(From left to right) U of I President Tim Killeen, Jerry Bell, and Dale Morrison.
ROBUST COLLABORATIONS FORTIFY DIVERSE VENDORS FOR SUCCESS
Participants in the new Diverse Supplier Development Program stand ready to share what they’ve learned.
“I’m excited about the opportunities the program gives both small businesses and students. I’m also eager to mentor future program participants,” said Jerry Bell, PhD, a former Army medic and West Point graduate who leads JBJBusinessGroup Inc. “It was amazing to work with the students on a high-impact emerging technology project so they could put their knowledge and skill into action.”
The University of Illinois System program helps diverse businesses grow their firms' capacity to become successful vendors. The program enlists student consultants from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and University of Illinois Chicago to help address business owners’ specific operational needs.
“Participants in our first cohort especially liked the tangible takeaways MBA student consultants provided so business owners can improve their operations,” said Sharla Roberts, director of the U of I System Office of Procurement Diversity (OPD). “They’re already implementing suggestions and sharing them with their subcontractors.”
The program welcomes minority-, woman-, persons with disabilities-, and veteran-owned businesses at no cost to participants. The diversity procurement program lives out the system’s commitment to creating a more inclusive Illinois economy.
“Small businesses are economic engines in our communities,” said Dale Morrison, OPD associate director. “If diverse professionals aren’t leading small businesses, we get the status quo. Diverse business owners share ideas and solutions we wouldn’t have otherwise.”
With decades of experience, Roberts and Morrison know the potential pitfalls.
“We’re here to help remove barriers that limit the success of people in disadvantaged areas and from underrepresented communities,” Roberts said.
The advantages add up. In addition to networking and sharing experiences with other participants, business owners are helping build a talent pipeline.
“The students were pleased with how helpful and engaged the business owners were,” Morrison said.
The description “engaged” might be an understatement with Bell, whose PhD concentration was organization development.
“Jerry was one of the most energetic participants,” Morrison said. “He always had great questions, great insights.”
At the graduation celebration, from left: Sandra Magallon, Bank of America; Pamela Randle, Chase Bank; and Jisu Hong, U of I System.
First Illinois entity to leverage sheltered market procurement to award technology and advertising contracts for minority- and women-owned businesses
Expanded procurement opportunities for minority-owned businesses on the system’s Amazon Small Business Marketplace
Spent over $115M (and counting) to support the diverse business community
Olsi Shehu’s student consulting group worked closely with Bell and Ranga Chandrasekaran, a UIC professor of information and decision sciences, as well as biomedical and health information sciences.
“Through meetings, interactions, and reviews, our project united AI, technology, and healthcare,” Chandrasekaran said. “This immersive process embodied the true spirit of experiential learning, fostering critical thinking, and creating innovative business solutions.”
Bell’s business provides, among other services, IT consulting and emerging technology support.
The students – including Rani Gaikwad, Sambram Rao, and Vamsidhar Nandineni – assessed customer and competitor data to present Bell’s technology to potential investors. They even pitched to Shannon Jackson, executive director of the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“It was great to network with someone that important,” Shehu said. “We explained the problem that the product helps solve and the benefits the solutions will provide. He gave us feedback and guidance to help secure funding.”
Bell’s extra effort is helping Shehu become a successful IT manager.
“I didn’t just show up. I had certain things I wanted to share with the team so I could create value,” Bell said. Up next
While the second cohort will grow from 25 to 30 participants, the goal is keeping things small enough to stay personal.
Roberts and Morrison credit a host of contacts in the system offices and at the universities in the system with the program’s early successes.
“Everywhere we turn, we find supportive partners who see and embrace the many benefits these businesses provide in our communities and our state,” Roberts said.
Every bit of the experience fueled Shehu’s interest – and his future.
“Applying what I was learning in class in a real-world situation was so valuable. I told people this was a starting point of a life-changing experience for me," Shehu said.