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What can Chicago-area companies do to address the racial and economic disparities that continue to plague the city? Quite a bit -- if you ask Roger Hochschild, CEO of Discover, Gil Quiniones, CEO of ComEd and E. Scott Santi, CEO of Illinois Tool Works who shared their own projects and insights at the “Innovating for Social Equity: Anchoring Economic Growth in Chicago” event hosted by the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation.

The event is part of the center’s ongoing Innovating for Social Equity series, which examines cross-sector efforts to tackle societal and economic disparities. It was moderated by Derek Douglas, President of the Civic Committee and Commercial Club of Chicago, who is currently a Rustandy Center executive in residence. The panelists highlighted initiatives that not only benefit the communities but also make business sense. “I often used the term mutual benefit,” says Douglas. “We need to be able to tell the narrative of how both the community and others gain from this -- if it’s only one directional it’s not sustainable.”

Here are the main takeaways from the in-person discussion: 

Creating a model for change

Call centers are the lifeblood of Discover, allowing customers to call with urgent questions to solve account problems. The company prides itself on having only US-based call centers and views superior customer service as a differentiating factor. Discover made a strategic decision to invest in locating a new call center in a former retail hub for Chatham, a predominantly Black neighborhood on the south side of the city. “I had been thinking of how corporate site selection perpetuates systemic bias. Only large companies bring jobs at scale,” said Hochschild. “We were convinced that it would work out.”

It did. Opened in 2021, the financial services firm’s Customer Care Center in Chatham now has more than 500 Discover employees, the majority of whom live within five miles of their job. The call center is performing at the same level as more established call centers with 40% less attrition. The low attrition rate means far less need for training and lower costs. The new call center is also stimulating greater economic activity in the local community. Discover works with more than 20 local area restaurants to offer the employees free lunch daily, while other small businesses benefit from having a big employer in the area.

 The call center has been so successful that Discover is incorporating practices from the Chatham location to other existing call centers and plans to continue investing in other neighborhoods like it. “Sometimes these decisions look riskier than they are,” Hochschild said. “We have benefited as a company so much more than Chatham. It’s an honor for us to be in that community.”

Powering the next generation of neighborhoods

For ComEd’s Quiniones, developing a project in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood serves as a model of what other areas with little access to renewable resources can look like in the future. ComEd is developing a community microgrid in Bronzeville – one of the first of its kind in the country - allowing the neighborhood to retain power in case of a power outage through distributed energy sources (DERs). “We believe the benefits of clean energy should be available to all - there should be no ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,” he said. Once complete, the microgrid will power more than 1,000 homes, businesses and public institutions.

The Bronzeville project offers a template of how the utility company is planning to bring its existing infrastructure into the future including incorporating renewable energy sources, smart street lighting, and last-mile electric vehicle transportation for seniors. Many of these initiatives were a result of direct input from the local community.

To get this community input, ComEd convened a neighborhood advisory group that also led to the incorporation of local hiring initiatives, youth STEM programming, and a mural to conceal equipment for the microgrid commemorating Bronzeville’s iconic African American past.

Next up, the utility is considering a similar project north of Chicago in Rockford, Ill. “We think it’s a model we can do in various communities within our service territory,” Quiniones said.

Making long-term investments

At Illinois Tool Works (ITW), the decision to invest in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods began with a desire to have direct impact through multi-year commitments. This year, the company formalized its investment in Chicago’s Austin and Belmont Cragin neighborhoods as part of its new Commit to a Neighborhood Initiative. Over the next decade, the goal is to bring manufacturing jobs to an area that has experienced decades of disinvestment. “Part of what drives us is that access to economic opportunities is essentially the vehicle to how society’s challenges get solved. It is critical to addressing a myriad of issues facing the city to give full access to economic opportunities” Santi told the audience.

The company already has ties to the area, including sponsoring the ITW David Speer Academy in Belmont Cragin, a high school that opened in 2014. ITW employees are involved in STEM education programming for more than 1,000 students.

For Santi, and the rest of the speakers, it’s critical to keep expanding these initiatives for maximum impact. “We need to be driving permanent change, not feel-good short-term change -- it’s not going to be a quick fix,” he said.
The Innovating for Social Equity series aims to examine cross-sector efforts to tackle the seemingly intractable barriers to a society and economy that work for all. 

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