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Ashes Give Way to Sparks

1968. An event ignites action. It was the watershed year of the 20th Century; a year fraught with protests, tragedies and advancements. More than half of Americans alive today weren’t even born then, yet they live in the shadow of its legacy. In Vietnam, the Tet Offensive signified the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in the war; at the Summer Olympics, two black medalists raised their fists in silent protest against racial discrimination in the United States; Star Trek aired American television’s first interracial kiss; Boeing introduced the first 747, and a manned spacecraft orbited the moon for the first time. It also was a year in which war protesters at the Democratic National Convention clashed with police in the streets of Chicago and Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. But it was the devastation caused by the 1968 riots in Chicago that followed the tragic death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis that prompted top business leaders to discuss solutions to local economic instability and racial unrest in the city. Chicago United was the result. For 50 years, Chicago United has maintained the dialogue among multiracial senior leadership driving corporate and minority-owned businesses, civic and non-profit leadership in the common goal of creating a stronger social and economic climate for all races.

Stories from 50 Years Robert McGregor Chicago United President, 1973 –1980 Outside of yourself, who was the most impactful leader at Chicago United during your involvement? There were many; I was privileged to have CEO Tom Brooker – Chairman of Montgomery Ward as my first co-chairman. He was a leader with good core values who cared deeply about the city and its residents. He spelled out that business leaders have a special responsibility to use their influence to positively improve conditions in communities where their employees live and they derive their profits. Tom was a tough no-nonsense leader who prodded and pushed other CEOs to get in line and provide leadership to improve conditions for all citizens in Chicago, especially the neediest. He would insist at Chicago United board meetings “if you want to be a part of the CU Leadership Team, you have to participate and implement the agreed upon programs.” Others of note included Daryl F. Grisham – Parker House Sausage Company. A great team player committed to use his influence wherever he could help. He brought minority business leaders together as a team. Jim Olson and Charles Marshall, CEOs at Illinois Bell were terrific engaged supporters with the right core values and made their company departments available to all our programs. Stan Cook, publisher of the Chicago Tribune served as Chairman of our small Executive Committee. It met regularly in his office. I would call Stan at any time and he’d tell me “get over here – let’s discuss it.” Stan always made reporters behind the scene available to write stories on our programs.

John C. Robak President, Greeley and Hansen and current Chicago United Board Member Who was the most impactful leader at Chicago United during your involvement? I see Al Grace, Co-Founder and President Emeritus of Loop Capital Markets LLC, as one of the most impactful leaders because of his long-history of working with Chicago United as a highly respected and influential business leader in Chicago. He genuinely exemplifies the mission of Chicago United and has helped to move the organization forward. For me personally, Al so graciously welcomed me and was instrumental in onboarding me to the organization and its programs as a new board member. He is truly a role model for inclusion, and he inspired me to become actively involved as a Chicago United board member. I would also like to acknowledge Anne Pramaggiore, Senior Executive Vice President and CEO of Exelon Utilities, as an inspirational business and thought leader in Chicago for her authentic support of diversity, inclusion and belonging. There is no doubt that Anne is a committed community advocate and a prominent and untiring force for driving conversation and new ideas for advancing inclusion in all business organizations, large and small, to bring about real change that creates greater diversity in leadership.

Charles Matthews President and CEO Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas What was the focus and most important work of Chicago United at the time? Chicago United engages executives in the challenging issue of increasing opportunity in the upper ranks of Chicago corporations. It brings together the right people, asks the tough questions and facilitates meaningful discussions to help create real solutions. I had the pleasure of leading one of Chicago United’s CEO Council sessions on developing, advancing and retaining African American talent. The level of commitment from the executives convened for the session was truly impressive. Everyone there – myself included – left with a better understanding of the many challenges we face. This important discussion couldn’t have happened without the leadership, advocacy and research provided by Chicago United to shine a bright light on this complex issue. Thank you, Chicago United, for being a leading voice for diversity and economic opportunity in the corporate world for the past half century. And here’s to the next half century of working to transform the Chicago region into the most inclusive business community in the nation.

Beverly B. Huckman Deacon, 1997-2012 What was the focus and most important work of Chicago United at the time; and who was the most impactful leader at Chicago United during your involvement? At that time Chicago was in its shadow years of dealing with issues of ethnicity. There was strong commitment from the leadership of many major corporations, but slow change and little progress. Chicago United – then 60-plus members, Principals and Deacons, and its new Deacon Leadership Committee (DLC) – working together were more determined than ever to convert that commitment and energy into positive results. First the DLC developed Deacon networking functions and a “buddy system” to enable the participation of Deacons from all members large and small. Most important, it had to be assured that the Principals were going to support controversial efforts not anticipated when they assumed their corporate leadership roles. Then Chicago United had to decide how to prioritize the broad spectrum of critical local and national issues of the time; primary were race relations and creating a more inclusive business environment. While there were many outstanding, highly regarded individuals who made contributions, from my perspective there was none more important than the DLC. In the years since, many of its members have achieved considerable prominence, but at the time the DLC was a small group who shared commitment and conviction and a strong willingness to work for all that Chicago United represented.

Andrew McKenna Chairman Emeritus, McDonald’s Outside of yourself, who was the most impactful leader at Chicago United during your involvement and what were the social and economic issues facing business and city leaders during your tenure? I don’t want to single out any one person, but I will say people’s involvement prior to Gloria Castillo was genuine, but when Gloria came, it lit a fire under people. Gloria asked me to visit with some young leaders and to be prepared to mentor some of them and I have. I enjoyed it and I think it’s something we should all do. I was taken with how intent and focused they were to grow with the community and help Chicago United. They were so sharp, so focused and so anxious to enhance their roles in the community. They wanted mentoring, they wanted help. There always were racial issues– that was true 50 years ago. Leaders, whether Hispanic, African American or Asian didn’t have the opportunity to talk about these things. Even though we haven’t resolved a lot of these issues – Chicago is still a segregated city – people involved with Chicago United can play an important role in the community. We have a long way to go, but we’ve made some progress and we have to stay after it. The thought of being inclusive has to permeate our lives; We have to not talk, but do something about it.

Julian Brown Leaders Council Member, 2005– 2010 What were the social and economic issues facing business and city leaders during your tenure; and what was the focus and most important work of Chicago United at the time? Unfortunately, the issues are the same ones we’re facing today and have been grappling with since 1968. It is the acceptance of people of color to perform well and move up into the C-Suite and Executive Ranks. Regarding the most important work, it was the Corporate Diversity Profile and using it as a tool to move the needle of inclusion and diversity amongst the corporations in the Chicago Metropolitan area. I think by far that was the greatest tool and most important work being handled while I was involved.

1968 – Riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination leave Chicago’s West Side in flames. Major Richard J. Daley summons eight business leaders to discuss forming a chapter of the Urban Coalition – they advise against it.

1969 – White business leaders and black community representatives meet to discuss improving race relations, forming the Black Strategy Center, which is eventually replaced by The Group.

1973 – The Group incorporates

1979 – CU spearheads the

1998 – CU raises over $2 million for

2001 – CU holds first Race and

as Chicago United (CU), joining with other organizations to create the Regional Transit Authority to provide access to the entire city for all communities.

Special Task Force on Education, recommending 253 steps for reform. Mayor Jayne Byrne fires the school board and assigns CU to recommend replacements.

1968 Chicago’s 1960s business, civic and cultural communities were ruled by an homogenous group of powerful men whose influence was felt citywide. These “captains of industry” sat at the helms of some of the largest and most profitable companies in the city – and, indeed, the country.They served on each others’ boards and raised millions of dollars for ambitious citywide development initiatives.It was an exclusive club where people of color and women had little, if any, role. But suddenly, and dramatically, the riots of 1968 changed everything. The scenes of people crying out for opportunity, for fairness, for equality and equity brought home to business leaders the sobering reality that Chicago, the city they loved and were economically and civically invested in, could crumble under the weight of racial animus. What happened next is the story of Chicago United.

1996 – Launch of Connections for

Community Ownership to help entrepreneurs become national franchise owners, and the World Class Standards Program to raise awareness of diversity issues in corporate procurement.

1997 – Launch of Invest in

Chicago, an ambitious undertaking to help bring economic opportunity and stability to disadvantaged parts of the city.

a four-year professional development program for West Pullman teachers in cooperation with the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science.

Business forum and develops the Corporate Diversity Profile to measure diversity within senior management and corporate boards.

1984 – CU helps establish the

Private Industry Council to assist Illinoisans of all races.

1986 – Recognizing the city’s

growing Latino population, CU appoints the organization’s first Latino co-chair.

1987 – Mayor Harold Washington

asks CU to head a broad-based school coalition, leading to the landmark School Reform Act of 1988.

1989 – The Austin-Pilsen Initiative fosters local community economic development and helps CU secure passage of the Illinois Affordable Housing Act.

2018 Today, Chicago is a city of 2.7 million residents and 77 neighborhoods. The city’s 25 largest employers have nearly 400,000 local full-time employees across nine industries, and “the city that works” offers a significant number of job opportunities with Fortune 500 companies. Yet, the city remains one of the most segregated in the country, and violence and racial tensions make national headlines. But this is just part of the story. Our business community has made strides in terms of diversity in 50 years, and Chicago United has been a catalyst. Since 2003, Chicago United’s Business Leaders of Color publication has featured nearly 370 board-ready candidates who have served in more than 230 corporate directorships. Since 2008, the Five Forward™ initiative has joined Chicago corporations and local Minority Business Enterprises to strengthen the local economy, creating opportunities that have generated more than 4,700 jobs and $800 million in economic activity. And Chicago United’s annual Inside Inclusion publication reports on gains and losses in diverse representation in leadership in the top 50 publicly held Chicago corporations. There’s still work to be done as Chicago United’s story continues …

2003 – First Business Leaders of

Color publication. Since then, CU has featured nearly 370 board-ready candidates and BLCs have served on more than 230 corporate directorships.

2012 – First National Thought

Leader Forum, which features an individual who is a unique voice for diversity, equity and inclusion in Chicago or nationally.

2015 – Launch of Five Forward 20/20,

the expansion of the Five Forward Initiative™, designed to strengthen the local economy and enhance job creation by supporting a stronger Chicagoland minority business enterprise community.

2019 – CU to launch the

Corporate Inclusion Institute, the first-ever citywide business community talent development program.

The City May Have Changed But Our Mission is the Same‌

Creating Opportunities

Fighting Racism

Challenging Bias

Advancing Equity

For Everyone

Join Your Spark With Ours

In Creating the Most Inclusive Business Ecosystem in the Nation

We Are


We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Spark Booklet: 50th Anniversary Gala  

Spark Booklet: 50th Anniversary Gala