December 10, 2010 — In five years, the University of Virginia's Supplier Diversity Program has moved from being challenged by then-Gov. Mark Warner to increase business with minority-owned companies to serving as advisers to Gov. Tim Kaine and now Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Bill Cooper, director of U.Va. Supplier Diversity, has the numbers to show for it and the enthusiasm to continue its success.
In 2005, the University did less than $3 million worth of business with minority-owned companies. This year, the amount is close to $20 million, Cooper said.
When it comes to construction – a big area of U.Va. business – the University has gone from spending zero dollars to more than $13 million with minority-owned businesses this year, he said.
Working with a growing number of small, women- or minority-owned businesses has become part of U.Va. culture, Cooper said in a progress report to the Board of Visitors last month. Some of the business also comes from majority firms employing minority firms as subcontractors.
"We've convinced minority- and women-owned firms that we're serious about doing business with them," Cooper said.
Before 2005, Warner's office conducted a study on state spending with majority and minority firms and held hearings about the disparity, prompting the governor to mandate increased efforts to work with diverse companies. (McDonnell's office is currently conducting a similar review.)
Cooper, along with more recent assistance from a staff of two, has retooled the program, working with departments on Grounds to share information about women- and minority-owned and small businesses and reaching out to this business sector statewide, helping all parties understand their roles and responsibilities in the process.
The companies in this group are referred to as "SWAM" – for "small, women- and minority"-owned businesses – but Cooper said he prefers to use that name for the fair his office holds each year, SWAMFest, and to use the term, "supplier diversity" otherwise, he said.
Part of U.Va.'s Procurement Services, the Supplier Diversity Program is charged with furthering the University's goal of "non-discrimination and to giving fair consideration for all vendors in its procurement programs," the program's website says, and Cooper has made several successful efforts toward that goal.
The Supplier Diversity Program staff serves as a liaison between the SWAM vendor community and University staff with procurement responsibilities.
"I had to understand their challenges and work to remove the barriers," Cooper said.
He and Eric Denby, director of Procurement Services, began offering training sessions for diverse vendors to explain how U.Va.'s requisition and proposal process works – for instance, detailing the structure of the University's business cycle. Cooper travels around the state regularly to network with diverse companies. The office publishes an online newsletter, with articles, such as "What the heck is CPI?" and information about business opportunities at other state colleges and universities, as well as at U.Va.
In addition, he assists businesses with going through the first step: the state's certification process to be counted as a SWAM business.
"SWAM firms must compete equally with majority firms and be able to provide the University with quality goods and services at competitive prices," says the website, a point Cooper emphasized.
The Supplier Diversity Program participates in professional organizations to network, share information and support the mission, through the Virginia Minority Supplier Development Council –which Cooper will chair next year – and the Virginia Association of State College and University Purchasing Professionals. The council recently recognized U.Va. with the Corporation of the Year (Public Sector) Award.
On Grounds, Supplier Diversity staff members are part of the procurement process, meeting regularly with U.Va. buyers and directors in Facilities Planning and Construction and the Health System about purchasing goods and services. Next year, the program plans to become more involved with research spending.
Cooper recited the Supplier Diversity Initiative's mission: "To eliminate the excuses that would prevent the University of Virginia from being the best that it can be because it failed to diversify its supply chain. We strive to maintain strategic and sustainable relationships with diverse firms through straight talk, business development, insuring access to information and effective networking."