To measure an institution’s commitment to diversity and equity, it’s not enough to boast about student enrollment figures, employee hiring statistics, and academic curricula that demonstrate inclusion of underrepresented populations.
And while UConn excels in each of those measures, it also has a demonstrated commitment to economic inclusion in contracting for goods and services that has made it a model for other institutions.
Its work to ensure that small (SBE) and minority-owned business enterprises (MBEs) have adequate access and information to compete for contracts has made UConn a leader in the field, exceeding state contracting goals for construction projects and even outpacing its own higher internal targets.
Supplier diversity is critical to UConn and the state of Connecticut because it helps ensure that qualified small companies and those owned by women, members of minority groups, and people with disabilities can compete against larger firms with deeper pockets or more years of bidding experience.
“Who we purchase from deserves as much intentionality as what we purchase,” says Veronica Cook, Executive Program Director for the UConn Supplier Diversity Program (USDP). “There are many small and minority businesses (S/MBEs) certified in the State of Connecticut who continue to look to UConn with an expressed interest in assisting us with that intentionality.
“The challenges that S/MBEs face in the course of pursuing opportunities to provide goods and services to UConn are real — but so is our on-going commitment to identify, highlight, and directly address those challenges, so that the University is better positioned to benefit from the receipt of those goods and services and the accompanying business relationships that can develop,” says Cook, who has led UConn’s supplier diversity mission since its inception in 2005.
The USDP team – which consists of Cook and her assistant Victoria Novak – in conjunction with the Purchasing Department and Capital Projects and Facilities Procurement (CPFP), is part of University Business Services under the leadership of Interim Associate Vice President and Chief Procurement Officer Gregory Daniels. Those functions are part of the University’s Finance Division led by Scott Jordan, the Executive Vice President for Administration and Chief Financial Officer.
Ensuring that S/MBEs have contracting opportunities strengthens state and regional economies, allows institutions to contract for goods and services with a wider variety of companies that better represent the diversity of their area, and can help reduce the wealth gap, experts say.
Under Connecticut state law, at least 25% of a state agency’s construction spending for projects valued at $50,000 or more must go to qualified SBEs and, of that, one-quarter must go to MBEs, equaling about 6.25% of the agency’s total construction spending annually for those same over-$50,000 projects.
However, UConn proactively raised its annual construction goals to 30% for SBEs, including 10 percent of the total construction spending for MBEs – a target that it has consistently exceeded in recent years, including FY2020.
For its efforts to date, UConn has been the recipient of the Minority Construction Council (MCC) Inaugural Corporate Partnership Award and has been honored twice with the Institution of for Higher Learning Award from the Greater New England Minority Supplier Development Council (GNEMSDC); and Cook is often called upon to provide expertise to help other institutions, as well as to participate at National conferences and professional development events. Cook has also been a contributor to the College Planning and Management Magazine, regarding the importance of supplier diversity.
In addition to the many resources that UConn provides on its Supplier Diversity Program website, it also conducts outreach events, participates in matchmakers, and hosts educational workshops to encourage participation and to help potential bidders understand the process, including a highly successful webinar last summer for the Connecticut Procurement Technical Assistance Center (CT PTAC) that has been posted on its site as a resource for others.
It’s also had positive response to its SMBeConnect, an online connection tool that Cook developed to connect S/MBEs to the buying professionals in UConn’s procurement office who specialize in their particular commodity. As a result, many of those prospective contractors, vendors, and consultants are also listed on an easily accessible page that the university purchasers and existing contractors can check as they determine the need for certain goods and services.
The program also includes educational tools to help aspiring contractors understand the kinds of opportunities UConn currently has and anticipates putting out to bid, both in construction projects and in procuring goods and services. As a benefit of using the SMBEeConnect tool, prospective contractors are signed up for the purchasing department’s on-line solicitation portal in Husky Buy, to ensure that they are electronically notified of future bidding opportunities pertaining to their commodity.
The program’s success doesn’t rely only on educating and guiding external partners and prospective bidders. In addition to those initiatives, the USDP also works internally to ensure the full University community is aware of the initiatives and embraces the goals when making purchasing decisions. This includes the launching of its eLearning course last fall on the topic. To date, the course has been completed by University Business Services staff and more than 600 Procard-holders who are responsible for making University purchasing decisions, whether large or small.
UConn officials have expressed that having a shared internal commitment, starting at the President’s level and spanning across the University’s many offices and departments, is critical to the program’s success, since even the best outreach to S/MBEs can be hampered if the mission isn’t also shared by those making daily decisions on purchasing and contracting.
“One of our goals as a University is to strive to be an exemplary model, primary catalyst, and thought leader for advancing best practices that contribute to the creation of sustainable, inclusive, and equitable communities beyond the boundaries of our institution,” says UConn Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Frank Tuitt.
“USDP’s accomplishments are a perfect example of the type of transformative impact we hope our diversity efforts can have throughout the state, the nation, and the world,” he says.
Despite its demonstrated record of success with utilization of women- (WBE) and minority-owned business enterprises (MBEs), the Supplier Diversity Program is not resting on its laurels.
On the contrary, it is working specifically to continue growing more business relationships with MBEs owned and operated by people of color and people with disabilities, including identifying and removing barriers that might exist but not be immediately evident.
The USDP also continues its work to increase non-construction contracting with those groups. UConn does exceed the state’s statutory goal of setting aside at least 6.25 percent of non-construction spending (outside of state-approved exemptions) to buy goods and services from MBEs – UConn’s most recent figure was 8 percent – but it continues to work toward increasing that number along with its total SBE spending totals yearly for goods and services.
“It is the collective efforts of the many faculty and staff, as well as student organizations, within our University who have committed to using their privilege to partner with the USDP and to purchase quality goods and services from qualified S/MBEs that strengthens the program and our effectiveness,” Cook says. “When we are intentional as a UConn Nation in the endeavor to remove barriers to economic inclusion, we accomplish so much more, benefiting not just UConn but our surrounding communities and the State of Connecticut as a whole. “