The Right to Dream

| Leilani Garrett, SPR Consulting, Chicago

Sandoval_Cynthia_2Cynthia Sandoval, SPR’s first ever Year Up intern put it plainly, “I had been so involved in trying to make ends meet that I’d lost focus on my dreams.”

Stop. Think about that statement for a moment – when an individual’s life is so complicated, so challenging, so limiting that all they really have time and energy for is making it from day-to-day. Life shouldn’t be this way.

For more than a decade, through an activist Civic Engagement effort, SPR Consulting has been a champion of making people’s lives less ‘this way.’ The effort began in 2004 by creating opportunities to promote training, placement and expanded career development in IT for professionals with disabilities. Back then, SPR partnered with top academic institutions to uncover solutions to the ongoing challenge of broader participation for these qualified individuals.

By 2008, SPR had launched ITKAN; a professional development organization designed to expose members of the disability community to leading technologies, trends and opportunities in the tech sector. And SPR was just getting started.  

Escalating Civic Engagement

Today, the Civic Engagement program at SPR Consulting is a comprehensive endeavor. Pat Maher, Director of Civic Engagement, says, “To us, civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It’s about diversity and inclusion, and supporting noteworthy Chicago community organizations.”

Enter Year Up.

Last autumn, Maher attended the Jewish Vocational Services Strictly Business breakfast at the Standard Club in downtown Chicago. There was a panel discussion on bridging the talent gap*, and Shelley Stern, Director of Civic Engagement for Microsoft Chicago, pointed out the great work that Year Up and its Executive Director, Alan Anderson were doing to tackle the issue. Year Up is a national organization dedicated to shrinking the opportunity divide. It looks to create a future where every urban young adult has access to the level of education, experiences and guidance needed to realize his or her full potential. The bottom line is – economic justice for young adults equals economic prosperity for U.S. businesses, and the nation as a whole. It’s not about a hand out, but a hand up.

Immediately, Doug Rossier, SPR’s President, realized that Year Up’s mission was precisely aligned with his firm’s ongoing commitment to support and sponsor candidates from non-traditional backgrounds. With that knowledge, SPR’s leadership team enthusiastically jumped in. They met with Anderson and Year UP’s Director of Corporate Partnerships, Dori Dinsmore, to cover the basics of logistics, skills, intern backgrounds, financial commitment and more. SPR’s next move was an easy one, hire an intern to embed with seasoned testers as part of the onshore testing team.



Before her internship at SPR, Cynthia Sandoval worked three jobs, including days as a childcare giver and Spanish teacher, and nights as a tow truck driver. She was supporting herself and her cousin, who lived with her due to job loss. In Cynthia’s words, “I was lifeless and was living to work instead of working to live.”

Not anymore.

Today, Cynthia is heading back to school to continue her studies in Computer Science and Early Childhood Development. She’s passionate about gaining knowledge and skills in both disciplines. And happily, she has accepted a position as a Quality Assurance Analyst at SPR Consulting!

But neither Cynthia’s story nor SPR’s ends here.

A Distinct Vision of Inclusion

Maher, and the dedicated folks at SPR, knows that inclusion is a broad aspiration. The point is to look for undiscovered ways to make a difference, not just for people who could use support; but also in bringing value to companies through these talented, ambitious individuals.

Since the recession of 2007, the challenge of people dealing with long term unemployment has persisted. Via a standing partnership with Skills for Chicagoland’s Future (SCF), a public-private partnership focused on matching businesses with qualified unemployed or underemployed job seekers, SPR has pursued a new level of inclusion. Not only has SPR provided formal technology training to numerous candidates, but (###) people have been hired to fill roles across the organization.

Fox 32 Matt Guido


Recently, SPR was introduced to Matthew Guido, a software testing engineer for 18 years until he was laid off in 2011. As bad luck would have it, Matthew was out of work for four years and, unfortunately, there’s a stigma attached to being unemployed for so long — making it even more difficult to find a position. During his time out of work, Guido lost near everything including his home, savings and 401K.

But those years are behind him.

He was embraced by the folks and the mission at SCF where he gained access to additional training, worked to update his interviewing skills, and took part in professional coaching to shore up his confidence. Now Guido is among the gainfully employed, working as a Software Testing Engineer in the ranks at SPR.

And the Work Continues!

As SPR’s Civic Engagement effort seeks to redefine the often narrow views of what employed and successful professionals might look like, or where they come from, or what kind of adversity or challenges they may face or might have faced; there’s clear understanding that the broad initiative must continue to push boundaries regarding what true inclusion looks like.

And you know what? Through partnerships with organizations like Year Up, Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, and ITKAN – it’s working.

Ask Cynthia Sandoval. Or Matthew Guido. Or the many among the disability community who have gone on to fulfilling positions in the tech sector through ITKAN. (By the way, ITKAN was honored as a Computerworld Laureate Program for Collaboration in 2012. Well earned.)

Through impassioned commitment, SPR has helped demonstrate that individuals from non-traditional backgrounds are making outstanding contributions to businesses, and there’s more where they came from.

The expansion of economic justice is not only good for people needing support, but it brings excellent opportunities to businesses and communities, spreading prosperity in its wake. Beyond that, it’s important to note, everyone has the right to dream.

*29 percent of CEOs have said that the inability to find the talent they need is impacting strategic investments, causing them to either cancel or delay new initiatives. The talent gap is not an empty theoretical construct. It is real and tangible, and it is negatively affecting business particularly during the past few years. – Bob Moritz, U.S. Chairman and Senior Partner, PwC

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