Constructive Change

By Tad Vezner


The first office Jimmy Akintonde (ARCH ’95) used for his business was barely able to accommodate two desks. The two extra chairs that clients would hopefully sit in someday made it seem a bit crowded, but he had faith.

After seven years working for a major national general contractor, managing projects that cost tens of millions of dollars, Akintonde set out on his own. “I remember putting in a ridiculous amount of time,” Akintonde says. “I just felt at the end of it I wanted to more satisfying.”

Ujamaa Construction was born. After a few months working out of his attic, he found a small business incubator at an old office building in the Auburn Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. The manager there was impressed with Akintonde, and agreed to give him a 10-foot by 15-foot, third-floor office rent free for three months.

“I remember thinking, I’ve got three months to make this work,” Akintonde says. So he scrounged furniture from the “boneyard” of empty offices on the floor above him—the remnants of failed enterprises literally looming over his head—and found his first client: a South Side church wanted to renovate a small apartment building for low-income residents. The project went well, and he found a few others, small projects that built his business.

“When I finally hired my first employee in 2002, the joke was, one person would have to leave the office when the other person was there to make room,” Akintonde says.

The business has since grown to more than 150 full-time employees, with regional offices in Illinois and Georgia, and moved its headquarters to a large building at 7744 South Stony Island Avenue in Chicago. They’ve partnered with other outfits to tackle major commercial projects such as the 40-acre Marshfield Plaza retail site in Chicago’s Morgan Park neighborhood; the 50-acre Chatham Market—the site f Chicago’s first Walmart—in the city’s Chatham neighborhood; and a Whole Foods location in the city’s Englewood neighborhood.

“It’s been a successful journey, but it’s not a success, because the story has yet to be written. At the end of the story, if I inspire somebody else, I think I’ll call that successful.” —Jimmy Akintonde

While it’s a far cry from his humble beginnings, Akintonde says the biggest project is yet to come: helping to construct the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park neighborhood, where he’s a key member of the team responsible for the build.

“It’s been a successful journey, but it’s not a success, because the story has yet to be written,” Akintonde says of his career. “At the end of the story, if I inspire somebody else, I think I’ll call that successful.”

Humble Beginnings

Born and raised in Nigeria, Akintonde developed an interest in high-rise building design “because I didn’t see a lot of it growing up.” He’d break the toys his father bought him by “deconstructing” them to figure out how they worked and then putting them back together.

“Back then it was destructive, but it turned out to be constructive,” Akintonde says.

He came to Illinois Institute of Technology to study architecture, but his path veered slightly. A professor told him that “to be a great architect, you should work for a contractor, to know what you’re designing and how those pieces fit together.”

After interning at architectural firms, he wasn’t excited. But he worked one summer for a small contractor building townhomes in Forest Park, Illinois, and loved it.

His first job out of college was with Walsh Construction, which eventually tasked him with rehabbing public schools and police stations in Chicago. His final project before striking out on his own was a $60 million renovation of Chicago Transit Authority train stops in the early 2000s.

Terry Frigo, a former Illinois Tech associate vice president for facilities construction and rental properties, gave Ujamaa its first commercial contract a couple of months after meeting Akintonde at a business outreach event. Akintonde’s company went on to rehab numerous buildings on campus.

“He was dedicated and very serious about the construction industry, and his work was excellent and timely,” Frigo says.

Akintonde now sits on the Illinois Tech Board of Trustees and is co-chair of The Chicago Difference program; his wife, Shanita Akintonde (M.B.A. ’97), serves as chair of the Illinois Tech Alumni Association’s International Committee.

A New Cornerstone

While he still fondly remembers those first projects, a new career cornerstone—the 20-acre Obama Center, which will serve as a museum, library, and community and conference center—looms on the near horizon.

Akintonde’s enthusiasm for the project is rooted in how the development team was put together—the opposite of how it’s usually done. Four medium-sized, minority contractors (Ujamaa being one) partnered to create an LLC called the Presidential Partners. They then retained a larger partner, Turner Construction, and the five created Lakeside Alliance LLC.

Instead of the large, majority contractor taking the lead, it is the minority partners who are leading the project.

“This is the first time in my experience, and everyone else’s, that the minority partners held a majority interest,” Akintonde says. “It’s truly transformational.”

Akintonde adds that the team is taking pains to walk the walk when it comes to social responsibility on the South Side, such as making sure that all minority contractors get good experience and that the group hires from the community where the project is located.

“We want to make sure it has a lasting effect on the people in the community beyond its construction,” Akintonde says, “believing in diversity by living it, by walking it, and by supporting it.”

Lori Healy, who manages the Obama Center’s construction and operations as a senior vice president for the Obama Foundation, which will also be housed at the center, has nothing but praise for Akintonde and his company.

“Jimmy is incredibly well-respected and thoughtful. There’s so many people who are really competent but are not great to work with. He is. The ethics of his company are unparalleled,” Healy says.

Healy, who formerly served as the chief executive officer for Chicago’s Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, added that Akintode’s reputation has made him, “a person and a company people seek out to be part of their teams.

“The way he does things, he’s truly transformative.”