Written by Kristen Beckman
Supplier diversity certifications are becoming an increasingly important part of doing business for women- and minority-owned businesses. Certifications guarantee to companies that suppliers they contract with or hire are, in fact, diverse.
The Women’s Wireless Leadership Forum hosted a webinar about the topic, featuring real world scenarios and best practices for getting the most out of certifications. The panel was hosted by Lynn Whitcher and Courtney Davis, co-executive directors of education for WWLF. Panelists included Darretta Whitfield, Supplier Diversity Manager, Charter Communications; Debora Battaglia, Director of Business Development, LCC Telecom Services, LLC; Heather Cox, Co-Founder and President, Certify My Company; Karen Caldwell, President, Caldwell Compliance; and Shamrose Ali, Director of Operations, Texas Wireless Communication LLC.
Whitfield said diversity is important to corporations, and specifically for Charter, because it brings people to the room with different backgrounds, different experiences, and different thought processes. “It adds to our ability to be creative and to be innovative and to solve problems and just to have a better product and service,” said Whitfield.
Becoming certified can help women- and minority-owned businesses gain footing in competitive markets, and many companies are even requiring certification from their diverse suppliers. But the process to become certified isn’t always easy, and the benefits aren’t always immediately apparent, panelists said.
Caldwell said her company became certified by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) early in its 21-year history and has since pursued other types of diversity certifications especially when clients request them. The process to become certified in some cases can be arduous and expensive but in other cases is easier, she said. Caldwell noted many certifications have networking and mentorship opportunities that can benefit those who apply. However, while the desire for companies to be certified is prevalent, whether certifications have translated into business, Caldwell said she’s not sure.
Battaglia concurred, saying while LCC has obtained several diversity and local certifications, including WBENC, it’s difficult to quantify how much business has resulted from those certifications. “I can say maybe two times it may have gotten our foot in the door,” said Battaglia. Having a diversity certification can get companies on the list but not guarantee business, especially in a price-driven market, she said.
Ali, who is focused on starting up a new business that provides outsourced project management and coordination for wireless companies, said she is spending her time networking with a goal of obtaining certifications in the future, because large companies in particular are looking for diverse suppliers.
So how can diverse suppliers make the most out of their certifications? The panelists offered a few suggestions.
- Understand that certifications aren’t a guarantee of business or contracts. “It’s not a magic wand,” said Cox, whose company helps suppliers navigate the certification process. “The only thing certification is going to do is get you in the door, maybe make an introduction for you, and solidify some relationships. If it's you and somebody else in the bidding process, it may tip the scale. But you might never know that happens.” She noted that certifications can also lead to business indirectly through introductions and referrals that might not be evident on the surface.
- Know your target audience. Whitfield advises suppliers to do their research and make a relevant pitch to supplier diversity managers and procurement teams about how they can help meet the company’s needs. “If you connect those dots for me, and you can show me a valid certification that we care about, that will open the door to conversations,” said Whitfield, who runs Charter’s national supplier diversity program, including everything from training and education to making connections with suppliers and procurement teams. She said while companies care about diversity, the bottom line is they are looking for suppliers that can handle the volume and output they need and meet their requirements for keeping their business up and running, especially during the pandemic.
- Be strategic about which certifications to pursue. Because certifications in some cases can be expensive and time consuming, it’s important to be strategic about which ones to pursue. Not all certifications are created equal and which you pursue depends in large part on what you want to do with them, said Cox. Whitfield suggests researching which national, regional and state certifications target clients are involved in and prioritize those.
- You’ll get as much out of your certifications and partnerships as you put in. Many certification programs offer training, networking and mentorship opportunities that can benefit you directly through knowledge gained but also through contact with a network of people who can help you. Being engaged will place you top of mind when a company asks for referrals.
- Don’t be shy about mentioning your certification status. “If you're approaching our company and it's not something that we've been actively seeking, you need to lead with the fact that you're certified through these organizations that we're partners with so that we recognize it,” said Whitfield. “We won't know if you don't tell us.” Whitfield said certified companies should include that information on their website, mailings, capability statements and RFPs.
- Commit yourself to getting it done. Cox said there’s never going to be a good time to spend the time and money to get certified because there will always be more important things to focus on. But the certification process can take a long time – years in some cases – so it’s important not to wait. “You always want to be certified before you need it. Once you need it, it’s too late.”
Whitfield relayed a certification success story about a supplier Charter worked with during the pandemic. The company needed personal protective equipment (PPE) and worked with Cox to identify a supplier who had been in the fashion industry for 16 years. The supplier had lost millions of dollars of business when large retailers cancelled their orders when COVID hit and was switching gears to supplying PPE to corporations. Charter awarded her a $4 million contract and helped her obtain a diversity certification that she was then able to leverage along with referrals into more business for PPE in the corporate arena. She went on to win a $46 million contract with the military to supply uniforms for the Marine Corps.
“The 16 years prior, she had no reason and didn't really see the value of getting certified until she needed to pivot her business and shift into other areas,” said Whitfield. “That was a windfall for her and saved her from having to let go of 16 employees to being able to hire five more and carry on for the next five years. So, I think it's worthwhile depending on what your business strategy is and how you can leverage it.”