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Get Ready to Fight the Coming Battle Against Supplier Diversity

By Beverly Norman-Cooper
Former Executive Director of Supplier Diversity and Sustainability, Kaiser Permanente

July 31, 2023

I was born in 1955 in Albany, a sleepy little town in Southwest Georgia. Well into the 20th century, Albany was the economic and transportation hub of the region. King Cotton ruled, fueled by the Flint River and the brutal labor of enslaved Africans.

I lived as most Black people did—in the dark shadow of the 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision, a ruling that proclaimed Black people possessed “no rights which the [W]hite man was bound to respect.”

In the Albany of my youth, public places had separate water fountains, one labeled “White” and the other “Colored.” Being a little Black girl, I used the “Colored” fountain.

At 20, my father, worked 14-hour days, six days a week, earning $12 a week, insufficient to support a wife and a baby. To make ends meet, both my parents took on odd jobs. Meanwhile, an 18-year-old, inexperienced white kid at the same shop earned $50 a week. The glaring disparity highlighted the daily realities of racial inequality.

On June 29, 2023, by a vote of 6-3, the Roberts Supreme Court severely limited, if not effectively gutted, the use of race in college admissions. The decision reversed more than 40 years of precedent. Perversely, it left other preferences in place, giving legacy admits, the children of donors, faculty members, athletes, and others a leg up.

The ruling will likely lead companies to cut back on efforts such as workplace diversity, philanthropy, and yes, supplier diversity (which might just be capitalism at its best. It rewards risk-taking entrepreneurs who create millions of jobs that drive the economy, spur wealth, and form the cornerstone of better health and education in many under-resourced communities.)

It is tempting to despair in the face of the ruling. For me, it is a reminder that life is hard, and wins are temporary. It also reminds me that we are a people who do “hard”.

“Hard” pushed my father to join the Army, which later created the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 5 to keep him on active duty past normal retirement age. At 21, he quit his mechanic job, joined the Army, served twice in Vietnam, once in Iraq, mastered his craft, was promoted to warrant officer, and became part of the Department of the Army’s program to select and help train the next generation of master mechanics. It pushed my 19-year-old mother to bundle me up in the family’s 4-door station wagon, drive the deserted, moon-lit country road to a downtown church and join the Albany movement, part of the effort to desegregate public and private spaces. Thanks to them, my siblings and I got a chance to travel and live throughout the U.S. I finished high school in Germany, returned to the U.S. to earn my journalism degree at the University of Georgia, and later, an MBA from Columbia University,

Hard times are the booster fuel that propels us towards progress. Consider:

  • Hard times gave us Nat Turner, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. It bequeathed us Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Hard times mothered the blues and fathered jazz. It stoked the creative juices of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes and fired the visual storytelling props of Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava.
  • Hard times gifted us entrepreneurs like Madame C. J. Walker; John Johnson; Earl Graves; Reginald Lewis; and more recently, David Steward of WWT and Joe Blackstone of Blackstone Consulting (both suppliers to Kaiser Permanente and contributors to ICIC).
  • “Hard” prompted attorneys, friends, and supporters of ICIC like Ericka Curls Bartling to use her legal expertise to craft bold deals to help minority suppliers scale 10X to support global supply chains, and Trinette Chandler to close billion-dollar government procurement deals for Black and minority-owned firms.
  • Embracing the “hard” unleashed private equity investors Uche Osuji and Anita Graham of Arctaris Impact Investors to deploy millions of dollars in catalytic capital in West Baltimore and Cleveland to support hundreds of jobs.

So, rage if you want to. Cry — even ugly cry — if you need to. But fight because we must. Fight to send a message to the six Supreme Court justices that there are people who care enough to challenge their ruling.

But fight how?

  • First, double-down on investing in yourself. Attend webinars and participate in ICIC programs like the Building for Growth construction subcontracting program run by my former Kaiser Permanente colleague, Steve Lamar.
  • Don’t fight alone. Build allies among your ICIC alumni network and inside the companies you serve.
  • Actively participate in your local minority supplier development councils (shout-out to Cecil Plummer and my old council, WRMSDC).
  • Scale. Partner with other small companies or even large majority enterprises to expand your company’s access to money, people, technology, markets, and customers.
  • Nurture your mind, body, and soul. We’re running a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Practice resilience. We do “hard”, we fight, we ensure our voices are heard, and we adapt to move our beliefs forward.
  • Lock into your why. Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” My why is to honor my father and my mother. It is to pay tribute to Bernard J Tyson, the late CEO of Kaiser Permanente, with whom I was privileged to work. He believed in the power of supplier diversity to create health and wealth in under-resourced communities.

It’s hard right now. And the years ahead will be harder. But I was made for hard. So were you. Let’s get to it.


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