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Lightfoot urges business leaders to join her in ‘second Chicago renaissance’

Until the business community “finds a new way to invest in our people and our neighborhoods, the grinding poverty and the violence born out of desperation and despair simply will not end,” the mayor said.

Chicago skyline, seen from 31st Street Bridge over Lake Shore Drive in July 2020.
Business must invest in — and build in — some of the city’s traditionally underserved areas, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday urged corporate titans to help Chicago rebuild more equitably — and stop the epidemic of gang violence — after the economic devastation created by the coronavirus and the civil unrest caused by the death of George Floyd.

One week after unveiling her blueprint for a “second Chicago renaissance,” Lightfoot exhorted the Executives’ Club of Chicago to participate by following what she called a “new economic model based on dynamic, inclusive growth.”

Lightfoot said she’s prepared to lead the way with her $750 million Invest South/West plan to rebuild 10 inner-city neighborhoods.

But the city, philanthropic and community-based organizations together “account for, at most, 20 percent of the city’s economic activity” and “cannot do this alone,” she said.

“It’s our business community — all of you — that make up the other 80 percent. And until that 80 percent finds a new way to invest in our people and our neighborhoods, the grinding poverty and the violence born out of desperation and despair simply will not end. But when we put that 80 percent to work in our neighborhoods, anything is possible,” the mayor said.

In a webinar with hundreds of powerful participants, Lightfoot outlined what she called “five things you, our business leaders and entrepreneurs, can do right now to help.”

They are:

• Update their procurement practices to find ways to “hire more local Black- and Brown-owned businesses.”

“Don’t just go for janitorial or security or catering services. Think about our professional services. We have great talent in accounting, IT, legal and investment. All have strong minority businesses right here in Chicago who have been at it for years and deliver high-quality services,” the mayor said, noting that the city is “leading by example.”

• Diversify hiring and build an employment pipeline through corporate “internships, apprenticeships and scholarships” for young people.

“The C-suites of our companies and our first layers below aren’t exactly reflective of the diversity of our great city. You can help change that by making a pledge to diversify your workforce at all levels. You could also make a pledge to address the underlying challenges related to workforce diversity by creating a dynamic partnership and investment in … Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges,” she said.

Once again, Lightfoot said the city is “putting our money where our mouth is” by strengthening partnerships between CPS and City Colleges “to build more pathways and pipelines for our students from their first day in pre-K to the day they walk across the stage at graduation.”

• Put more capital in Black and Brown communities. Lightfoot noted BMO Harris and Starbucks each made a $10 million commitment to her Invest South/West program.

“But the truth is, we need more. These kinds of commitments will lead to investment return in our communities for generations. It can be transformative,” she said.

• Move their places of business to the more “affordable real estate” in Chicago neighborhoods. Once again, the city is leading by example, relocating the city department now known as Assets, Information and Services to Englewood and the Chicago Park District headquarters to Brighton Park.

• Invest directly in the city’s new “Together Now” fund.

“We’re creating a $1 billion-plus fund of cash and in-kind commitments to provide support to Chicago’s businesses on the South and West sides. With pledges and commitment to this fund, we’ll be able to better support the recovery efforts and initiatives like Invest South/West,” she said.

Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce President Jack Lavin could not be reached for comment on the mayor’s appeal, but it’s likely to resonate with him.

Just days after downtown looting and mayhem triggered by Floyd’s death spilled out into South Side and West Side neighborhoods, Lavin said it’s time for Chicago business leaders to have “courageous discussions about race” that have been put off for far too long.

“Our large businesses are not gonna perform well without strong small businesses. They’re part of our supply chain. So our corporate community needs to take a look at how we’re supporting our small businesses. Particularly how we’re helping ... minority-owned businesses. We also need to take a look at how are we hiring and bringing new people into companies. Are we pursuing diverse pipelines for hiring?” Lavin told the Sun-Times then.

“Let’s take a pledge to buy from our supply chain and have them be Chicagoland companies. ... This pandemic, these protests are gonna change how we operate as a business community. How we bring talent in. We need to be on the cutting edge of that.”