Allstate Insurance Company's Cheryl Harris: Building Supplier Diversity

At a young age, Cheryl Harris was impressed by the power of small-business owners. “Growing up in Chicago, we were surrounded by small businesses in the community, all owned and operated by African-Americans. They lived in the community so they provided great role models for me,” says Cheryl, who today is Senior Vice President, Sourcing and Procurement Solutions for Allstate Insurance Company (No. 33 in the DiversityInc Top 50). “It’s just a part of who I am, and I believe it’s now my responsibility and I’m accountable to make sure that minority, women and LGBT businesses—really, any business considered to be ‘disadvantaged’—has an opportunity to be included and have a seat at the table.”

As the daughter of a poor, single parent, Cheryl was given guidance and help to find scholarships for college by the late Silas Purnell, Director of the Ada S. McKinley Community Service Program. Originally interested in math and science, she was encouraged to consider Florida A&M, a Historically Black College, to study business administration. After being recruited, she made close friends and felt like the “stars aligned and it was the place I was supposed to be.”

Paying It Forward

Today, she continues to be involved with Florida A&M, chairing its Business and Industry Cluster and sitting on the board of directors of the FAMU Foundation. Her undergraduate studies, which included internships in finance, internal audit and procurement, gave her “a breadth and depth of corporate experience all by the age of 21.”

A career in procurement came naturally. “You’re working with internal customers and have to translate needs into requirements for third-party suppliers and really connect the dots,” she says. “It was fascinating to me because I love working with people, but doing it in a way that enhances value for the organization was the draw for me.”

Cheryl recognizes that inclusiveness is good business. “We know the net number of new jobs are created by small businesses,” she says, “and we know in order for us to have a strong global economy, we have to be very conscientious and inclusive of small businesses in the equation.” At its base, “it is important they are successful because they are the glue to the economy, and without them the economy is not operating at its full potential.”

Connecting With the Community

Cheryl believes the best way to overcome myths about Black-, Latino-, Asian-, woman-, LGBT-, disabled- and veteran-owned businesses is to confront them head-on. “I have heard the stories,” she says. ‘They can’t handle my volume’ or ‘They don’t have the skills’ or ‘We’re going to get poor quality.’ I’m here to say that nothing can be further from the truth. I have seen these businesses outperform majority-owned businesses on quality, cost, cycle time and overall value. They bring diverse thought leadership to the table and, because they’re smaller, many of them tend to be more nimble and flexible.”

Grooming and connecting with these businesses is a focus at Allstate. Cheryl serves on the board of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. She also oversees the Allstate Diversity Exchange, an all-day, in-house networking event in which diverse suppliers have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with staff members who are potential buyers of their goods or services. Since the exchange began in 2008, more than 100 suppliers have had the opportunity to bid for business; more than 60 of those bids have turned into contracts.

Allstate is also in the second year of its Diverse Supplier Mentoring Program. This includes a series of live and virtual sessions on leadership and employee development, financial management, sales and marketing, and the role of technology. The yearlong program requires suppliers to apply for one of 10 available seats. They may eventually do business with Allstate.

To do so, says Cheryl, “They have to have a very competitive product offering so their outcomes speak for themselves. We need to ensure that we are partnering with the most qualified suppliers possible to deliver value, and that value might come in the form of helping us to better operate organizationally as well as, in some cases, adding value to our policyholders. You can’t do that if you don’t have an inclusive group of suppliers from which to choose.”

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