By M.V. Greene
In the universe of supplier-diversity advocacy, leaders like Ingrid M. Robinson have their hands full.
Stakeholder requests and interactions, demands for useful programming, funding pressures and the constant search for innovative ideas are never-ending.
Robinson is president of the Houston Minority Supplier Development Council, an affiliate Council of National Minority Supplier Development Council Inc. NMSDC advocates for and promotes certification of minority business enterprises (MBEs) to do business with major corporations, government agencies and other organizations and entities.
She assumed leadership of the Houston Council in April 2016 and looks back to the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 to explain the uncertainty and urgency of her job. The pandemic, she said, challenged her view of supplier diversity and all she had learned over the years.
“It probably was one of my most stressful times — really trying to keep those MBEs afloat and trying to keep the corporations engaged and connecting with suppliers,” Robinson said.
During the late 1990s — when in her early 20s — she had served the Houston Council as assistant director for three years, primarily responsible for programming, creating corporate and governmental partnerships and organizational public relations. She left for positions in corporate supplier diversity, management consulting, politics and government affairs in Texas.
Robinson’s mentor and predecessor at the Houston Council was Richard Huebner, who retired as president after 31 years, receiving national praise for his leadership.
She said that the nature of pandemic disruptions to business and general society rocked supplier-diversity advocacy to its core and took a toll. MBEs were scrambling to remain in business as viable partners with corporations. Corporations — hurting financially — were questioning the value of their supplier-diversity initiatives that increasingly were seen as a cost rather than a profit center.
For Houston’s certified MBEs, Robinson positioned HMSDC as a partner that “they could lean on for resources to help them. It was about keeping them healthy and going.”
For its corporate members, “I kept focusing on value – communicating how they could garner and maintain support in their organizations when, at that point, everybody was just looking at revenue,” she said.
Having an impact
HMSDC — which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2023 as an NMSDC affiliate chapter — has 77 corporate members and provides services for 860 MBEs that generate nearly 2% of Houston’s gross domestic product, Robinson said.
With the Greater Houston Partnership, HMSDC released an economic impact analysis in June 2022 that also shows Houston’s certified suppliers generating $14 billion in economic activity and contributing $8.5 billion to the local region GDP in 2020. The report further outlined that HMSDC-certified MBEs supported some 70,500 jobs in the Houston metro area in 2020, paying $5.4 billion in wages.
“The impact is not just important to those particular [MBEs], but it has an impact in terms of revenue and employment,” Robinson said.
Two years after the start of her tenure as president, she began to evaluate Council operations, including programming and funding. She did not want to rush the evaluation process and planned on a multi-year effort to solicit feedback from HMSDC stakeholders, but then the pandemic hit and created additional urgency.
“This work is not passive in nature; it requires you to be proactive,” Robinson said.
Because she had such regard for Huebner and his presidency, she wanted to institute a thoughtful process to mark her leadership “before going in and trying to fix or change things,” she said. In redesigning HMSDC’s business model, her key objective was to ensure that the focus of any change would bring added value to stakeholders.
One of Robinson’s first actions was to review HMSDC’s programming through a “keep, tweak, delete” process, the results of which caught her off guard. With a consultant’s assistance, the Council set up focus groups to gauge stakeholders’ views of its more than 50 programs, including current and former corporate members, MBEs and community partners.
“Everything came back ‘keep,’” she said. “I thought, really, there’s got to be something where somebody says, ‘No, that program doesn’t work.’” As it turned out, MBEs wanted to keep programs even if they did not utilize them fully, because they thought the programs would be valuable to others, she said.
The result of the programming evaluation exercise was a clearer mission for the Council, Robinson said. What followed was what she termed “5-6-5,” a theme where the Council would focus on staging five signature events, six developmental programs and five marketplace connectors annually to strengthen the connections between MBEs and corporate members.
“I realized we could not be everything to everyone. I wanted us to focus on what we do best,” she said. “By giving clarity to our mission and my vision, it helped to get everybody focused on delivering those things.”
Part cheerleader, part coach
Robinson also tackled the Council’s funding, particularly as the pandemic raged on and affected stakeholders’ bottom lines.
“What I noticed was that from the beginning, we had never changed our funding sources. We relied heavily on our corporate membership, the financial support of our programs, our fundraisers and the fees for certification from our MBEs, all of which were hit hard during COVID,” she said. “I thought that for us to be an organization that was sustainable, we needed to look at other things for funding.”
The result of that evaluation was to pursue outside grants. Two prominent ones that came in were from The Rockefeller Foundation and Fluor Corp., a global engineering, procurement, fabrication, construction and maintenance company headquartered in Houston.
“What that allowed us to do was to reduce the cost of our programming to make it more accessible to MBEs,” Robinson said. “It allowed us to serve a larger number of MBEs.”
She said the job of a supplier diversity advocate and leader is “part cheerleader” and “part coach.”
The cheerleader has to show rah-rah enthusiasm for MBEs, but the coach has to be the one to remind them of what they may be doing incorrectly and show them how to improve, Robinson said.
“You have to be a cause-oriented person to do this kind of work. My legacy will be all of those companies that I know I helped and those that I don’t know I helped,” she said. “Three of every four employees of our MBEs are minorities. So, I know that every day as I am advocating for these companies, they are introducing money and helping to grow people of color and creating generational wealth. That’s the legacy. It is knowing that I helped move the needle in some sort of way.”
To learn more about HMSDC, visit hmsdc.org.
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