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NIU President Lisa Freeman has made it a priority to ensure the university’s suppliers, or vendors, for businesses on-campus are more diverse through her presidential goals for the academic year.

“We want to do business with vendors that reflect the rich diversity of our students, alumni and region to provide our students with role models and to enhance economic opportunity across all communities,” Freeman said.

Freeman plans to do work with more diverse vendors under the State of Illinois Business Enterprise Program, according to NIU Presidential Goals website. A BEP business is considered a company owned by minorities, women and persons with disabilities, according to the NIU Procurement Services and Contract Management website. BEP allows companies to search their database of businesses who applied for the BEP certification.

Currently, NIU purchases goods and supplies from these businesses in accordance with the Illinois Business Enterprise for Minorities, Females and Persons with Disabilities Act, which has been in effect since Aug. 28, 1994, according to the NIU Procurement Services and Contract Management website.

Freeman’s Presidential goals took effect in June after trustees approved them at the June 13 meeting. Freeman included an increase in diverse vendors so the university can buy at least 20% of goods and services from BEP businesses to meet the goal BEP set for universities.

Freeman said by increasing the diversity within the school's suppliers, it will reflect NIU’s commitment to inclusivity. She said supporting businesses owned by minorities, women or persons with disabilities can promote innovation and increase NIU’s access to new products by working under the BEP program.

Increasing diversity has been a growing trend in the business world, according to an Aug. 13 Bloomberg article. A firm based in the midwest has begun an initiative to increase diversity on corporate boards throughout the region.

The Midwest Investor Diversity Initiative is made up of institutional investors along with 11 pension and union funds, with a collective $750 billion in assets. The group has been calling on small companies across the midwest to adopt search processes that may opt for a more diverse board within companies.

Since the group's formation in 2016, 24 midwest companies have adopted Rooney Rule, according to a Midwest Investor Diversity Initiative press release. The rule originates from the National Football League and requires that for every open board position, female and minority candidates must be included in the search process. Collectively, 10 companies have appointed 12 diverse board members, and the group has created a toolkit, including a checklist of essential practices, key insights and other sources, for companies to sustain a diverse board.

During the June meeting, Trustee Montel Gayles expressed concern involving the university’s software and hardware supplier, Oracle Corporation. A three-year, $4.8 million contract with Oracle was approved at a Board of Trustees meeting in June.

Gayle said he is worried about the dependency the university may have when a vendor’s products become more prominent over time. He said companies such as Oracle should have a duty to help the university meet its diversity goals by subcontracting with minority and women businesses.

“If a vendor doing business with NIU cannot directly subcontract with a disadvantaged business, it should look to contracting indirectly with diverse firms,” Gayle said.

He said through these types of subcontractor relationships, companies like Oracle can help diverse businesses grow. This will allow diverse suppliers to hire people from different communities that look like the business’ ownership.

Vernese Edghill-Walden, chief diversity officer, echoed Freeman’s idea of diversifying suppliers.

“When we have diverse vendors or businesses working with [the university,] we bring different opportunities for engagement together,” Edgehill-Walden said. “By strengthening our vendor participation, it allows us to bring a wider range of companies, resources, materials and products that perhaps our institution may not have been aware of or can develop a broader network we may not have had before.”

Antoinette Bridges, director of Procurement Services and Contract Management, said the department is fully embracing Freeman’s goal because diversity is a key component to success at NIU.

“Bringing vendors to campus will allow them to showcase their services, engage with the NIU faculty and staff who make purchases for their respective colleges and departments and learn more about how they can become part of the state’s Business Enterprise Program database if they haven’t already done so,” Bridges said.

A vendor networking fair called “Building Pathways to Diverse Partnerships” will be held 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Oct. 16, at the Duke Ellington Ballroom. Freeman will be the featured speaker at the fair.

Bridges said while the state requires all universities to utilize minority suppliers, the event is about much more than that.

“Diversity is a crucial element of living out the mission and values that President Freeman has put forth,” Bridges said. “This fair will allow us to strengthen our outcomes by engaging diverse perspectives and experiences.”

When it comes to students, Gayles believes NIU should view vendor diversity as an extension of its role in student career development.

He said if the university is focused on a student’s career development, NIU should also do its part to develop small and disadvantaged businesses that one day will be best positioned to hire diverse graduates.

“If we believe in the value of a diverse student population, we must also value and advance our contracting with diverse vendors,” Gayle said. “The two concepts truly go hand in hand.”