WE Connect Conference – Supplier Diversity Takes Centre-Stage

Last Thursday, we joined over 100 people at IBM South Bank for day two of the WE Connect conference. The organisation supports and promotes female business owners, and there was a mix of women in that category along with procurement people and others interested in the "supplier diversity” agenda.

It was an interesting change to be in a conference room that was at least 80% female, and be part of a panel discussion as the one and only "token male"!  However, it really was the most speaker-friendly audience I have ever experienced – we don't want to make generalisations based on a sample of one, but I’ve never seen an audience with such a propensity to laugh or to compliment the speakers as this one. It made for a very positive atmosphere anyway.

Ross Mandiwall from IBM (who we interviewed here) was a keynote speaker. He said that IBM wants suppliers who are “innovative, agile, flexible, able and willing to adapt to change”. That is not just woman-owned businesses - but they can be a key part of that. The commitment starts at the top in IBM, and supplier diversity programmes are implemented in every country - but there are legislative restrictions in different countries e.g. on data.

Every RFP has to go out to at least one diverse supplier (but it wasn't clear that they keep records of the proportion of winning bids form that community). However, there is an exception process – as Mandiwall says, there is no point involving smaller firms if they have no chance of winning.  IBM also promotes the use of diverse suppliers at the second tier of the supply chain, and suppliers performing well could get “promoted” to be a tier one. But does that mean tier one firms are nervous of losing business to their best sub-contractors? We asked that question - IBM feel it isn’t an issue, but we wonder …

We then heard from Helene Reardon-Bond, a senior leader in the UK Government Equalities Office. She was impressive but there was less of procurement interest as she talked about how to get more women into business, into top firms as well as becoming entrepreneurs. Gender pay reporting is coming soon to the UK – which incidentally is rated the best country in Europe for female entrepreneurs.

SustainIt are a consulting firm who advise on diversity programmes and measurement in particular; we liked their “seven steps to supplier diversity” -

  • Create a pilot project
  • Know your objectives and build a business case
  • Get Board-level buy in
  • Keep definitions and classifications simple
  • Do a supplier audit
  • Using spreadsheets is going to be fine
  • Talk to experts

Tom Lersten, the Director of Global Entrepreneurship Programme at the US Department of State was another interesting speaker but not with a procurement focus, unlike our old friend Justin Lambert from Roche. He was a real pioneer of the diverse supplier movement when at Merck, so he had to explain why Roche was not (for instance) yet a member of WE Connect!

Lambert is passionate about supporting under-represented groups and promoting “inclusive procurement practices”. The organisation should do business with a supplier community that is representative of the environment in which it operates, he believes.

His “call to action” advice is;

  • Define what "diverse" means to your company
  • Use your people and build on your relationships
  • Find your opportunity
  • Be inclusive
  • Be an ambassador, make a difference

A good day then – and we plan to come back to the presentation from Intel, which got us thinking about interesting questions concerning second-tier suppliers.

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