On Thursday, February 22, ONE Alliance hosted a speaker series event in recognition of Black History Month with distinguished guest Jimmy Akintonde, president and CEO of UJAMAA Construction. Sharon Zackfia, CFA, partner, and group head of the consumer sector, provided opening remarks, and Chris Brathwaite, partner and director of pre-liquidity planning, moderated the discussion.

Founded in 2002, UJAMAA Construction is recognized as Chicago’s leading diversity general contracting and construction company. With the origins of the name deeply rooted in “cooperative economics,” UJAMAA Construction focuses on providing employment opportunities in underserved communities.

Akintonde described how his experiences growing up in Chicago and attending IIT ultimately influenced his career path. As a child, he was always taking his toys apart, trying to understand how they were made. As a young adult, he had a passion for building but couldn’t find a place where he fit in until IIT led him to an architecture firm that offered him an opportunity to grow both personally and professionally.

Mentorship holds a special place in Akintonde’s heart and is an enormous part of why he wanted to start his own business. UJAMAA strives to create an environment where people want to work and are proud of their assigned projects. Akintonde talked about hiring as many interns as possible and not giving them specific tasks but requiring them to listen, learn, and ask one question—about anything— every day. Akintonde has also worked closely with IIT to create The Chicago Difference scholarship to provide wraparound support for talented young people from underrepresented backgrounds across Chicago.

He believes that diversity and excellence don’t have to be in competition. In fact, difference is a good thing, and when we are all better, there is more for everyone. There is also a commercial opportunity that comes with expanded perspectives – you may see an opportunity that someone else doesn’t, and you can come together to generate more business.

UJAMAA has worked on many incredible projects over the years and is currently working as part of the construction team for The Obama Presidential Center on the Southside of Chicago. Akintonde discussed the bidding process for this project and how the UJAMAA team felt the project needed to reflect what it stands for—inclusion and inspiration. They wanted to work with partners who would understand their vision and appreciate the diverse nature of their firm and the surrounding community.

Believing that adding a partner with experience working on federal projects would increase their chance of success, Akintonde described meetings with large construction firms that weren’t interested in what UJAMAA and their partners had to offer and would walk out. The team felt exhausted but persevered, finally meeting a partner who made them feel seen and heard. They secured the bid and have been working to create an enjoyable job site for all ever since. The project is expected to be completed in late 2025.

The audience had several questions for Akintonde, including how to stay resilient when people don’t believe in your ideas, what building trust when coming together as different groups can look like, and a question on every Chicagoan’s mind, insight into what is happening with the Chicago Bears and Soldier Field. Akintonde laughed, saying he didn’t have any inside knowledge to share, but if any new stadium is going to be built in the Chicagoland area, UJAMAA would love to be a part of it.

Akintonde also encouraged the audience to think about ways to make a difference in our own worlds. He believes that we all, especially local businesses, need to participate in uplifting the communities around us. To Akintonde, we all have an integral role to play in ensuring the long-term success of the communities in which we live and work.