Diversity & Inclusion

The Business Case for a Diverse Supplier Program

Debi Mitchell and Kelly Atkinson of Barnes & Thornburg discuss the wide-reaching benefits of deploying diversity and inclusion outreach throughout a company’s full supply chain.

CCBJ: What is supplier diversity, and why is it important?

Kelly Atkinson: Supplier diversity means having diversity among the people, vendors and business partners that provide the various supplies and services your company procures. If your organization is committed to diversity and inclusion, that commitment should include supplier diversity.

At Barnes & Thornburg, our long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion is one of our core values. We want to make sure that, as part of our strategic platform and operations, we are living those core values, and that includes the choices we make about our suppliers.

Debi Mitchell: It’s always helpful to have a diverse supplier pool, and we encourage the companies we work with to support that goal as we go forward.

How can organizations work to extend diversity and inclusion efforts beyond simply recruiting and retaining diverse talent?

Atkinson: At Barnes & Thornburg, diversity and inclusion permeate every aspect of our operations. We include supplier engagement as part of that. It says a lot when you put your money where your mouth is. When others can see that it’s genuinely a big part of your culture, including the way you work with your vendors and suppliers, it has a real impact.

Mitchell: As members of the business community, organizations can keep a lookout for diverse suppliers and vendors to help expand their business’s vendor pool.

What are the keys to success when building and launching a program?

Mitchell: First, identify and put together your goals. Identify your existing pool of suppliers and vendors to see how diverse the group is. Then explore opportunities to identify diverse suppliers and vendors through networking, educational opportunities and client engagements.

As you put your program together, make sure that you account for the scope and breadth of your company. Because we have 18 offices, our program needed to work across the U.S., so we included various geographic business areas and products and services tailored to departments throughout our firm.

In addition, you need to have top-down buy-in from leadership. We were fortunate that our management committee supported us throughout the development of the program.

Atkinson: With any project, you want to make sure that you’re working with all of the relevant departments and within your organization’s internal controls. You need to incorporate every piece of that structure and draft communications ahead of time, so that things don’t slip through the cracks. In our case, it was eye-opening how many pieces of our business were affected by this program, because its implementation was both internal and external.

You want to be clear about your vendor expectations from the outset as well.

One final point: Test and test, and test again, so that you can knock out all of the kinks. You will find lots of them as you develop the program and engage different users throughout the firm.

It truly makes us more thoughtful in our buying decisions and how we engage our business partners, and that ultimately helps us best serve our clients. — KELLY ATKINSON

What is the business case for implementing a diverse supplier program?

Atkinson: Unfortunately, just saying “It’s the right thing to do” doesn’t always cut it – you do need to make a business case at a lot of companies. At our firm, it truly makes us more thoughtful in our buying decisions and how we engage with our business partners, and that ultimately helps us best serve our clients. One of the big goals of our program is to help us do better to benefit our clients; our diverse supplier program helps us do that.

How can external and internal legal teams work together to engage in diverse procurement?

Atkinson: We can hold each other accountable. For example, we can create reports to show who does the legal work for our clients, which is especially important if they’ve requested diverse teams from the start. Outside counsel can even hold us accountable by asking questions on requests for proposals about our diverse supplier program, which we’re happy to report on because we’re proud of what we’re doing.

Mitchell: As external and internal legal teams look for expertise to help them in their endeavors, you will want to regularly remind the teams of diverse resources that have been made available. As groups find more and more diverse suppliers, it will be important for the new suppliers be added to the pool of vendors. It only takes one person in a group to help the team engage in diverse procurement.

Another opportunity would be to provide educational forums for disadvantaged business enterprises. Small businesses that are owned and managed by women or minorities would benefit from the networking that’s provided, while taking advantage of the educational opportunities.

As you put your program together, make sure that you account for the scope and breadth of your company. — DEBI L. MITCHELL

What aspect of the program might be a surprise to our readers?

Atkinson: A big part of the diversity program that we thought was important – on top of tracking where we spend money and how we make buying decisions – is that we want to ultimately create opportunities to help diverse business enterprises, either by aiding in the certification process, or by creating educational opportunities to help them win more business on their own. We want to use the resources we have within the firm to help businesses succeed, beyond just our spend.

Mitchell: Although creating the program takes quite a bit of time, it really brings attention to how important it is to do the legwork and continue to communicate in order to have a successful program.

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