For Chicago companies looking to diversify, stop overlooking City Colleges students

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The following Op Ed is reprinted from Crain’s Chicago found here

A graduate of the city’s community colleges system offers herself as proof that its students are well-prepared to become future business leaders.

Antoinnette Smith attended Olive-Harvey College and graduated with an associate degree in supply chain management.

From one year to the next, Chicago companies say they believe a diverse workforce makes them stronger. But every year, many of those companies return to the same universities, rather than looking right next door when recruiting underrepresented students. These candidates are right here in Chicago. I know because I’m one of them. If Chicago companies want to build stronger, more diverse workforces, they should invest in the home-grown talent they can find at City Colleges of Chicago.

As a kid growing up on the South Side, I always wanted to know how things worked in the warehouse when it comes to the supply chain. The complex logistics of distribution of brands and products from all over the country moved like a finely-tuned machine. There was something beautiful about the harmony of it, like each element was part of a symphony. I wanted to know everything about it.

At the age of 23, inspired by women I knew on the corporate side, I took a job as a shipping clerk in a distribution center for a major pharmacy. When I asked these women how they had gotten to where they are, the answer was always the same: They went back to school. So when I was 25, I enrolled in Olive-Harvey Community College to major in supply chain management and logistics.

I took classes in economics, logistics, purchasing, inventory management, operations, e-commerce and procurement. Sitting in class felt like getting the keys to a world I had been able to see only through a keyhole, and opening the door revealed a world every bit as fascinating as I thought it would be.

During my first year, I applied for a scholarship through PepsiCo. I knew that working at a major company like PepsiCo could be the next step in achieving my goals. I got the scholarship and, in the summer of 2020, accepted an internship at PepsiCo, where I was able to apply what I had learned. It wasn’t theory anymore. It was hands-on, real-world, practical knowledge.

I was part of a pilot program to recruit local talent from City Colleges of Chicago because leaders at the company had noticed what I knew: As one of the largest community college networks in the country, City Colleges of Chicago is packed with students who bring a different set of life experiences and perspectives than typical four-year college students. We also have the drive, work ethic and intellectual curiosity that makes for great hires and future leaders.

During the 2020-21 academic year, my on-the-job learning at PepsiCo continued while I studied full time. This summer, I interned full time at PepsiCo and will return to the co-op model in the fall as I complete my coursework for graduation in May 2022. This valuable experience has allowed me to gain deeper insights into the industry, to see the supply chain in action and to understand what it will take to launch my own business someday, which is my 5- to 10-year goal.

It’s good to see PepsiCo helping even more students of color gain access to education and jobs. Earlier this year, the PepsiCo Foundation announced a $40 million scholarship program, investing in 4,000 Black and Hispanic students throughout the country, including 425 Chicagoans like me and partnering with City Colleges of Chicago.

Hundreds of companies like PepsiCo in Chicago are looking to diversify their workforces while bringing in the best possible candidates to develop into future business leaders. And thousands of students in Chicago like me are ready to seize opportunity and do great work from day one. We’re from the South and West sides. We’re the solution, and we’re right here.

Antoinnette Smith attended Olive-Harvey College and graduated with an associate degree in supply chain management.