Originally published by The Philadelphia Sunday on September 21, 2018
By Amy V. Simmons
The process of obtaining contracts to provide goods and services can be complex and frustrating. Knowing what assistance is available to providers to help them navigate the system as minority contractors can mean the difference between success and failure.
According to The Institute for Supply Management, the goal of supplier diversity is to include different categories of suppliers in an organization’s active supply base. This includes a proactive business process that seeks to provide diverse suppliers (LGBT-owned, minority-owned, veteran-owned, women-owned and small businesses) equal access to purchasing opportunities.
U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D–2nd Dist.) hosted a panel at this year’s Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference that addressed the topic entitled “The Business of Business: How to Navigate the World of Supplier Diversity.”
One of the themes running throughout the session was the significant role that emerging technology — such as artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality – is playing in the way people do business now.
“Obviously, the world has changed radically, and will continue to change,” Evans said during the discussion. “[The question is] do our communities have the ability to adapt to a changing environment?”
“There are a number of initiatives that are happening in the state of Pennsylvania dealing with the innovation economy,” said Kerry Kirkland, deputy secretary for Diversity, Inclusion and Small Business Opportunities at the Pennsylvania Department of General Services. “What they’re doing is basically importing talent in from other states. [For example] in Philadelphia next month, they’re bringing in several young tech entrepreneurs from Seattle to talk about how we are going to share that knowledge with folks in Pennsylvania…something that we have not done a good job with.”
A long term, multi-disciplinary strategy is needed for entrepreneurs, including self-education and face-to-face relationship building. Kirkland emphasized that even without the latest technological training hurdles, navigating through these programs and operations has always been difficult for African-Americans, but is doable.
“Having a strategy going in is important,” he said. “This is a battle that’s going to take tenacity; it’s going to take a lot of guts going in and just not accepting ‘no’ for an answer…understanding that strategy going in [is] going to help you with a lot of frustration on the backside.”
One huge hurdle for potential suppliers is compliance with the complicated export requirements needed to compete in today’s global economy.
“There are oftentimes requirements that are put in place by the enforcement and compliance division of the International Trade Administration,” said Joann Hill, chief, Office of Business Development, U.S. Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA). “If you have products you want to sell to a foreign nation, my best advice to align with a U.S. Export Assistance Center. They are experts and can help prevent you from shipping, sending things and spending money that you are going to lose if it gets there and gets held up at the port because your freight forwarding had a flaw, there were issues regarding the nuts and bolts of the product that are unacceptable or don’t meet the compliance requirements.”
Similarly, one has to be educated and assertive when it comes to approaching local businesses as a potential supplier.
“You’ve got to be involved, you’ve got to be in their face,” Hill said. “Just like you want to sell them that product, competition is fierce… you have people at the pulse of what is going on and want to sell to the federal, public and the private sector. Get in [their] face, find out what their goals are and have meetings with them.”
Although attendance at national events are important when seeking out business opportunities, local events are sometimes the best, Hill said.
“When they see you enough, you are consistent in your delivery of services, you’re ready with your capabilities and have got a great track record, 10 times out of 10 eventually you’re going to line up some business,” she said.
It is also important to reach out to your elected representatives for assistance in navigating the process, noting that even if you are not able to meet with them personally at the time, they have designated staff members that you can bring your concerns to. Evans said.
“We don’t know about it if you don’t talk to us,” he said.