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June 19th, 2013

The loneliest person in the building is the Black CEO

Harry Alford

For the most part corporate America employees are satisfied with their careers. There is usually a chart to review in terms of responsibility. Is the employee moving up the "ladder" and heading towards more executive responsibility? The greater the responsibility; the greater the pay and the less tolerance for any error or bad judgment. If one reaches as far up the ladder as he or she can, then they will ultimately seek new employment that offers more opportunity or capitulate to the end of their improvement and sit there until retirement.

There are many divisions within a major corporation. Engineering, Manufacturing, Logistics, Marketing, Sales, Legal, IT, Human Resources, Procurement, Research/Development, Security and Maintenance are some of the major divisions. Each of these divisions is managed by a vice president, director, chairman or president. They report to the President/CEO or Chairman/CEO. Somewhere in this maize of divisions is a particular occupation sometimes known as Manager of Minority Procurement or Diversity Procurement or some other form that reflects on a minority procurement program that the company alleges it has. The person they pick will have less than a successful tenure under his/her belt. Their past with the corporation is lack luster and their future is considered to be vague or doomed to failure. This is the prototype of who they want to represent them as Black owned businesses and other minorities seeking to do business are directed to his or her office. It’s the colored entrance and white owned firms head to the procurement division where the real deals are done. It reminds one of that great novel, "The Spook who sat by the Door" by Sam Greenlee.

This individual has little power and no repute amongst members of the corporation. If a crisis arises that involves the corporation’s record on minority business, the company will refer the matter to someone high up in the procurement division. We had an issue with the Chrysler Corporation. They were building a new plant in Kokomo, Indiana. The State Legislature gave them $8 million cash for land to build the plant on. They had the nerve to refuse any appointments by Black construction managers. One of our members even had their FEDEX package containing the Statement of Qualifications refused for acceptance. They wouldn’t even accept it. He complained to us and we went to "war". After a scathing OPED in many NNPA newspapers and the threat of defaulting on the $8 million given to the company by the state they began to panic. Chrysler sent four vice presidents to my office. The minority business guy wasn’t even in the loop. They made peace by awarding the plant to one of our members. One of the vice presidents ran their Foundation. As a jester of "we are sorry", they sent a handsome grant to us. I felt like Rev. Jesse Jackson!

A lot of these corporations will demand that you, a Black person, should go through that colored door and never approach the main door. One of our members formed an engineering consulting company made up of two homegrown Blacks, an African and a Caribbean. The four of them developed a great staff and started winning a lot of contracts at this one particular Fortune 10 corporation. Eventually, members of the corporation suggested that they get certified as a minority business. They said they would rather not as they were winning contracts in a straight up competitive way. Then the corporation demanded it. So they did and by doing so they now had to go through that colored door. Predictably, their business started drying up and within a year they were out of business.

There is a big stigma placed on certified minorities within the majority of major corporations. I remember talking with the minority business guy for Enron (before their demise). He broke into tears as he said his career is at a "dead end sitting in this damn office". He said he was an outcaste and when he walks down a hall everyone frowns at him. "If I come up to them to discuss minority firms they say they don’t have time and then I catch all this hell from people like you."

There are a few corporations that are exceptions to the above. They don’t move by one office and one person with little staff. They move by a committee of some of their best "up and coming" executives. Management expertise is applied and sincerity is evident. Johnson & Johnson, Verizon, Comcast and Penn Gaming quickly come to my mind as great examples of commitment in diversifying their procurement choices. There are a few others but that’s about it. Finally, let me say that a corporation having a Black CEO has so far made no difference in the attitude of minority procurement. We have tested it and they have flunked.

Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, President and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

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