By M.V. Greene
From her perch deep in the heart of Texas, longtime President and CEO Karen Box of the Southwest Minority Supplier Development Council (SMSDC) is doing her best to remain upbeat about the promise of supplier diversity creating opportunities for people of color.
But she is unhappy about what she sees as adverse efforts around the country to reduce the impact of the practices that benefit minority business enterprises (MBEs) and the communities they serve as well as blunt the impact of supplier diversity and diversity and inclusion, in general. And she is “stunned” at what is happening in Texas.
SMSDC — one of 23 regional affiliate chapters of National Minority Supplier Development Council Inc. (NMSDC) — is based in Austin, the Texas capital, and encompasses a service area that expands from Southwest Texas, including San Antonio and El Paso, to Oklahoma and New Mexico.
Box, who has been at SMSDC’s helm since 2010, sees some troublesome trends over diversity through bills proceeding in the Texas state legislature. For instance, the Texas Senate passed a measure in April 2023 that would restrict how the state’s public universities can promote equitable access to higher education and cultivate diversity among students, faculty and staff — including mandating the closure of university diversity, equity and inclusion offices.
In the meantime, she said, the Texas House is considering similar bills, including one that would prohibit consideration of race or ethnicity as a factor in governmental employment.
Box hardly minces her words when discussing the efforts, calling them out as “just so evil and hurtful.”
She said strategies are being developed among fellow supplier diversity advocates and political and policy leaders in Texas to push back.
“My concern is that this will have far-reaching effects on our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who will not have opportunities,” she said.
Remaining true to the mission
Because supplier diversity functions best — in part through cooperation with corporations — Box also is concerned that the rolling back of diversity gains may have a “chilling effect.” She said corporate executives typically espouse conservative principles, and some may not want the headache of fighting against the measures.
Yet she chooses to be optimistic. “I am hoping that some corporations will double down and say I am not going to be held hostage,” she said.
Despite the swirling issues, Box promises to remain true to her mission at SMSDC — to continue to certify, connect, develop and advocate for MBEs and corporate members. SMSDC works with more than 600 certified MBEs and joins with larger NMSDC affiliates in Dallas and Houston for one of the biggest footprints for diverse business activity in the country.
NMSDC established SMSDC in 1999 to help spread out the burden for MBE activity in Texas beyond Dallas and Houston. Around that time, Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Texas Inc. was about to break ground for a major manufacturing facility in San Antonio that would hire thousands of workers and engage on-site suppliers that would employ thousands more.
Toyota Motor North America Inc. — long an advocate of supplier diversity through active participation in organizations that include NMSDC, Women’s Business Enterprise National Council and Billion Dollar Roundtable Inc. — sought a greater presence for MBEs at the new plant, particularly among Hispanic-owned enterprises, and SMSDC was able to step in and assist with those efforts, Box said.
Given that the NMSDC organization had its founding roots in 1972, Box said that while SMSDC is considered one of the newest affiliates, she is proud of how well her chapter has progressed over the years and is currently positioned.
“We work very hard at retaining our MBEs,” she said. “We retain their certifications and interests in being certified. The value of the certifications is the connection between [MBEs] and the corporations. We’re the direct link.”
Box noted that SMSDC has won the NMSDC Council of the Year Award twice in its history and finished as the runner-up to the Georgia Minority Supplier Development Council for the honor in 2022.
“I think what any parent organization wants to ensure is that its affiliates have the financial strength to stand in case anything happens to the programs. Because of that and other elements, we match up very, very well. You must have a competitiveness as a council so that you are good at what you do,” she said.
Developing MBEs to be contract-ready is a key focus for the council, Box said, but that also extends to development efforts to help SMSDC member corporations enhance their supplier-diversity programs. Over the past several years, she said, SMSDC’s Benchmarking PLUS+ program for corporate members has helped it accelerate its supplier diversity efforts.
Through the program, corporate members “learn those nuggets that are so important to growth in their [supplier diversity] programs [in order] to demonstrate excellence to their executive leadership,” she said.
Supplier diversity advocate
Before joining SMSDC, Box had served as director of supplier diversity at Seton Family of Hospitals in Austin. Before that, she was executive director of the Capital City Chamber of Commerce in Austin. She also operated her own marketing agency as an entrepreneur for several years.
While her knowledge of minority business development encompasses a wide sphere, she said it is the current work at SMSDC that truly fuels her advocacy for supplier diversity.
“You have to have passion; you have to have compassion, and you have to have that ‘I’ve-got-to-get-it-done’ attitude,” Box said. “I do not have an option. There are communities of color that are depending on me to do my very best, so that they have a shot of that economic freedom in those communities.”
To learn more about SMSDC, visit smsdc.org.