Supplier diversity success: Sometimes “the ask” makes the difference
Within the government contracting space, diversity initiatives are encouraged, but are sometimes perceived as being too difficult and costly to administer. However, small business inclusion initiatives can sometimes achieve the same outcome with minimal or no additional costs or effort. Has your organization focused on small business inclusion in your contracting activity, and if so, has that effort been successful in terms of contractual cost savings and/or adding diversity to your qualified vendor pool?
Many organizations are in the same boat when it comes to diversity and inclusion. There is a desire to be inclusive, but the agency may not have a formal diversity initiative, small business program or specific goal. The risk of doing it wrong often leaves us immobile. We think if we try, it won’t be good enough; if we try and fail, it will be worse than if we hadn’t tried at all. To make matters even more difficult we have our elected and community leaders who are just as scared to try, try and fail or be called out for not trying at all. They too, often don’t have a plan and look to the procurement professionals to whip up a program that can produce the hard data that backs up their stance. Seasoned procurement professionals are keenly aware of the inherent tension this creates. So what possible solution is available for us in this catch-22?
As one of the few Latina women in procurement, I have firsthand experience addressing this issue. The business of diversity and inclusion in procurement is about people and nurturing relationships; communication and soft skills play a big role here. Procurement departments are not very diverse in themselves. The bitter irony is that tackling a problem like the lack of diversity and inclusivity in our vendors goes hand in glove with the lack of diversity in our own profession. The very nature of this complex issue requires a variety of perspectives and voices to come together.
As public procurement professionals we often want to start big by addressing the needs of our vendor community. I believe we should start by getting our house in order. We need to have these conversations with our staff, our leadership and our agency. We need to ask ourselves how sophisticated we are in the process of diversity and inclusion, and how we can best integrate that into the invaluable work that we do. People are often at different places on the spectrum, but regardless of where they may be it gives us a starting point. A healthy discourse on the importance of this issue and how your agency, department or division can set a goal and make strides towards it is critical. An absolute necessity is having buy-in from the most important stake holders – the people that will be actively be working to implement the changes decided upon.
I’m fortunate enough to work for the city that I grew up in. I also represent the emerging Latino community. This nexus of identity and opportunity has given me insight into how to bridge the diversity gap in procurement.
There are many things that seem like common knowledge in our profession, especially to procurement professionals who have been in this field for long time. But to new and small business people, government purchasing is a different language and a different world. I recently attended the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs (OAME) vendor trade show in Portland, Ore., and there was a panel discussion on inclusivity. The panelists were a mix of women and minority business owners. Eleen Jen, who is the owner of a local engineering firm, spoke a truth that illustrated the gap. She said, “It is not enough to have a diversity office; you must also be supportive of their work. If you have someone in your agency who is passionate about diversity and inclusion, don’t stop them – encourage them, support them.” You may not be the one who has this passion or time to do the work but if there are people in your agency that are willing and able, help them, support them and encourage them to continue. Those people are often in places where you don’t even think to ask. In our agency we thought to ask our capital projects manager if he would be interested in coming to a networking event at OAME. He not only agreed but also encouraged us to give out his contact information. He also attended a trade show with our purchasing staff and has become a great partner to our division. Our relationship with our engineering department has flourished as a result of just asking.
In government, we must start to learn how to be proactive and not reactive. Whether we have set policies or not, finding ways to make the diverse emerging small business communities feel welcomed by your agency opens the door for genuine relationships and learning opportunities. What would they like to know and how can we make that information easier or accessible for them to acquire? There are probably non-profit organizations in your community that teach business classes or small business incubators that provide workshops and training. Sharing that knowledge demonstrates support and sends the message that we do want them to know how to respond to our solicitations. It’s an invitation to start a relationship where the only cost to you is rearranging your schedule for an evening or a day. It doesn’t take a program or policy change, just initiative. When the time comes and someone at the top wants a policy in place, you will have already made in-roads and know where to go.
Erika Lopez, is the winner of the 2016 NIGP Diversity Essay contest. She is a buyer with the City of Hillsboro, Ore..