'Chicago United' for job diversity

December 7, 2008 8:40:38 PM PST
With the election of an African-American president, some argue it may be time to revisit -- or eliminate -- efforts to promote racial equality in the workplace.Forty years ago, the group Chicago United was formed for just that task, in a time of racial discord from the King and Kennedy assassinations. And while history has moved on, some who attended the organization's anniversary conference heard why the cause endures.

Maria Prado created the largest Hispanic-run accounting firm in Illinois. Staffed primarily by women, Prado and Renteria does audits and financial strategizing for Fortune 500 firms. Still, Prado often has to start her appeal to potential clients by allaying fears.

"The first time that you come in with a new client, I do feel we have to make the case that we know what we are doing. Once we are in the door, I feel the client sees it for themselves," Prado said.

Prado's office is so diverse that there's room for a man there, but the challenges she faces as a minority entrepreneur are not dissimilar from others who, this week, are attending Chicago United's 40th anniversary conference.

Attendee Al Grace is one of them. He's a founding partner of one of the first black-run investment banks in Chicago. In the current economic crisis, Loop Capital is growing because they didn't make bad bets on subprime mortgages. The diversity of his team of traders, he figures, has something to do with that.

"The challenge was to get people to believe we were a viable alternative for their financing needs. Fortunately, we did it here in Chicago. For a lot of our municipal finance, the city was supportive," Grace said.

Chicago United research shows that the more diverse a Fortune 500 company's board of directors, the more money the company makes. However, at current rates of change, it estimates it will be 89 years before minorities make up Chicago's executive ranks in the same proportion they comprise the work force.

"We are not workers and consumers. We are investors and partners. We want to be able to roll out a reciprocal business relationship. We'll patronize. We will buy from you; you buy from us. You include us in the executive ranks in the corporate boardroom. If we are good enough to do business with you, we want you to do business with us," said George Herrerra of Herrerra-Christina Group.

Of the people running America's 500 biggest companies, the Fortune 500, seven are African-American, seven are Hispanic, and 12 are women. And of all the board seats on Fortune 1000 companies, Chicago United says just 26/1000ths of 1 percent are filled by minorities, including women.

That's more evidence that one of the key power structures in American society remains overwhelmingly the preserve of white males.


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