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Sunday Sitdown: Melissa Quinn, a force in Chicago in hiring women for tech jobs

Melissa Quinn, chief operating officer of the Chicago design company Doblin, in the firm's downtown Chicago offices. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

While tech gurus puzzle over how to increase the number of women in technology leadership roles, Melissa Quinn and her mostly female recruiting team are busy finding enough designers, researchers and managers to double their Chicago-based employer’s local and overseas work forces. Women have accounted for about 75 percent of hires the past few years at design innovation firm Doblin, now part of consulting giant Deloitte. Quinn even has her own “Lean In”-type philosophy as chief operating officer of the 34-year-old design firm, whose roots grew from the city’s Near South Sid in the neighborhood known as the Gap.

Question: One of your priorities is boosting the name recognition of a Chicago trailblazer, Doblin, that long preceded the latest hot local startup. What is Doblin’s claim to fame?

Answer: The late Jay Doblin — a renowned designer and co-founder of the firm with thought leader Larry Keeley — developed his ideas that design could be used as a tool to help businesses change the world when he taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology. An example of his early success was partnering with Xerox, then a copier company, to focus on the office worker using the copier. Rather than make the copier an ever-more-complex machine, Xerox evolved into making machines that didn’t require sophisticated service people tinkering with them every time something needed to get done. The innovation was around the user’s experience, not just the product itself.

Today, we support the local community partly through our relationship with the Chicago Community Trust. Students of Keeley and John Pipino at IIT’s Institute of Design have developed an idea for a digital platform using data analytics to understand neighborhood issues. The platform will let people in Chicago’s neighborhoods and elsewhere log their own ideas for solutions.

The solutions might include job fairs, organic farming, bike-repair events, after-school activities or health care clinics. The goal is to understand what neighborhoods need to thrive and to share solutions among communities.

The Chicago Community Trust will hire five students this summer from IIT’s Institute of Design to keep building on the initial idea.

We have also just introduced an iPad app that offers a free, curated newsfeed and step-by-step guide to using Doblin’s “Ten Types of Innovation.” The app uses a question-and-answer format to help people build ideas that are bold and transformational enough to hold up in the marketplace. The free app has an option to upgrade for $19.99 to let people tag and share information, produce a variety of concepts and share those ideas in a PDF of their business plans.

Q: Most of Doblin’s recruiting team is female, but more men are advancing to senior levels. Why is there a gender gap?

A: For much of my career, I have felt a little gunshy about stepping into a prominent women’s advocacy role. I’ve never felt ‘different,’ despite often being surrounded by male colleagues and clients. I try to think more of people as individuals. That said, I agreed to be the women’s champion recruiter for Deloitte at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Now, I am that senior voice advocating for equality; for strong, qualified women candidates and for making them feel there are role models here who they can look up to when they join the firm.

I think that consulting, in general, is a tough business for anybody who has kids. It involves a lot of travel and long hours. For whatever reasons, women still seem disproportionately opting out [of more senior-level positions] because they find it hard to balance having a family.

Both Doblin and Deloitte have made strides in flexibility and predictability to encourage work-life fit. It has also been an issue that Deloitte’s newly elected CEO, Cathy Engelbert, has talked about since her appointment on Feb. 9 as the first female CEO of a major U.S. audit and consulting firm.

From my point of view, we’ve found amazingly talented women to fill job openings.

I see Doblin doubling its 40-person team in Chicago and doubling its team of 70 globally, both in the next three to five years. We look for people who are curious and collaborative and confident that they have something to say.

Our primary undergraduate recruitment sites are the University of Cincinnati and Carnegie Mellon University because of their design programs, as well as master’s degree students from IIT’s Institute of Design.

Chicago is a great place to live, so it’s easy to attract talent here.