By Arianna Hermosillo
Even in the midst of a pandemic, civil unrest and an election year, the Chicago Minority Supplier Diversity Council (MSDC) has a job to do. “We are so necessary right now,” says J. Vincent Williams, its new President and CEO.
In part that’s because someone needs to ensure that major companies and government entities act on the business case for hiring companies owned by people of color, but also in part because of the pandemic’s impact on these businesses. From February to April of 2020, 41% of Black-owned small businesses, 32% of Latinx-owned small businesses and 26% of Asian-owned small businesses stopped operating compared to only 17% of white small businesses.1
In light of this, Williams wants to send a clear message to corporate decision-makers: “If you’re not doing business right now with a minority-owned business you are missing out.”
Challenging Senior Leaders to Diversify
The push for diversifying corporate and government supply chains is not a new practice. It gained traction in response to the inequality that the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s brought to light.2 The Chicago MSDC was started in 1968.3 While that period helped introduce supplier diversity in the U.S. it would take time for businesses to understand the business case for it. Research and studies have since proven that including underrepresented suppliers in the supply chain has many business benefits including making supply chains more agile2, meeting ethical consumer expectations, increasing sales, reaching diverse customers and driving innovation.4
Because of this year’s pandemic, businesses across the board have had to get creative with their supply chains. Williams sees the unprecedented disruption as an opportunity for senior leadership at major companies to take heed and pursue minority-owned businesses. He says the decision needs to come from CEOs. “You have the control to say, ‘We’re not diversified enough. Change it.’”
Pivoting during a Pandemic
Without the ability to hold in-person meetings and make connections face-to-face, advocating for supplier diversity looks different these days. To continue serving its nearly 1,000 certified Black-, Latino-, Native American- and Asian-owned businesses the ChicagoMSDC has moved to program online. Its 53rd annual Chicago Business Opportunity Fair and 2020 U.S. Diaspora Investment and Trade Deal Event to connect the African Diaspora and Africa were both held virtually.
The ChicagoMSDC is also offering digital matchmaking so its Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs) can connect with a company’s buyers and procurement officers. MBEs choose who they want to learn more about and can set up their own private virtual meetings.
Planning for 2021
Looking ahead to 2021, Williams says that technology is definitely part of the ChicagoMSDC’s strategic planning. Other goals include:
Rating system: A rating system is in the works to grade businesses and develop those that need more attention and support.
Community presence: He wants to create a presence outside of downtown with satellite offices in several Chicago neighborhoods and even the suburbs, too.
Filling gaps. Williams wants to identify industries that the ChicagoMSDC has low numbers in. “I have the opportunity to take and cultivate smaller businesses so that we have a larger representation in that industry,” he says.
Collaboration: William envisions an ecosystem in which minority-owned businesses are also working and supporting one another, too, in addition to gaining access to larger corporations.
Bilingual services: Making the certification application and the ChicagoMSDC’s webinars and courses available in Spanish is also on the new agenda.
Building a Legacy
Williams’s passion for advocating for businesses is rooted in his past. His family owned a roller rink in the Roseland neighborhood called Rollerena in the late 1970s. He fondly remembers it, but also recalls that his family did not want to be known as a black-owned business because they feared that suppliers and vendors would deny them products and services.
Now Williams is dedicated to helping businesses proudly identify as Black-owned and hopes his legacy is that he ensured that minority businesses were heard, valued and appreciated.