Leading in Supplier Diversity


Many corporations are partnering with minority- and women-owned business enterprises in support of their own diversity and inclusion practices. I recently spoke with Stephan Nicoleau, founder and managing partner of Critical Value Advisors LLC, about the growth of such partnerships and how they can support corporate diversity strategies. Nicoleau also is managing director of LaGuardia Development Partners, a minority-owned infrastructure development firm focused on the redevelopment of LaGuardia Airport’s Central Terminal Building. The firm is well regarded, not only for its infrastructure expertise, but also as an advocate for greater inclusion of MWBEs in government contracts.



Question: Tell us about your work redeveloping New York’s LaGuardia Airport Project, and how diversity plays a role in it.

Nicoleau: We’re producing, constructing, developing, and will be operating an airport that on aggregate serves over 25 million travelers per year. And so we’re taking into consideration the needs of everyone who will travel through and work at the airport. I can tell you that we are constantly focused on providing the best service we can for the city of New York and the constituents that are served by this major public utility. Everyone will use the airport, and not just business travelers. Visitors will see that sensibility reflected in the project. They’ll be able to see public arts that reflect the diversity of people who will travel through the airport. They’ll also see the diversity among the airport workers, themselves. 



Question: What are some effective strategies for advancing diversity initiatives in larger corporate schemes, and how can smaller businesses become more involved in these activities?

Nicoleau: There are two avenues to explore. First, corporations need to think about how they are engaging and working with MWBEs on a procurement basis through their supply chain opportunities and in partnerships. Corporations really need to have constant stewardship of their initiatives for engaging MWBEs. There’s no shortage of minority-owned businesses out there that are ready, willing and able. The second piece is the government and intergovernmental agencies themselves. MWBEs have faced a shifting landscape of contract opportunities with the government. And many times, the landscape changes with each new administration as posts are filled by new people who have varying priorities. So there really needs to be a drive toward consistency in terms of how MWBEs can engage with government agencies.



Question: Elaborate on the idea of providing consistent opportunities for MWBEs?

Nicoleau: Opportunities are presented on an ongoing basis. Let’s say there’s a $5 million opportunity today that will evolve into a $15 million opportunity tomorrow. Can we position MWBEs so they can grow as firms and eventually compete with other firms for those larger contracts? And that’s really important. It’s the idea of nurturing firms so they can scale up and compete on an ongoing basis.



Question: How can corporations find new ways to ensure that they’re partnering with MWBEs? 

Nicoleau: Corporations need to commit to diversity and inclusion. Conceptually, everyone agrees that diversity is a good thing. But I don’t think that folks truly embrace diversity, particularly at the senior management level. And so for new people being recruited into the organization, it’s really important for them to see that there is diversity at the leadership level, and that there is a focus on how diversity is directly related to bottom line. The demographics of this country, generally speaking, are changing. So if you’re not reflecting those demographics or engaging those populations, it does have a bottom line impact. Moreover, corporations need more creative thinking. An enterprise that is looking to engage with MWBEs really has to think about the best ways to do so, and to recognize that it can be spurred by diverse hiring internally. This way, you achieve better synergies between the mission you have internally and the partners you have externally. 



Question: Let’s cover your thoughts for the 2016 outlook for minorities and women at senior management levels at the corporations that you talked about. Where are some of the opportunities for both corporations and candidates? 

Nicoleau: The outlook is more positive than it’s ever been. The crop of emerging leaders within corporations is very strong. We’re talking about folks who were educated at the best institutions, and who have the same pedigree we want to see out of anyone coming into any organization. But while the pool of candidates is strong, corporations really need to focus on the kind of environment they are fostering. If you think about the broad spectrum of diversity, are you creating an inclusive working environment for everyone, including minorities, women, people requiring special accommodations, and so on? Are you creating an environment where you’re growing folks into management and leadership positions? 


If you think about some of the management priorities that were put in place at large corporations in the 1970s and 1980s, the primary objective was to grow the new crop of leadership within Fortune 500 companies. But much like in any organization, some of these employees eventually leave. They start their own organizations or they’ll join other groups. And so one unanticipated consequence is that corporations have helped fill the marketplace with more talented people who start new businesses, create new opportunities and grow our economy. These are the very people that organizations should turn to as potential partners down the line. 



Question: One final question: Are consumers really looking at diversity metrics, efforts, policies, and the like? 

Nicoleau: Indeed. I think we’re seeing this with everything going on in Silicon Valley and the tech firms. Folks are looking at this very carefully. Diversity matters. Here’s the mental exercise that many consumers go through: “I’m a user of this product or this service on a daily basis. But this firm that produces this utility for me does not have anyone on board that looks like me. Is there another place I can go to get a similar utility, where I feel as though my interests are reflected among the folks who are making decisions within that organization?” People are really thinking, “What does it mean for me to use Facebook everyday and know that when they release the diversity statistics, they’re not that great?” And all things being equal, people will say, “Well, we want to make sure we’re supporting a firm that is doing the right thing and is moving in the right direction.” In the end, every company’s performance is driven by its consumers. So if you’re not constantly thinking about them and engaging them, you’re endangering your bottom line.

Valerie D. White, a 2007 TNJ “25 Influential Black Women in Business” honoree, is the principal at Valerie D. White LLC.