ChicagoMSDC's anniversary theme: Fifty Forward

By Monica Stavish Skaggs

The civil and economic turmoil that rocked Chicago in 1968 turned out to be a catalyst for 55 years of determined service to minority-owned businesses. That year, Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council Inc. was formed to build a partnership between minority businesses and corporate America and government to foster basic fairness in the marketplace. 

ChicagoMSDC is the founding organization that gave birth to the nonprofit National Minority Supplier Development Council Inc., which was chartered five years later in 1972. In earlier years, Chicago MSDC was known as Chicago Regional Purchasing Council and Chicago Minority Business Development Council. 

Today, ChicagoMSDC is one of 23 affiliates of NMSDC, which works with certified Asian, Black, Hispanic and Native American business enterprises and connects them with its corporate members.

“We are the oldest MSDC. The whole spirit of minority business started in Chicago,” said Debra Jennings-Johnson, interim president and CEO since April 2022. “I feel honored that I can now support how we continue to build on the legacy and reimagine the future.” 

ChicagoMSDC works with 250 private- and public-sector buying organizations and 1,000 certified minority businesses. Its buying members report more than $3 billion in annual purchases from minority firms, while its minority business enterprise membership employs 20,000 workers annually.

Thriving and surviving
Much has transpired since the group’s inception 55 years ago. ChicagoMSDC operates on the premise that those who have a dream and will take risks and make sacrifices should have the opportunity to succeed. 

With each passing decade, the council works to adapt to change as it embraces its objectives.

“There are new challenges in our economy that disproportionately impact small and minority businesses. During COVID, there were many examples of how companies did a pivot to help them survive. Now, we must support their effort to thrive,” Jennings-Johnson said. “Even if you eliminate COVID and its impact, there are still so many new challenges.

“Because of COVID, the world stopped, and there was little or no exchange of products and services during that period — which had an impact on our minority businesses,” she continued. “In some cases, where companies were able to pivot and get into making masks and other items that we needed at that time, they had a growth in their business. But a lot of them did not.”

Value of certification
At the same time, membership in the council has been beneficial to many, including Brian Ortiz, founder, president and CEO, Trinidad Construction LLC. He said the organization has provided his company with “a foot in the door that, otherwise, we would have never had.

“When I started my business in 2011, my goal was to work with private corporations instead of public projects, where most MBE contractors work,” he continued. “In 10 years, we have built relationships with 20-plus Fortune 500 companies. Most of these relationships are a direct result of our certification with ChicagoMSDC and events they host. We are now mentoring newer MBE firms on transitioning to corporate work, and the first step I always recommend is certification with ChicagoMSDC.”

Council member George A. Williams, chairman and CEO, PMI Energy Solutions LLC, shares the council’s supplier-diversity philosophy “that all large corporations should focus on embracing diverse suppliers and have a diverse spend reflective of the customer base they serve.” 

Williams mentors 10 diverse suppliers, and his company does business with other MBEs.

Kristine Fallon Associates Inc. is another active member of the council and sponsor of various events.

“Since joining the council five years ago, I have watched KFA and other MBE firms scale internationally and earn business with national and local corporate and government buyers and fellow MBEs,” said Greg Bush Jr., owner, president and CEO, Kristine Fallon Associates Inc. “These successes occurred through the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the national social unrest, and now we are seeing success in the current business climate.”

Added Quentella Enty, vice president, Kristine Fallon Associates Inc., “Under interim President Debra Jennings-Johnson — a seasoned supplier-diversity professional with astute and tested leadership — I am confident that ChicagoMSDC will continue to scale to grow MBE members as it has historically, creating economic empowerment for our MBE businesses, creating jobs and opportunities for communities in need.”

Focusing on the future
Jennings-Johnson brings more than 30 years of corporate experience to her role with the council. Previously, she was senior director of supplier diversity at BP America Inc., where she focused on growth opportunities and mentoring of minority- and women-owned businesses. 

ChicagoMSDC’s board of directors unanimously chose Jennings-Johnson based on her seasoned approach to minority business development and experience with the council. Currently, a permanent replacement for the role is not being sought.

“We were just pleased she was available to support us and was willing to come out of retirement to do so,” said Rona Fourté, ChicagoMSDC board of directors’ chairman and vice president, global supplier diversity, CBRE Group Inc. “Over the past six months, Debra has immediately stabilized staffing, reestablished a culture of productivity and service to our benefactors and increased corporate engagement.”

Jennings-Johnson has resolved several challenges since taking on her role, Fourté said. 

“Improving our development [capacity-building] and engagement [networking] framework to drive greater MBE contracting success with our corporate members was — and is — a key factor in remaining relevant as an organization within a growing minority business support provider market,” she said. “Debra understood this and was able to redesign our service-delivery model through staff realignment and integration of the voice of our current and future customers.”

A big focus since the pandemic is on how changes in the supply chain and economic circumstances have impacted corporate America’s procurement processes, Jennings-Johnson said.

“Our job is to ‘connect’ MBEs, so they translate changes to opportunities. We are meeting with our corporate partners to identify their procurement plans, set procurement meetings and matchmakers and target industries,” she said. “We’re also enhancing our program delivery for MBEs so they will be ready for those opportunities.”

The council is focused on helping younger entrepreneurs as they enter the market.

“Going forward, we’re looking at economic gaps in manufacturing, succession planning and the area of young entrepreneurs. We must attract manufacturers and MBEs,” Jennings-Johnson said. “That [recruitment] increases the capability to add jobs. We have some interested manufacturers who want to increase diversity in their supply chains.”

Succession planning is key to the many businesses that were created during the past 55 years and are still thriving, she added.

“It’s important to consider how we can support a win for the owner’s retirement plan, while maintaining a diverse business that adds value to its clients and the NMSDC network. I also want to see second generations continue the dreams,” Jennings-Johnson said.

“We are focused on staying relevant and providing services to engage new entrepreneurs. We’re also focusing our attention on the way the business community shares information to create opportunity and wealth among minority businesses,” she said. “We’re still in the process of building that. How? By listening to stakeholders and the world around us, seeing how things are functioning and seeing where the opportunities are for members to grasp and stay relevant.

“It’s about getting your foot in the door — not just listening but getting your product in front of the right people,” Jennings-Johnson continued. “Those are the opportunities the council creates.”

ChicagoMSDC offers a variety of programs and resources including Progress, Insight & Performance Education or the PIPE Program, a collaboration between the council and University of Phoenix that features an eight-week advanced business management program. Also, the council is a partner with Cook County Small Business Source, which includes 30 organizations that support small businesses. 

To observe its anniversary, the council held its 55th Annual Chicago Business Opportunity Fair in May. The signature event was instituted in the aftermath of the turmoil in 1968 by corporate and community leaders to cast a spotlight of hope. The council will also celebrate its past and discuss goals for the next five years at its annual meeting Dec. 2, 2022.  

To learn more about the ChicagoMSDC, visit


Chicago Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council Inc. Chicago MSDC Chicago Regional Purchasing Council Debra Jennings-Johnson PMI Energy Solutions LLC George A. Williams KFA MBE Greg Bush Jr. Quentella Enty Kristine Fallon Associates Inc. Rona Fourté Cook County Small Business Source Insight & Performance Education PIPE Program 55th Annual Chicago Business Opportunity Fair Brian Ortiz Trinidad Construction LLC ChicagoMSDC

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