Acknowledge the Past, Hope for the Future

Recently I attended the annual Rainbow PUSH Global Automotive and Energy Summit in Detroit. I have attended this conference for many years and seen tremendous improvement, and this was the best summit yet.

As a consultant, I always force myself to identify the key factors for success, and in this case the summit was well-organized; the Rev. Jesse Jackson was at his best; speakers were illuminating, candid and thought-provoking; panels were well-attended; and the topics were effective and provocative.

I applaud Glenda Gill, a civil rights leader and minority business expert, who has directed the summit for many years, because attendees left Detroit understanding that despite progress in the automotive industry, minorities have much work to do.

The main attraction is always Jackson. I have followed him for more than 30 years, from his huge afro-wearing, fire-and-brimstone days as leader of Operation Breadbasket until today. Over the years, Jackson’s role has changed, and this year he demonstrated he is now a global diplomat.

While each speaker made an impression on me, I was most captivated by five. Julianne Malveaux challenged elected and corporate leaders to discuss investing billions of dollars into Detroit with only limited minority participation. John Rogers beseeched minorities to focus on three to four important issues with a loud, consensus voice. Ted Childs presented the difficult truth that minority business enterprise and diversity are not priorities within many corporations. George Fraser outlined the impact of crime, drugs and apathy on art research. And Cheryl Pearson-McNeil explained the importance of minority consumers to Fortune 500 companies.

I was fortunate to chair a panel titled “Supplier Diversity: The Plan for Growth Through Commitment, Innovation and Partnership.” In my opening remarks, I confessed that one of my first private sector clients was one of the “Big Three.” I was there at the beginning of the automotive minority business enterprise movement, and that day the panelists were top procurement executives from the largest auto manufacturers in the world: Grace Lieblein of General Motors, Burt Jordan of Ford, Bob Young of Toyota, Jim Wehrman of Honda and Gary Heywood of Volkswagen. I asked them difficult questions, and they offered sincere and valuable guidance.

First, I asked about the most challenging issues when maintaining commitment to achieving minority business enterprise, or MBE, goals. The panelists discussed developing MBEs’ capacity to produce on-time quality products and services on a cost-effective basis, ensuring MBEs had the financial stability to grow, and motivating and supporting MBEs to become global partners.

Next, I asked about the level of support from top management and the board, and procurement officers said minority business enterprise remains a high corporate priority, they have been provided resources and latitude to enhance their program and they have more resources for MBEs who work full time within the program.

I also asked about the key factors for success in strategic partnerships between tier one suppliers and MBEs. Procurement officers stated they maintain and monitor minority spending with any tier one supplier, encourage mutually beneficial strategic partnerships and strongly support large opportunity fairs to facilitate partnerships.

Next, I asked how the federal government could be more supportive and increase participation of growth-oriented MBEs. Procurement officers expressed their disappointment with the lack of coordination between the public and private sector. They hoped for a national, unified certification system, and a transitioning process for highly trained and qualified minority and women-owned companies to the private sector.

At the end of my panel, I thought, these are many of the same issues that were presented 40 years ago, but I left feeling positive because there were lessons for all of the participants, the Rainbow PUSH coalition, corporations and MBEs. Hopefully, these lessons coupled with the acceptance that minority business enterprise is good for the nation will allow us to stop making the same mistakes, and MBEs will grow at a faster rate.

James H. Lowry is a senior adviser for Boston Consulting Group and inaugural member of the Minority Business Hall of Fame. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.