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How do civic and business leaders pass down their hard-won wisdom to the next generation?

The IMPACT Leadership Development program, developed by the Chicago Urban League in partnership with Chicago Booth, connects up-and-coming professionals with senior African American leaders throughout Chicago—creating a pipeline of talented individuals who are reaching new heights in their careers, and making positive change throughout the city.

Six years after its inception, “IMPACT has become a credential in its own right,” said Andrea Zopp, who envisioned the program. “And that’s a huge plus, not only for the Urban League, but also for the participants in the program.”

Fixing the Disconnect

Zopp started forming the idea for IMPACT back in 2012, when she was president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. She heard too often that there was “a disconnect” in mentorship within the city’s African American community between senior leaders and younger professionals working to rise through the ranks. And for those who did reach greater heights of success, the view from the top could be incredibly lonely.

“What I knew from my own experience was that as you get more senior, in many instances, you’re alone or one of very, very few,” said Zopp, who is currently the president and CEO of World Business Chicago and had a distinguished career spanning the corporate and civic spheres. “I wanted to give young African American leaders a network of like-experienced people from different backgrounds that they could call on for support, and I wanted to give them the skills to be better leaders.”

The result, Zopp thought, could be a strong cohort of up-and-coming African American professionals ready to take on C-suite roles in companies, or lead government or nonprofit entities. Zopp brought her idea to Derek Douglas, who had joined UChicago that same year as vice president for civic engagement and external affairs. The concept immediately resonated with him, and what he had experienced traveling the country in his previous role working on urban issues in the Obama White House.

“It was not on my radar screen when I first joined the White House, but this issue of pipeline kept coming up over and over,” said Douglas. “Many cities would say they understand there’s all these great visions and ideas for what they want to be, but they don’t have the people, or the people haven’t been developed, and there are no programs or ways out there to do it.

Professor George Wu teaching to a classroom of IMPACT fellows
Professor George Wu is one of several Booth faculty members who teach in the IMPACT program.

Douglas brought Chicago Booth on board as an educational partner. Leadership professor George Wu, the John P. and Lillian A. Gould Professor of Behavioral Science, joined with the Urban League, helping develop a curriculum that combines a civic education with practical leadership skills, all within a classroom setting at Booth where participants feel safe sharing their personal experiences.

“They come together, they trust each other, and they inspire each other to do bigger and better things,” said Wu, who continues to be Booth’s faculty director for the program today. “You need that inspiration to be more ambitious, and you need the knowledge and resources and the network to deliver on that ambition. I think we’re able to provide the fellows with all of those things.”

Impact in the Classroom and Beyond

Meeting monthly at Booth’s Gleacher Center downtown, the 35 fellows admitted to each cohort of the highly selective program learn and network together over nine months. Civic education modules cover African American history and politics in Chicago and their effect on current issues, such as health care, criminal justice, and education. Guest speakers across industries visit to share their perspectives. Booth faculty teach leadership coursework on negotiations, decision-making, business ethics, power and influence, and interpersonal dynamics.

Felicia Rauls, ’14, a graduate of the Evening MBA Program, joined IMPACT in 2019. She initially thought that taking classes again at Booth with her MBA professors would be familiar territory.

“But that first day of IMPACT orientation, I was sitting in a Gleacher classroom like I had done countless times before, and I looked around, and all I saw were Black faces and it felt surreal,” Rauls said. “I had an instant feeling of ease, an unspoken connection and level of comfortability and confidence. I knew this time at Gleacher was going to be a much different experience.”

Professor George Wu teaching a classroom of IMPACT Fellows
IMPACT fellows meet monthly at Gleacher Center over nine months.

Rauls, senior vice president and director of operations at Chicago-based Mesirow Financial, said that kind of camaraderie is important to her, especially as a Black woman in finance where, industry-wide, just 12 percent of professionals are African American. She noted that the relationships she made with other fellows have extended even after IMPACT concluded.

“I’m really seeing the benefit of those connections during this time of social unrest triggered by the death of George Floyd, and just being able to have a network of individuals who lend their support and who are navigating the work place like I am (and have) is empowering,” said Rauls. “We don’t all have the same perspective or agree on every topic or approach, but we’re all navigating the workplace in similar situations. The diversity of thought offered by the fellows informs my perspective on how to address a variety of workplace issues. Just being able to have someone to chat with about diversity and inclusion topics, and ask, ‘If this situation came up, how would you deal with it?’ has been a great value-add from the program.”

Rauls was also recently appointed to her firm’s Inclusion Council, where she will be taking the knowledge she learned through the program’s modules and applying them directly to her new leadership role.

Crucially, each IMPACT fellow is also paired with a mentor from among Chicago’s senior African American leaders, to facilitate an intergenerational transfer of knowledge and help the fellows expand their network. It was this aspect of the program that attracted Constance Jones, a Harvard Business School graduate and then newcomer to Chicago, to join the first cohort of IMPACT, in 2014.

“I went from knowing no one in the city to being one of those people who people want to know, which was so weird to me. IMPACT was very important in helping me get that network and understand the communities and deepen my relationships with communities here in Chicago.”

— Constance Jones

“I really just wanted to engulf myself in the history of the city and the networks within the city that I was having a really hard time penetrating,” said Jones. Using what she was learning in IMPACT, Jones took a new job while in the program as chief external affairs officer of the Noble Network of Charter Schools—one of Illinois’s largest charter school networks with 18 locations.

She rose to become CEO in 2018 and was named to Chicago Magazine’s list of “Chicago’s 50 Most Powerful Women” this past May. She credits IMPACT as a transformational part of that journey. “I went from knowing no one in the city to being one of those people who people want to know, which was so weird to me,” Jones reflected. “IMPACT was very important in helping me get that network and understand the communities and deepen my relationships with communities here in Chicago.”

Those deep relationships help her serve Noble’s 12,000 students, most of whom are Black or Hispanic and live in underresourced neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides. “It is the most important work and the hardest work I’ve done, but we get amazing results,” said Jones. “I get so much joy out of seeing kids being able to accomplish their wildest dreams, and go from not believing they can to believing in themselves.”

A Campus-Wide Commitment

On campus, IMPACT is just one of a number of recent initiatives and programs that underscore UChicago’s increasing commitment to training the next generation of civic leaders, said Joanie Friedman, executive director of civic leadership, in the Office of Civic Engagement.

Also within the university, the Civic Leadership Academy (CLA) develops high-potential leaders specifically for nonprofits and government. The Civic Actor Studio (CAS) is a new leadership retreat that combines the leadership approach of Booth’s Harry L. Davis, the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management, with the skills of the Court Theatre to recognize the performative aspect of leadership. And stretching across many programs, the Civic Leadership Development Exchange (CLDE), cohosted by the Office of Civic Engagement and Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, brings together directors of multiple civic leadership programs across the city—including IMPACT—to share knowledge and create ongoing programming that lets participants from all these programs meet and learn from each other.

“To me, a city, a community is only going to go as far as the talent and the capacity of the people leading it. Programs like these are one of the best investments that any city could have, and one of the best things that the university could be doing, because it flows directly out of what we do naturally—which is to teach.”

— Derek Douglas

This is a two-way street,” said Friedman. “Not only is the university offering space and time and amazing faculty members who can talk about negotiation and problem-solving and all these different lenses. The university is also benefiting from learning about the life experiences of these civic leaders in really meaningful ways. I’ve had many faculty members thank me so profusely for the opportunity to teach.”

UChicago’s Derek Douglas sees partnerships such as IMPACT as a critical part of the university’s role within the City of Chicago. “To me, a city, a community is only going to go as far as the talent and the capacity of the people leading it. Programs like these are one of the best investments that any city could have, and one of the best things that the university could be doing, because it flows directly out of what we do naturally—which is to teach.

“The vast majority of the people who’ve come through IMPACT have been very successful and are moving up in their careers—and we’re only six years in. They’re going to be the commissioners and the mayors and the heads of major nonprofits and the like 10 years from now. That is what it’s all about: it’s both the personal story and the collective story of success.”

Smashing the Cement Ceiling

Six years in, the Chicago Urban League is seeing firsthand the wide-ranging ripple effects of the program through the achievements of its participants.

“It’s clear that the program is working and that our fellows grow tremendously as a result of their participation in it,” said the Urban League’s Mavis Laing, vice president and executive director of IMPACT. In postprogram surveys, 97 to 100 percent of fellows reported they are more confident as leaders and 100 percent reported growing their networks through the program. “Scores of people have been promoted, and scores of people are joining community boards,” said Laing.

IMPACT fellows collaborating on a project
Nearly all IMPACT fellows say they feel more confident in their leadership abilities and have grown their networks because of the program.

More than 100 employers have sponsored fellows through IMPACT to date, Laing noted, and leadership development programs such as IMPACT will only grow in importance given the current civic environment and the desire across industries to diversify talent pools.

The partnership with Booth, said Laing, “has been extraordinary. We really see it as a wonderful demonstration of how a world-class educational organization can partner with a community-based organization and achieve tangible outcomes from it.”

Andrea Zopp still attends each IMPACT graduation. “I get weepy. It’s very moving for me.” She marvels at each new group of young leaders, excited to get out into the city and make change in their communities.

What’s clear is that the seed of an idea planted six years ago is already flourishing, and that the program is training the next generation of leaders to participate in the Urban League’s vision that “a strong African American community is a better Chicago.”

“Oftentimes, we find that for African Americans, you can be very accomplished and get to a certain point, and then there’s that—it’s not a glass ceiling, it’s like a—cement ceiling,” said Zopp. “IMPACT is about helping people break through that. We get them the skills, mentorship, and support they need to break through it and help them really think through where they want to be and how they want to have an impact in their community. And they are. And they do.”


All photos provided by the Chicago Urban League. Lead image: A class of IMPACT fellows poses on the stairs at Booth's Charles M. Harper Center to celebrate their graduation from the program in the spring of 2019.

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