LGBT Suppliers Poised to Come Out

Issues important to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people have gained momentum during the past year with victories from two U.S. Supreme Court rulings in June supporting same-sex marriage, state supreme courts in New Jersey and New Mexico rejecting challenges to laws permitting same-sex marriage, federal government agencies recognizing same-sex marriage and National Football League draft prospect Michael Sam coming out as gay.

Advocates say these positive developments spotlight the benefits of including LGBT-owned businesses in corporate supplier diversity programs. By courting these businesses, employers demonstrate their commitment to LGBT inclusion and reap the benefits of working with businesses in the diverse communities in which they operate.

“They certainly mark a significant step in bringing more attention to the LGBT community as part of the broader diversity of our communities and businesses across the country,” said Liz Cooper, manager of corporate programs, Workplace Project, at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, more corporate supplier diversity programs are incorporating LGBT firm outreach. According to the foundation’s 2014 Corporate Equality Index report, 29 percent of participants have a supplier diversity program that includes LGBT-owned businesses, an increase from 21 percent in the 2011 report, and 25 percent in the 2012 report.

The National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, or NGLCC, in Washington, D.C., began certifying LGBT-owned businesses in 2002, a process that requires substantiation of majority LGBT ownership in a business and verification of the firm’s good standing in the community. This tactic is particularly relevant now because companies aren’t just looking for LGBT suppliers, they’re also looking for the best, brightest and most innovative voices in all communities, said Victoria Fulkerson, the chamber’s senior vice president. “This is really about inclusion and parity, to give LGBT suppliers an equal playing field and open access to compete.”

Companies that implement LGBT supplier diversity programs alleviate the pressure and stress of those owners not being able to bring their “true self to work,” Fulkerson said. “Business is personal — if you know you can approach an organization that has an inclusive culture, you can be more authentic in your business relationships. Then you can spend more time focusing on job performance.”

Being Real, Doing Business
Chamber member Dawn Ackerman agreed. Ackerman is president of OutSmart Office Solutions Inc., an office supply company.

“When I decided to start an LGBT business enterprise, I was proud to be able to be open and honest about my company and who we are,” she said. “I cultivate relationships with prospective customers, and I am my authentic self. If I get a sense that someone is uncomfortable with my LGBT status, then I don’t really want to do business with them.”

For corporations, it isn’t enough to have a diversity officer who wants to work with LGBT-owned businesses. Acceptance has to permeate the organization. Ackerman said for many employees religion tells them being gay is a choice, so why include LGBT business enterprises in a supplier diversity program?

“Top executives in a company have to be on board and committed to supplier diversity, or you can see right through the smoke and mirrors,” she said. “Diversity is a big picture, with a lot of different groups of people, and the true desire to have supplier diversity has to be ingrained in the corporate culture.”

Neil Cerbone, president of Neil Cerbone Associates Inc., a consultancy based in South Orange, N.J., said his state’s recent legalization of same-sex marriage has helped create more awareness about the LGBT community there. For instance, a client called to ask for advice on an upcoming event — should the company address LGBT couples as both husbands or both wives?

He said such a small thing might seem light, but it shows corporations are trying to be more aware of the LGBT community’s needs. That helps because now, more LGBT people “are able to put our full authentic selves in the workplace and marketplace.

“But everybody has their story. Gay people have been ostracized for a long time,” Cerbone said. “You could get jobs, but now you can be more open as an LGBT supplier. It’s an enormous plus to be able to bring your full voice to the table.”

The bottom-line reasoning for hiring LGBT suppliers is that the more diverse groups a corporation works with, the richer the outcomes, as more points of view are brought to the table. But there is a flip side to diversity programs that needs to be addressed — there is nothing special about diverse suppliers.

“Just because we are diverse doesn’t make us any better,” Cerbone said. “In the world of diversity I see very often a sense of privilege or expectation of privilege. That is the downside of supplier diversity, and unfortunately I do think it’s common. It can create a ripple effect, as those people tend to have loud voices and we wind up with mixed messages. People with chips on their shoulders don’t help the whole supplier diversity cause.”

In January, Office Depot Inc. was awarded the 2013 Corporate Leadership Award by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in recognition of the company’s support for its LGBT associates. The company offers a list of internal benefits and protections, such as health benefits to transgender associates. Office Depot was also recognized for its leadership in assisting LGBT-owned businesses via its supplier diversity program.

Shari Francis, Office Depot’s manager of historically underutilized businesses merchandizing, said the company began actively seeking relationships with LGBT suppliers several years ago, partly because the chamber began certifying those businesses. Working with the chamber also helped the company focus on specific geographies within the country that have stronger LGBT communities than other areas.

Francis said the company is committed to doing business with a variety of diverse groups in general, but for a long time LGBT suppliers were left out of that dynamic. She said now that the company has been able to connect with them, hopefully the rest of the LGBT community will identify Office Depot as its preferred resource for office supplies.

When the company decided to get more involved within LGBT communities, its human resources department created an associate resources group composed of associates from several departments to determine how best to reach out to LGBT-owned firms. The group also helped develop a business case to spend money and other resources to attract LGBT suppliers, including sponsoring some LGBT organizations’ events.

“Discussing beforehand what we should and should not be doing helped make the transition smoother,” Francis said. “Moreover, as we ventured into this new area, the group’s members were able to take the message back out to the organization and spread the word about what we were doing.”

Look for Resistance
Outreach efforts go more smoothly if such groups determine ahead of time any areas within the corporation that might resist. Francis said it’s necessary to learn a company’s philosophy on involvement with the LGBT community to see where there may be battles and to build a better business case with tighter metrics. “We realized we had no irregular battles related to the LGBT community — just the normal challenges of finding good suppliers that can fit our needs and the needs of our customers,” she said.

Banking and financial services company Wells Fargo & Co. integrates supplier diversity into its supply chain processes to generate greater efficiencies and boost opportunities for diverse suppliers, said CaSondra Devine, senior vice president and senior business manager for corporate supplier diversity.

Wells Fargo’s supplier diversity managers work with the company’s supply chain management department to identify capable diverse suppliers for procurement opportunities. The supplier diversity team also works with business-line managers to understand their particular strategies, then assesses the external marketplace to identify capable certified diverse suppliers.

“We have developed a process to evaluate diverse supplier capabilities, and we hold supplier capability sessions with our supply chain management sourcing partners to introduce potential suppliers for upcoming competitive bids,” she said. “This approach also opens up the dialogue for diverse suppliers to begin building relationships with key internal stakeholders.”

Wells Fargo partners with many LGBT organizations in its networking events, and holds a seat on the chamber’s procurement council and scholarship committee, Devine said. The company’s outreach program in partnership with the chamber, titled “Leaders of Change,” supports diverse businesses through scholarship by sending recipients to Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business for a one-week intensive program on building high-performance minority businesses.

“A recent LGBT business [leader] that we supported through the Tuck program provided feedback that his experience was more than transformative,” she said. “Being a part of the program allowed him to be introduced to daily case studies that directly related to his business. He discovered that other business owners were facing similar challenges.”

As a result of attending the program, Devine said this scholarship recipient developed an improved business plan and marketing strategy, “and most importantly, he left with concrete tools that he can use in his business moving forward.”

AT&T Inc. also includes LGBT firm outreach in its supplier diversity program, said Marty Richter, a company spokesman.

The company will outline its specific supplier needs in July at the NGLCC’s 2014 National Business & Leadership Conference in Las Vegas. AT&T particularly needs suppliers in key strategic growth areas, including for Project VIP, for which the company is seeking expertise in wireless construction, 4G LTE, distributed antennae systems and cable television. The company also has opportunities in application development and cloud services.

Jose Nido, vice president of global supplier diversity and strategic sourcing at hotel and resort company Wyndham Worldwide Corp., said the company works with LGBT-owned businesses because it is the right thing to do.

“It’s as simple as that,” he said. “Managing diversity well is a requirement of a global leader in the hospitality industry. In order to be successful, we must understand various cultures, motivate and lead multiple generations, provide ethical leadership, and demonstrate integrity and respect in everything we do. As we continue to grow around the world, we need a rich and diverse foundation of perspectives and experiences that will benefit our company, our customers and the communities in which we operate.”

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a California-based journalist. She can be reached at