Appreciating Diverse Suppliers
By Hugo Britt | March 15, 2022
The benefits of supplier diversity has become a hot topic of discussion at procurement conferences and elsewhere. But advice on why and how to improve supplier diversity programs often comes from procurement people, which risks an echo-chamber effect. To really understand the challenges involved, the best person to ask for advice is a diverse supplier.
In a recent episode of The Sourcing Hero podcast, host Kelly Barner spoke with Elizabeth Blount McCormick, President and Owner of UNIGLOBE Travel Designers. Her firm specializes in designing, coordinating, and delivering complex travel plans for individuals, groups, and corporate travel partners. UNIGLOBE Travel Designers is a certified Black-owned, woman-owned business.
Having the right conversations about supplier diversity
As Kelly points out, a lot of the people who listen to The Sourcing Hero podcast are on the buy side of the equation. Despite talking about the need to be inclusive, a lot of procurement’s conversations about supplier diversity tend to be relatively insular; between procurement thought leaders or supplier diversity managers.
What’s needed is more conversations between the buy side and the supply side to create a 360-degree understanding of the challenge. The conversation with Elizabeth offered some important key takeaways and insight as to what goes through the mind of the diverse supplier during the sales process, the hoops they have to jump through in order to “play ball,” and how buyers can make things easier for the diverse suppliers they work with.
Certifications and sales conversations
Some minority-owned suppliers may lead with their certifications in sales conversations, but Elizabeth is confident her organization can compete with any majority-owned businesses if the RFP process is blindfolded.
“I don’t lead with my certifications,” she says. “When I talk to people, they can’t tell what my race is by our conversation. The sourcing manager will often ask towards the end of the conversation if we are certified. That’s when I tell them I’m a Black-owned and woman-owned business, and certified nationally. So many people are excited about that, which is a great thing. I definitely look for opportunities with organizations that value equity.”
Is this a real opportunity or a check-the-box situation?
Elizabeth says that many organizations reach out to UNIGLOBE because they’re inspecting their supplier diversity program and trying to ensure it’s not just a check-the-box situation.
“They’re not just saying that they had a Black or woman-owned business compete in their RFP process; but there’s a legitimate chance – which is different. I ask people straight up: ‘Is there a real opportunity here or not?’, because just like everyone else, I don’t have time to waste – an RFP process can be so costly. Without knowing that there is a fair chance, there’s no point in me participating.”
Elizabeth recommends minority-owned suppliers always have honest conversations, and have questions ready like:
- How long have you been with the incumbent?
- What’s your commitment to supplier diversity?
- Is this a real opportunity or not?
Check your biases
Elizabeth has faced bias in several sales conversations with purchasing professionals.
“People have somehow thought I didn’t have a real office or a team, or that I’m operating out of a garage. The truth is I have two office spaces, and I employ a team of remote workers. These are the kinds of biases I’ve had to face. I don’t see them as barriers; just something you have to get around. You can’t let bias stop you.”
Without having gone through the experience, many people on the buy side may not know about or appreciate the time, money, and effort that minority-owned suppliers have to spend to gain and maintain certifications in order to “count.”
“Gaining the certification requires a biography of your business, your finances, 200 to 300 pages of work – just to be able to compete,” says Elizabeth. “We spend thousands of dollars in making sure our certifications are intact. We employ someone who is an expert in the RFP and certification space – it’s her job to maintain the documents, calendars, and manage the re-certification processes, but many businesses don’t have the resources to do that.”
With only 7% of Black-owned businesses employing more than five workers, the certification process can simply be too time-consuming. “Imagine the burden,” says Elizabeth. “You have one to five employees and you’re trying to do all this certification and recertification while running your business. Some of these processes for certifications and RFPs are just so intense that people may not be able to grow because they don’t have the bandwidth or bodies to do it.”
Another cause of friction is that despite the existence of national certifications, minority-owned suppliers often have to go through the process over and again to do business in difference states. Again, if they don’t have the bandwidth, this can be impossible.
“Sometimes I think about how there are so many hoops to jump through for certification,” says Elizabeth. “People who don’t look like me don’t have to go through this experience. Why is that the case? I’m hopeful that something will change.”
Practice what you preach
So many businesses came out in 2020 to say that Black Lives Matter, but have failed to practice what they preached. Elizabeth points out that procurement has an opportunity to align these statements with real action. “Why not give a supplier that doesn’t look like you an opportunity to grow?”
Start by reviewing the steps you are making minority-owned suppliers go through. After the costly and time-consuming certification and re-certification processes, suppliers are then asked to go onto a vendor portal to register and submit another round of documents. In the end, minority suppliers have to go through more steps than other businesses.
Be a hero
Do you really want to make a difference? For Elizabeth, a sourcing hero is someone who isn’t status quo. “It’s someone who is taking a chance and being brave – especially in the diversity space. Speak up. Procurement, purchasing, this is your time! You have the power over where the money goes. Do something about it, and be intentional about it.”
She goes on to say that a lot of business owners across the country have been outspoken about equity. “When they ask me what they can do, I tell them to look at their executive team, look at their hiring practices, and look at their supplier diversity program. But it has to be embedded throughout the entire organization to really make a difference and get to an equitable place.”
Listen to Elizabeth’s full episode here:
For more insights into supplier diversity and more, check out the rest of the episodes of The Sourcing Hero podcast.