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MARKETPLACE panel explores the importance of diverse supply chains

December 7, 2021
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Diversifying Wisconsin’s economy requires a commitment at all levels, from the top down, within Wisconsin companies and organizations—and it needs to be a continuous, almost subconscious effort to improve, speakers told a conference audience today.

A panel discussion on increasing diversity in the supply chain led off MARKETPLACE, the Governor’s Conference on Diverse Business Development. With concerns being voiced nationwide that the bottlenecks in product shipments around the globe could prolong manufacturing logjams and leave store shelves empty for Christmas shoppers, both the public and private sectors have to consider ways to increase diversity in the supply chain, said Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC).

“We need to make sure we’re thinking about … how can we make all of our businesses in Wisconsin as successful as possible?” Hughes said.

Panel moderator Heather Olson, president and CEO of the North Central Minority Supplier Development Council, said some of the key issues are: what makes a supplier diversity program successful, how such programs can be built and enhanced, what current trends are, and why having a diverse set of suppliers matters to the state of Wisconsin and its residents.

Creating supplier diversity

Establishing a network of suppliers led by people of color, women, people with disabilities, veterans and others with diverse backgrounds has to be a “top-down approach,” said Danielle Bly, vice president of supplier diversity at WEC Energy Group. Supplier diversity is one of the top 10 goals for the utility group, which includes Milwaukee-based We Energies. “We establish goals every year and try to ensure they are attainable but also ambitious, to continue to move the needle,” she said.

While her staff is small, Bly said her department has liaisons in each area of the organization and checks to see what projects are in the works and what opportunities may exist to contract with diverse suppliers. “I know who to go to and who to involve,” she said.

Jenny Alexander, director of purchasing at Marquette University, said the school uses a lot of small businesses and independent contractors. She said she tries to encourage departments to plan ahead as they aim to hire suppliers with diverse backgrounds, and to contact businesses in the downtown Milwaukee neighborhood and in the greater region. “They really have to have some forethought and plan about what their projects are going to be. They need to have outreach into the community,” Alexander said.

Developing relationships

Employ a “pull versus push strategy” to get staff throughout the company engaged in seeking out diverse suppliers, suggested Chris Bilton, manager of supplier diversity at Kohler Co., the Kohler-based plumbing and power supply corporation. That means: Instead of pushing requirements on company departments, give leaders enough information to interest them in pursuing diversity and pull them into a cooperative effort. “Ask managers: How can I help you?” he said.

Suppliers who want to be hired should know and understand your organization and its market, said Anisha Jackson, supplier diversity manager for Madison-based American Family Insurance. “Really know what’s important to us and the problems we’re trying to solve … Then you can build strategy and bring solutions to us,” Jackson said. “Really do your research and understand what we do as a company, and how you can help us get there. We’re looking to build a relationship.” Patience also helps; it could take a year or longer for a new supplier to get a foot in the door, Jackson added.

Trends in supplier diversity

With supply shortages so prevalent, this is a good opportunity for local companies to step forward and help resolve some of the backlogs, Bilton said. At the same time, it’s important for both suppliers and large corporations to be flexible, in case events such as the COVID-19 pandemic create demand for certain types of goods, such as the health and safety products so badly needed during the past two years. “In this new day and age, we’ve got to be more nimble,” he said.

Young, innovative businesses can turn into diverse suppliers for bigger companies, said Alexander, and universities such as Marquette can be a source for those startups. “We’re really trying to target: What skills do these businesses need, and hopefully, we can supply the students who can fill those needs,” she said.

Bly said companies can mentor and partner with diverse suppliers, and help them move up to increasingly significant projects. “In all we went through as a society with social unrest last year, so many companies around the U.S. made statements toward supplier diversity and [diversity, equity and inclusion]. How do we maintain that momentum? How do we hold true?” she said.

Lessons learned

It’s important to look at why a company launches a diverse supplier program, said Jackson. And the answer is: to make a difference.  “It’s almost like your carbon footprint: How is your supplier diversity program changing lives?” she said. “It’s about: How do we fix the problems that exist within society?”

The issue is not a short-term remedy, Bilton said. “It needs to be long-term, systemic, intuitive. Institutionalize this. It is something we need to be doing, subconsciously, all the time,” he said.

Bilton said the ultimate goal is also a matter of economic development. Hiring suppliers with diverse backgrounds allows them to contribute to the tax base and to buy homes.

“We can significantly change the workforce, if we’re doing our jobs,” Bilton said.

The MARKETPLACE conference continues through Thursday, Dec. 9. Online registration has closed, but walk-in registration is still available at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee.

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