Commencement Speaker

Elizabeth “Liz” Thompson

President, Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education Group

Elizabeth “Liz” Thompson

As president of the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education Group (the CAFE Group), Elizabeth “Liz” Thompson is deeply engaged in the nonprofit and philanthropic communities. The CAFE Group provides financial and programmatic support to leaders of color whose proximity to current and historic challenges in education allows them to influence philanthropic decisions and create meaningful and relevant solutions. By leveraging lived experiences and the genius within our communities, the CAFE Group creates a glidepath from college intern to established leader that is designed to catalyze lasting systemic change.

Thompson began working with nonprofits in 1993 as founding executive director of City Year Chicago, a national service organization that was the template for the AmeriCorps Program. Then in 1995, Thompson served as executive director of Family Star Montessori School in Denver, where she led a multi-million dollar expansion of its early head start program. In 1998, she became active with nonprofit boards in the San Diego area, which further fueled her interest in philanthropy and education. Before following her passion in the nonprofit sector, Thompson had a successful 10-year career with Ameritech Corporation after receiving an electrical engineering degree from Purdue University.

In addition to her commitment to serving students, professionals, and communities, Thompson and her husband, Don Thompson, are co-founders of the investment firm Cleveland Avenue, LLC. The firm provides financial resources, expertise, and individual support to entrepreneurs to grow and scale their businesses. Their collective work was highlighted by World Business Chicago through its Corporate Ambassador Award and by Loyola University Chicago’s Baumhart Center with its Innovator Award for Social Impact.

Liz is currently a director for the Lamar Advertising Corporation and a director for Chicago Public Media/WBEZ. She is a national director for Braven and chair of Braven’s Chicago Board. She serves on the board of the Partnership for College Completion and as a special adviser to OneGoal.

Liz is an alumna of the Nonprofit Leadership Program of Denver and Leadership Greater Chicago, where she served on its board for 10 years. Liz is a past trustee of the University of Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

Most recently, Liz joined a distinguished cohort of Aspen Institute’s Global Leaders as a Pahara Education Fellow. She has received Crain’s Chicago Business’s Inaugural Women of Note Award, Chicago Women in Philanthropy’s Making a Difference Award, Chicago Public Media’s Amplifier Award, YWCA Chicago’s Community Leadership Award, the Outstanding Community Leader Award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Dream Builders Award from the Chicago Child Care Society, and the John J. Dugan Award from OneGoal. She was featured in Make It Better magazine as one of Chicago’s Top Black Women of Impact. She has appeared as a keynote speaker for the Grantmakers For Education Conference, the Walton Family Foundation, the National Center on Family Philanthropy, the Forefront Annual Luncheon, the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, and the Chicago Venture Summit.

Liz has been married to Don for 30 years. They have two adult children and live in the southwest area of metropolitan Chicago.

Student Speaker

Marilyn Flowers

Candidate for the Degree of Bachelor of Information Technology and Management

Marilyn Flowers

“We are changing the misconception that members of underprivileged communities can’t succeed in certain professions,” says Marilyn Flowers (ITM ’23), who grew up in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood. “As a tech leader, I want to inspire those who are like me by showing them that anything is possible.”

She adds, "Help those around you. Be someone’s open door."

Flowers’ interest in coding was sparked during an eighth grade computer lab course in which she got her first taste of HTML and CSS. 

“I enjoyed it so much that after that class I went home and researched how to do coding. I typed in Google, ‘How to be the best coder,’” Flowers says. Her inquiries led her to Illinois Institute of Technology, where she earned multiple scholarships and awards, garnered a great internship, and also served as president of the Black Student Union from 2021 to 2022.

She has been an Alan and Suzanne Wendorf Endowed Scholar since 2020, and was the recipient of the 2022 Richard A. Babcock Leadership Award, the 2022 Clinton E. Stryker Award, and the 2023 Clinton E. Stryker Award from Illinois Tech’s Office of the Vice Provost of Student Affairs. Flowers also received the 2023 Harriet Tubman Award, the 2023 Paul Jennings Award, and the 2023 Embody The Difference Award from the university’s Black Student Union. 

During summer 2022, Flowers completed an internship with Scarlet Data Studio, a six-week internship program for Illinois Tech students who are interested in software engineering that is run by Illinois Tech alumni. Her experience there reinforced her convictions that she was on the right career track. 

Flowers is currently interning as a research scholar at Discovery Partners Institute, where her work included a recently completed project focused on detecting media misinformation in health care. The project involved analyzing health-related videos on the online video platform Rumble, creating a queryable data lake from the video transcripts that function as a search engine, and comparing them with public data from trusted health sources.

Flowers says she enjoys software engineering because, “It’s always a new challenge. I want to start each day with a new adventure, and software engineering definitely gives you that opportunity. There’s always something to fix, always a new feature to add,” she says.

“And you never stop learning,” Flowers adds. “From a creative aspect, compared to 50 years ago, how much software has advanced, once you know how to code, you can create anything you want.”