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Want to Make the Most of Your Diverse Supplier Certification? Get Involved

February 23, 2022
The C2FO Team
Carlton Oneal, LightSpeedEdu Inc.

Getting certified as a diverse supplier can be a force multiplier for smaller companies, giving them new opportunities to win business from corporate buyers.

But too many suppliers aren’t getting the full benefit of their certification — and never really see any business growth as a result.

“I tell folks to think of it like a gym membership,” said Carlton L. Oneal, president of LightSpeedEdu Inc., a provider of innovative e-learning and multimedia solutions. “Some people buy a gym membership, don’t work out and then wonder why they’re not building muscles or losing weight. If you get certified and you don’t go to meetings, events and other business sessions, nothing’s going to happen.”

Once they’re certified, Oneal said, diverse businesses need to actively participate in programs offered by supplier development organizations and other associations that support diverse businesses.

Oneal is the chair of the National Minority Business Enterprise Input Committee and serves as an executive committee member of the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC), which represents more than 13,000 minority-owned businesses.

“We are fully invested in the NMSDC and the world of MBEs (minority business enterprises), because as I tell other minority business owners, being certified gives you access to people who you would likely never get to meet through any other means,” he said.

Ultimately, procurement leaders are like anyone else. They do business with people they know, like and trust.

“I attended an event of a Fortune 500 corporation not long ago and ended up sitting at the lunch table with the chief procurement officer,” Oneal said. “And it's because of that certification, because of the connection with the corporation that is interested in acquiring products and services from certified MBEs, that allowed me to be in that seat, engaged in a productive conversation with the CPO.”

Build your reputation by volunteering

But you don’t have to serve on a national board to make those kinds of connections. It can be as simple as volunteering at an organization’s events, even if it’s just working at the registration table for an hour or two.

“Get involved so that people get to know you, get to know your name and get to see you as someone they can depend upon,” Oneal said. “Because once that happens, people often get to the point of saying, ‘By the way, what product do you provide?’”

Oneal remembers volunteering at a golf outing where, if players hit a hole-in-one at a particular hole, they could win a large cash prize. Organizers needed someone to monitor the hole, so Oneal sat in a golf cart with a corporate representative for five hours.

“At the end of that day, we had exchanged cell phone numbers, and then I started working with that person on another committee,” Oneal said. “Eventually, that colleague became a client.”

Never underestimate the importance of face time

Attending live events, especially national conferences, can be an effective strategy because it lets suppliers engage in person with existing clients and prospective customers.

LightSpeedEdu found that by attending three or four conferences in a year its team could hold face-to-face meetings with multiple clients in one place instead of flying to their different home cities.

It can even be smart to attend supplier development conferences where you aren’t a member. Most organizations allow nonmembers to pay a special event registration fee to attend.  

“Because of our corporate connections and although we're an MBE, I have attended conferences and events of other diverse supplier certifying organizations,” Oneal said. “In turn, I see non-MBEs attend NMSDC events.

“A few years ago, my business partner, who is also my wife, and I attended an NGLCC conference event, because we were in Tampa the day of the event. And I was talking with one of my current clients who said, ‘Oh, wait, here's so and so from this other corporation. Let me introduce you to Carlton. Carlton's one of our certified MBEs, and they do e-learning.’

“And then a business relationship got started.”

Because of the pandemic, many organizations have switched to online events. While those have their benefits, Oneal said, live events still enjoy an edge.

“Being able to sit and talk to someone for 20 minutes to 30 minutes over a glass of tea or other favorite beverage is hard to replace,” he said.

Don’t forget to connect with other suppliers

Supplier development associations are a powerful way to meet corporate buyers, but it’s just as important to engage with other diverse businesses. “Networking with your peers is essential,” Oneal said.

If you’re trying to break into federal procurement, for example, another MBE in your network might be able to give you advice on getting started. Or maybe you could tell them how you succeeded in the corporate space.

That sort of advice and support is just the start. Diverse suppliers should look for opportunities to do business with each other, too, Oneal said.

“How can we ask a corporate member to purchase from us if we won't purchase from each other?” Oneal said. “Let's say that my team is booked, and I need additional graphic design support. I'm going to my MBE list of colleagues to find someone to provide support. I did marketing in the corporate world. I don't want to do my own marketing. I look to hire another MBE to do our marketing.”

Whatever path you choose, take action. If you took the time to seek out certification, you owe it to yourself and your company to make the most of the resource.

“I believe the key to success is to find a way to get involved,” Oneal said. “Folks who get certified and do nothing with the certification, except sit around and wait and think someone's going to give them business because they're certified? Well, they end up being very disappointed.

“Certification provides access and opportunities. It’s up to you to make connections and demonstrate the innovation and high-quality products and services many diverse suppliers are known for providing to their customers."

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