For Aaron Curtis, getting a job as a coach at Discover Financial Services’ new call center in his Chatham neighborhood chopped his one-hour commute to 10 minutes.
That means more time for the husband and father of two to spend with his 9-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. He rarely saw them while commuting to his job as a call center supervisor at a downtown telecommunications firm for the past three-and-a-half years.
“In the morning, I’d rush out to get to work on time. And in bad traffic, the commute was an hour and a half. Add that to an eight- to 10-hour shift, and that’s your whole day,” said Curtis.
“When I came home, it was either time to go to bed, or the family was already in bed,” said the 30-year-old, who has an associate’s degree in computer science.
Curtis is among 100 employees hired — so far — by the Fortune 500 company at its newest office, which last week passed the 100-day mark. The milestone isn’t the only thing being celebrated by its staff.
The employees are predominantly Black and Latino, and 79% of them living within 5 miles of the call center, at 8560 S. Cottage Grove. That office is a bit of a unicorn, situated as it is in a disinvested community — but it’s also a big success.
The Chatham center is beating all other Discover call centers nationwide in customer satisfaction, as gauged in surveys, and is at the top in staff retention, as well.
“That tells me we made a great decision,” Discover CEO and President Roger Hochschild told the Chicago Sun-Times. Those ratings are based on early data coming out of the office.
His company moved into a shuttered Target store as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West initiative.
“It’s no secret that opportunity has not been evenly distributed in our nation. Corporations have played a role in that,” Hochschild noted.
“We said, ‘Let’s reverse that.’ And it has worked out even better than we thought.”
The company, 223rd on the Fortune 500, has 17,600 employees, mostly spread throughout call centers in Arizona, Delaware, Ohio and Utah.
Discover’s first new customer care center in 20 years, the Chatham office also exceeded expectations with a tsunami of job applications. More than 1,000 were received within 72 hours for 20 management jobs. More than 3,500 were received for 120 agent jobs.
The build-out continues on the 126,500-square-foot facility. Discover, based in Riverwood, plans to have 1,000 employees in Chatham by 2024.
“How many stories do you hear about how hard it is to find people right now? Those applicant numbers reinforce that people are there. You just have to bring the jobs to them — and look what you find when you do,” Hochschild said.
“When you bring opportunity to great talent, this is the type of performance you can see.”
Discover’s bold gamble in the economic equity sphere is being watched.
“I’ve had other business leaders approach me to see how we did it. A real magnifier for us will be to inspire other companies,” said the 56-year-old CEO, who took the helm in October 2018 after 14 years as chief operating officer.
The commercial bank and financial services firm has also upped the ante in spending with minority- and women-owned businesses, creating a new template at the Chatham office that’s now being exported to other sites.
Three-fourths of its construction contracts there have gone to firms owned by minorities or women — as has nearly all facility operations spending.
That took significant outreach by a company that had $12.9 billion in revenues last year.
Supplier opportunity trainings were held jointly with Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th).
“Supplier diversity is important,” Hochschild said.
“We learned to break our bids into smaller pieces because these companies are smaller. That way, they could effectively bid,” he said. “We can now put some of these best practices in place at our other centers and hopefully improve minority-owned business spending across the entire company.”
Local businesses getting support include nearby restaurants like Harold’s Chicken in Chatham and El Ranchito Tacos in Englewood, which catered a festive office celebration on Wednesday.
Shamika Jackson, like co-worker Curtis, is grateful her job as an associate training specialist is close to home. It’s 10 minutes from her Jackson Park home — versus her previous one-hour commute downtown, where she worked 10 years as a trainer and enrollment specialist for a national association.
The 37-year-old single mother, who holds a master’s degree in data analytics, now gets home in time to cook dinner for her 14-year-old daughter and help with homework.
“In my previous position, I was the subject-matter expert. If there was a need within the company pertaining to my job field, I was the one they came to, but I was in a position where I had reached a ceiling,” said Jackson.
“For me, this was an opportunity to grow. There’s this stigma that African Americans from low-income communities don’t desire corporate opportunities. If given the opportunities, we will excel.”
Invest South/West aims to create more such opportunities in 10 of the city’s most disinvested neighborhoods: 40% of Chatham families live below poverty; its unemployment rate of 15.7% is nearly double the city average.
It is grappling with an uptick in crime, as are many Chicago neighborhoods.
Tax incentives helped lure Discover to Chatham. Now, it offers jobs with starting salaries of $17.25 an hour. Full health insurance, a 401(k) and free college tuition are available for full-time hires.
Eventually, the center is expected to field 10 million calls a year. For now, the center’s first team is scoring 93.9% on customer surveys, versus 89.7% at other centers.
“That’s the highest in the company,” boasted Regional Operations Director Juatise Gathings, a Roseland native whose family fled Chicago for better opportunities when she was a teenager. The 31-year-old left Utah to come run the new office.
“I started with the company as a frontline customer care agent while attending college to become a teacher. It was to be a temporary job while finishing school,” she said.
“But I fell in love with the culture and the people. I started working myself up to management and never left,” Gathings said. “But you know, there was always a hankering to come home and do more work in Black and Brown communities, especially after George Floyd and the whole racial justice movement last year.”
One of her hires said landing a job there was like grabbing a life ring after being laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic. Account specialist Brock Thurman, 24, lost his job as a sales specialist at a Northwest Side bank in November.
“I applied to the very first class of hires here, but it was too full. I didn’t get it initially, but I reapplied. At my previous job, I was in the top 1% in sales, so I knew I was qualified to succeed and even excel at this job,” said Thurman.
Thurman, who attended college for two-and-a-half years, is optimistic about his future.
In August, he moved from his mother’s home into a two-bedroom apartment in Lincoln Park.
“It’s been nothing but good happening for me since getting this job. It’s reassured me I’m OK, that I’m making the right choices in my life. It’s also shown me I can create the life I want for myself. I don’t have to look for how — I’m in the position to do it,” he said.
“And I absolutely plan to take advantage of the college tuition.”