How these fabulous Chicago women are making a difference.
The modern Chicago Woman isn't just glam, smart, and successful--she's changing the world.
Meet these six ladies from Windy City who are shaking things up and making progress towards fairness and diversity: Mayra Garcia Guzman, Bernie Wong,Janet Deatherage, Julieanna Richardson, Pat Harris, & Perri Irmer
Mayra Garcia Guzman
General Manager, Diversity & Small Business Compliance Department, Chicago Transit Authority
Mayra Garcia Guzman’s drive to help small businesses succeed probably stems from her childhood. A native Chicagoan born of Mexican descent, she came from a long line of entrepreneurs. “My parents were born in Mexico and a lot of my family members there are small business owners,” she says. “So I saw how much heart, soul, work and sweat goes into every single day of running a business. You have to be making that sale – otherwise you don’t eat.” Now, as general manager for the Diversity & Small Business Compliance Department at the Chicago Transit Authority, Mayra’s helping small businesses in a big way, encouraging and enabling them to do business with the second largest transit system in the country.
“I was looking to work with members of the minority community,” Mayra recalls of her professional start with the Chicago Public Schools. There, she specialized in business diversity. “It was the perfect marriage of working with different community groups and helping to create economic growth in this community that I care about so much.” From there, Mayra moved to the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to serve as director for the Procurement Technical Assistance (PTA) Center, helping companies navigate the government procurement process.
And then she joined the Business Enterprise Program at State of Illinois Central Management Serviceswhere, as deputy director, she was responsible for the department that promoted and monitored the participation of minority and women-owned businesses. “It provided a wonderful opportunity to learn about the state aspect of business diversity.”
Mayra’s well-rounded background set her up for success at the CTA. She’s only been there a year but already made an impact by enhancing and expanding its Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBE) program. “The DBE program is a federal program mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation and created in an effort to help companies that have been socially and economically disadvantaged,” she explains. “It helps create a level playing field on which to do business with different government agencies.”
Under Mayra’s watch, the CTA approved a new DBE operating program in December of 2009. “Of all the [construction and professional services] contracts with subcontracting opportunities that we assign every year, at least 25 percent must be subcontracted to DBEs,” she says, adding that the DBEs can also bid as contractors.
To help potential players get in the game, CTA offers a free program called “Monthly DBE Certification Workshop” which guides participants through the application process. “If you’ve ever had an opportunity to look at the DBE application, it can be a little bit overwhelming,” Mayra laughs. “We try to demystify the process.”
Once certified, companies are eligible to bid for contracts not only with the CTA, but also with the Illinois Department of Transportation, PACE, Metra and the City of Chicago. “We work with vendors to educate them on how to do business with CTA, but they can take that knowledge and apply it to the other four organizations that are using [DBE certification].”
Companies are also encouraged to connect and collaborate with CTA’s larger primary vendors, not only for CTA contracts, but for outside endeavors as well. “We’ve started monthly sessions, which offer opportunities for DBE certified companies to meet with primary vendors that are already doing business with CTA,” Mayra says. “The idea was to get companies to start thinking about ways to collaborate. As a result, we’ve had companies that have partnered for CTA contracts and outside of CTA. That’s what we love to hear – that we’re creating wealth outside of CTA and hopefully beyond today, tomorrow and next week.”
But offering opportunities to DBEs isn’t all hearts and flowers; Mayra admits the bottom line is always a consideration. “We’re trying to make sure we have as many companies bidding on CTA contracts as possible,” she says. “Because that creates competition, opportunity and creativity.”
Still, the DBE program is truly a small business program. “You always hear that small businesses are the backbone of this country, but there are not a lot of programs thoroughly targeted to small businesses,” Mayra says. “There are a lot of small businesses that don’t get the assistance they need and that’s what we’re trying to do at CTA."
Co-founder, Chinese American Service League
Bernie Wong knows what it’s like to arrive in the U.S. poor and alone. As an 18-year-old from Hong Kong attending college in the Midwest, she learned firsthand about the culture shock and loneliness that accompany a move from Asia to America. But she gutted it out and remained stateside after graduation – a lucky break for residents of Chinatown. There, she and group of colleagues founded the Chinese American Service League (CASL), now the largest and most comprehensive social service agency for Chinese Americans in the Midwest.
And as CASL’s president, Bernie ensures that newly-arrived immigrants get the education, social services, language and job training they need, and that the Chinese American community is an engaged, productive and vital part of the Chicago cityscape.
All On Her Own
When Bernie arrived at Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, Iowa, all she had was $80, a typewriter and a trunk full of clothes handmade by her mother. “I was totally on my own,” she recalls. “It was pretty scary.” Decades later, she still remembers the homesickness. “I was writing letters home almost every day and just had enough money to buy the stamps.”
But she persevered, earning a B.A. in sociology, then a master’s degree in social work from George Warren Brown School of Social Work in St. Louis, where she met her future husband. The couple moved to Chicago and Bernie signed on as director of social services for East Chicago Heights.
Bernie’s husband, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, introduced her to his colleagues and the group began meeting regularly for potluck dinners. “Every time the same topic would come up,” she says. “What services are there for the limited-English Chinese in Chicago?”
Tea & Taxes
A few group members taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in Chinatown and found themselves answering students’ questions, not about language, but about issues like finding affordable daycare or applying for Medicare. Bernie pitched in, offering consultations and making calls from her office, but it began interfering with her job. “So we decided to try to bring the services to Chinatown.”
The group faced instant opposition. “The leadership was closed-minded about letting outside people in,” Bernie remembers. But Ping Tom, a well-known businessman and civic leader, helped grease the skids. “He was a board member at the community center. He understood what we were trying to do.”
Ping arranged for the group to borrow space at the community center, and every Sunday they’d show up bearing donuts and Thermoses filled with tea. “We knew we had to take our time,” Bernie explains. “So we sipped tea and talked to the establishment for a good eight to nine months before we did anything substantial.”
Finally, the group made headway with a tax rebate program for seniors. “You’d fill out a form and a few weeks later you’d start getting checks in the mail,” Bernie chuckles. “The word went out that we weren’t so bad after all.”
Afterward, CASL came to life. It became a partner agency of the United Way, while Bernie became the first Asian to sit on the United Way’s board of directors. And it sprouted an array of programs, including child education and development, employment services, counseling and social services, health and elderly services.
CASL educated clients about utilizing the social services. “Most of them did not know there are services out there,” Bernie recalls. They incorporated ESL into every program they offered. “We need to give them the tools so they can become self-sufficient, and in order to become self-sufficient, knowing the culture and language is most important.” And over the years they enhanced and refined their offerings, including a partnership with other organizations called the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, which registered over 1,600 new voters last year.
In 32 years, CASL has grown into a multi-million dollar agency, but its goal has remained the same – to ensure that all members of Chicago’s diverse population can become independent, productive members of society. And it’s on point, thanks to a cohesive collection of programs and services. Bernie sums it up in a simple sentence: “We try to make sure the residents have the knowledge and are empowered to make changes in their own lives, as well as in the system.”
Founder and Executive Director, The HistoryMakers
The trouble with history is that too often it’s written by people who didn’t live through it or speak with anyone who did. The dates and locations may be accurate, but it lacks the humanity and authenticity of a firsthand account. Enter Julieanna Richardson, founder and executive director of The HistoryMakers. For the last 10 years, she and a crew of videographers, interviewers and computer wizards have been recording and reclaiming African American history – through the voices of the people who lived it.
The HistoryMakers is dedicated to collecting, archiving and preserving an immense collection of African American video oral histories and sharing them through public programs, special events, and an interactive website. Even though it’s already the largest archival collection of its kind, The HistoryMakers' goal is to complete 5,000 interviews of African Americans, both well-known and unsung. And with 400 interviews completed and on the Web site,www.TheHistoryMakers.com is rated by Google as one of the top African American sites on the Internet.
“So little is known about the African American experience,” Julieanna says. “If you ask most people, they think of black history in Civil Rights terms, as if nothing existed before or after. For kids today, Martin Luther King, Jr. might just as well be George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.”
The Stories Behind the History
Julieanna’s passion for African American history arose during her college career at Brandeis University in Boston. While conducting independent research on the Harlem Renaissance, she discovered oral history for the first time. And as she explored the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, she connected to her heritage. “I grew up in a small, primarily white town and really had no knowledge of black history,” she recalls. “When I found that history in the Schomburg library it was like a whole new world opened up to me. I found my place – that I have a place. Everyone wants to come from something, to be a part of something, to have some history.”
According to Julieanna, oral history provides an intimate, meaningful connection to the past. “Oral history can have a profound effect,” she says. “It allows the person who is telling it to recount things that may be tucked under the recesses of their mind so it can feel very liberating. For the person asking the questions, it’s an educational experience, often one of discovery and wonderment.”
She shares the story of one HistoryMaker whose aunt and uncle were photographed aboard a luxury ocean liner in 1904. “[They] were dressed in their finery,” she says. “Now, if you told anyone that black people were going over as passengers, they would say you were lying. I’ve shown that picture to people and it really is amazing because it defies our thoughts about things.”
Setting the Record Straight
And that’s the point – challenging history’s status quo – because there’s always more than one side to a story. “These are not fictionalized accounts; they show a whole different view of black society and culture that was basically hidden from view,” Julieanna says. “There’s a power here because it’s all new information. It’s almost like being in the gold mine days and finding gold – there are new nuggets, new bodies of information, which are what I consider the new American history.”