Real Impact stories spotlight the real difference that people, programs and partnerships – across the system – make on the state's economic, social and cultural well-being. For more, meet Ian.
When Brenda Nelson pondered a career change, she told herself, “If I’m going to set up a business, I’m going to set it up right.”
That drive – and a market opening – prompted Nelson to launch Stitch Me LLC in 2010. Her Chicago company specializes in custom branded apparel and promotional items. Her earliest customers at Chicago Public Schools agreed women needed branded clothing tailored for them – not men’s t-shirts they ended up wearing as pajamas.
“I want people to know I’m humble and grateful for the blessings I’ve received to be able to grow this business,” hard-working Nelson said, listing the Chicago Transit Authority, the Chicago White Sox and Goldman Sachs as clients. “I’ve been given a lot of opportunities.”
She’ll soon capitalize on another. Beginning in September, Nelson will be part of the first cohort of the Diverse Supplier Development Program. The University of Illinois System initiative features virtual workshops on government contracting, access to capital, marketing and more. Plus, the program includes student-led consultation to help business owners solve their specific challenges.
The program reflects the system’s commitment to empowering diverse businesses and creating a more inclusive economy. According to the 2022 economic impact report, the U of I System spent $1.4 billion last fiscal year to support day-to-day operations at its universities in Chicago, Springfield and Urbana. Much of that spending goes to vendors whose employees in turn spend their earnings in Illinois.
“We’re building capacity by providing resources to support business owners from underrepresented communities,” says Sharla Roberts, director of University of Illinois System Office of Procurement Diversity. “Small businesses are the lifeblood of our communities’ economic health. Diverse Supplier Development Program participants have a better chance of succeeding with support systems that address their needs.
“The program strives to remove barriers and breathe life into small, diverse businesses through education and training to help them flourish.”
Nelson, an IT professional for more than 20 years, grew up in Englewood.
“It’s a tough area. I never knew any African American business owners. I assumed they all were millionaires,” she said. “As a business owner today, I feel supported more than you could ever know. It’s good to know places like the U of I System are out there supporting diverse and women-owned businesses.
“I feel responsible for the people on the Stitch Me team. At the end of the day, their livelihood depends on me. My employees drive me.”
That drive extends outward.
“We also have a social responsibility to ensure we hire from the community we serve and give back. We have hired youth through the Chicago Urban League and sponsored several local organizations for sports uniforms,” Nelson said.
In growth mode
Nelson recently delivered 300 shirts for UI Stride, a program that helps U of I System Office employees get and stay healthy through self-paced activities and friendly competitions. Nearly 1,000 polos and hoodies will arrive soon for U of I System employees.
What started out as working with a department here and there at U of I System universities continues to grow.
“I work with different departments, and that leads to other business from other departments,” Nelson said. “People like our products, and they like working with the Stitch Me team.”
Stitch Me LLC is certified as a Women/Minority Business Enterprise through the Illinois Department of Central Management Services.
The University of Illinois System's impact through our strong and growing partnerships is just part of what makes us Altogether Extraordinary.