IMPACT alum Tim Jones shares how program changed his career
By his early 30s, Tim Jones had served in ministry roles at two churches and was ready to take on a leadership role outside the church. As he sought new opportunities, however, he says he realized there were boxes that people expected him to fit into.
“When you start leading in our community, there are paths that people put you on. It’s pastor, politician or motivational speaker or thought leader,” says Jones. He knew those individual paths were not right for him, but he also wasn’t sure how to find a path of his own.
In 2014, he saw a notice in the Chicago Urban League’s weekly newsletter inviting applications for the inaugural class of the IMPACT Leadership Development Program, a partnership with the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He applied and was accepted.
“IMPACT changed my life professionally,” says Jones, now executive director of the nonprofit Good News Partners.
That’s the idea, notes Mavis Laing, the program’s executive director. “IMPACT helps emerging African-American leaders develop the negotiating skills, networking competencies, and confidence that are needed to take on positions of greater leadership responsibility within corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies,” says Laing. “African-American professionals often don’t have access to formal leadership skills development, and Tim is an example of how developing these skills can boost careers.”
Since IMPACT launched in 2014, more than 100 organizations have sent 140 budding leaders through the nine-month program. Chicago Booth faculty members teach in the program, and the League recruits leaders from across the city to share their insights and serve as mentors. All of the IMPACT Fellows say the program helped expand their professional networks. Jones says that, before IMPACT, both his network and his career plans were limited.
Growing up in Chicago’s Englewood community, he didn’t see many career options besides being a professional athlete. “I wanted to be a basketball player like everyone else in the neighborhood,” he recalls. “I didn’t have examples in my family of climbing the corporate ladder. I didn’t have anything else to aspire to.”
When he was 10, his mother moved the family to suburban Schaumburg, and his sense of life’s possibilities opened up. Exposure to a different environment with different expectations “made me open to college,” he says.
After high school, Jones enrolled at historically black Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, but he was still unclear about what he wanted to do with his life. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was a first-generation college student. I bumped my head a lot.”
By the end of his second year, Jones withdrew from Rust and returned to Chicago. He applied to a few Chicago-area universities but became discouraged when none responded. Struggling to find his footing, Jones accompanied his mother to church one Sunday and found faith as well as a mentor in the church’s 25-year-old pastor.
“He became the number one influence in my life for 12 years,” he says. “He was teaching me the word and making it a reality for me. I started to serve people and my life started to flourish.”
Eventually Jones enrolled at Northern Illinois University. That’s where he began stepping up to lead. He became president of the student chapter of the NAACP and was involved in the Black Student Union. “I really came into who I was as a black man, spiritually and culturally,” he recalls. “I knew I could lead. I knew I could mobilize people.”
But he didn’t know what he didn’t know. When Jones was selected to be in the first class of IMPACT, he didn’t know what to expect.
He gained a mentor in Chicago businessman Lester McKeever, managing principal of Washington, Pittman, & McKeever LLC.
“He became the sounding board for the things I was feeling as a young professional, leader and father,” Jones says. “I had no idea that people would give so freely.”
McKeever believes he and other mentors get as much as they give. “Serving as a mentor is a chance to help prepare the next generation of African Americans to take on important leadership roles in all sectors across the city, and that diversity benefits the whole city,” McKeever says. “It’s also personally rewarding to share some of what I’ve learned through decades of experience to help make someone else’s path easier to navigate.”
Along with McKeever’s advice, Jones left IMPACT with a five-point leadership plan that included obtaining a master’s degree from Northwestern’s Kellogg Business School, which he completed in 2017. But he believes the most valuable thing he gained from the program was confidence.
Now 36, Jones is executive director of Good News Partners, which provides affordable housing to the homeless. He plans to expand the non-profit culturally, geographically and generationally. Thanks to IMPACT, he says he now knows how to “get in the game” and position himself.
“If you take me out of my element, I can still shine. I’m on the Chicago Council of Global Affairs and I’m the only African American,” says Jones, who once felt out of place in both high school and college. “I go where I don’t naturally fit and I do it for development. I can now step into a lot of settings because of the confidence I gained from IMPACT.”