly

There are many thriving businesses on the South Side that are too small to contract with the University, but that should not stop us from becoming a resource for those entrepreneurs."”
—Nadia Quarles
Director of the Office of Business Diversity

Lawrence Hollins, the founder and president of The Hollins Group Inc., an executive search firm, has been doing business in Chicago for 21 years. His firm specializes in connecting senior-level managers with new opportunities for career advancement. It is based in Chicago and has offices in New York and Atlanta.

Over the years, his firm had an occasional relationship with the University of Chicago, but only since the advent of the Office of Business Diversity, commissioned by President Zimmer in 2006, has Hollins become a regular University vendor. “The University is a wonderful institution and a demanding client,” Hollins says, “I mean that in a complimentary way. As always, we bring our best game to play on your turf. And we like to stay on top of our game.”

Nadia Quarles, Director of the Office of Business Diversity, has made it her mission to connect minority- and women-owned businesses, to the University, which can sometimes seem like an intimidating customer.

When Quarles first began her work, she contacted local businesses and found that though many owners expressed a desire to work with the University, most “had no idea how to get their foot in the door.”

In response, Quarles developed two programs: Direct Connect and the South Side Business Development Initiative. The first creates opportunities to connect minority- and women-owned businesses to the University, and the second aims to build the capacity of small businesses located on the South Side so that they can take on large clients.

Forming direct connections

In developing Direct Connect, Quarles notes that “in a decentralized environment, it is important to create personal connections and introductions. People will do business with people they know, like, and feel they can trust to get the job done.

“There are a lot of opportunities here for qualified minority- and women-owned businesses. Although we are only a staff of two, we work hard to create as many connections as possible.”

Quarles says that Direct Connect generates and maintains stable partnerships between the University and local businesses in two ways: “First, it makes University departments aware that there are quality minority- and women-owned businesses that can supply their needs. Second, it creates opportunities for relationship-building between purchasing departments and strong local businesses.”

Gwynne Dilday, Associate Vice President of Human Resources for the University, says the Office of Business Diversity “has made a tremendous difference, by making the issue of business diversity frontal lobe for people. Also, they do an excellent job of investigating the quality of work that firms can provide.”

Dilday, who awarded The Hollins Group with its recent contract, says that she interviewed several firms when she had a need for an executive search service. She adds, “In the end, I felt The Hollins Group understood most clearly the qualities I was looking for in a candidate, and it has been a very successful collaboration.”

Smaller-scale development

The South Side Business Development Initiative focuses on smaller and less-established businesses than The Hollins Group. The program aims to leverage University resources to help grow their capacity to do business with large institutions.

Quarles notes, ”There are many thriving businesses on the South Side that are too small to contract with the University, but that should not stop us from becoming a resource for those entrepreneurs.” This year, the office began partnering with the Chicago Booth’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and the Law School’s Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship to offer free workshops for local businesses.

In the future, Quarles hopes to build on the office’s success and to expand the presence of women- and minority-owned businesses in traditionally underrepresented areas within the professional services industry.

“The University has done a good job representing women- and minority-owned businesses in some areas like food service and construction,” Quarles says. “I want to make more connections like The Hollins Group and promote the visibility of excellent minority businesses that provide goods and professional services as well.”

Derrick Buckingham, director of The Hollins Group, says, “My growing relationship with the University has been a wonderful experience. I find that the University doesn’t treat its vendors any less rigorously than its students.”

The Hollins Group has certainly shown that they are equal to the challenge.

Originally published on December 24, 2008.