Invigorated Supplier Diversity Initiative strengthens minority-owned businesses, St. Louis region

Stephanie Smith (right), Washington University manager of supplier diversity, meets with Sondra Rotty, senior project manager with general contractor Tarlton at Bryan Hall. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

The east end capital project at Washington University in St. Louis will provide a welcome center for visitors, state-of-the-art labs and studios for students and, not least of all, parking for employees.

But for local architect Laura Neri Baebler, the project has given her the shot she had been waiting for.

“It seemed that if you didn’t already work at Washington University, you were never going to work at Washington University,” said Baebler, owner of LNB Architecture & Interiors. “We’re a small firm, but I always believed we had fresh ideas to bring to the table. I just needed an opportunity to show the university what I could do.”

Laura Neri Baebler of LNB Architecture & Interiors measures the women’s locker room in Sumers Recreation Center. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)

Baebler got that chance thanks to the university’s invigorated Supplier Diversity Initiative, a comprehensive plan that prepares minority business enterprises (MBEs) and women business enterprises (WBEs) to work on campus. The program is working — in the past year, the university has increased both the number and size of MBE and WBE contracts.

“Washington University’s success is tied to the success, health and sustainability of the St. Louis region,” said Henry S. Webber, executive vice chancellor for administration. “One important way we can help equitably strengthen the St. Louis region is to make a concerted effort to attract and support local minority- and women-owned businesses. We are lucky to have a strong team dedicated to this effort at the university, and I expect to see continued growth in our supplier diversity program in the future.”

LNB was one of eight minority or women business enterprises hired to work on the design stage of the east end plan. Stephanie Smith, Washington University’s manager of supplier diversity, reviewed Baebler’s portfolio and connected her to Mackey Mitchell Architects, the firm designing Jubel Hall.

Ultimately, Baebler was enlisted to design the connector between Jubel and Whitaker halls. It’s a small job, one that Mackey Mitchell could have handled. But Smith seeks out such opportunities to bring in new talent.

“Steph took the time to learn about us and then helped shepherd us through the process,” said Baebler, who since was hired to improve the Sumers Recreation Center locker rooms. “A lot of institutions say they support minority businesses, but Washington University makes it a priority.”

Alan Kuebler, associate vice chancellor for resource management, said Washington University is in a unique position to impact the local economy. The university spends more than $800 million in goods and services annually. The east end expansion, slated to break ground in May, will cost about $350 million. The School of Medicine revitalization project will cost $1 billion. Currently, 5.5 percent of university business goes to MBEs or WBEs, a number Kuebler is committed to increasing.

“We see the east end as an opportunity to move the needle,” Kuebler said. “It is imperative that minority- and women-owned businesses have a real shot at participating in this important project.”

Washington University launched its supplier diversity program in 1999 and has built strong relationships with many MBEs and WBEs. Still, many firms were unsure how to connect with the university. Enter Smith, who joined the program in 2014 after a long career in municipal government working with MBEs and WBEs. 

“I knew that if I could make a difference for the businesses, I could make a difference for the community,” Smith said. “This work matters now more than ever as we, as a region, strive for racial equity.”

Smith vets MBEs and WBEs, inspecting operations and calling references. But she also serves as a coach and advocate, pushing general contractors to provide them opportunities. Not every contractor gets it, she said.

“I’ve heard, ‘This is my pie. Why should I share it?’” Smith said. “I’ve explained, ‘Actually, it’s our pie and we are giving you a piece.’ We’ve told majority firms that partnering and subcontracting are priorities. If you don’t get that, you don’t get our business.”

This year, Smith will roll out the Zone Business Incubator, a new program that connects small businesses with small projects. Say an office in Urbauer Hall in the university’s Green Zone needs a new electrical outlet, or a bathroom in Bixby Hall in the Silver Zone needs a new toilet. The zone manager may hire from a pre-approved list of MBEs or WBEs.

“This will be a great way to grow those businesses not large enough to participate in a big project,” Kuebler said. “We become familiar with them; they become familiar with us. The businesses can increase their capacity and gain expertise, and the next thing you know, they are capable of participating on larger projects.”

Take Unlimited Water, which Elliot Henry founded more than 30 years ago. Henry supplies filtered water to water coolers across Washington University campuses and hospitals. It’s not a huge contract, but it signals to other businesses that Unlimited Water delivers quality and value.

“Businesses notice when you work for the university,” said Henry, who employs about 12 people. “The thinking is, ‘If a company is good enough for WashU, well, it’s good enough for us.’ The university’s trust matters, and we do everything we can to maintain that trust.”

Washington University shares information with higher education institutions and businesses across the region. Kuebler hopes other colleges and universities adopt similar policies to better the region.

“There are different ways to grow business with minority- and women-owned businesses, but we have found our comprehensive approach serves both the needs of the universities and the businesses,” Kuebler said. “They don’t always win, but they’re in the game.”

Comments and respectful dialogue are encouraged, but content will be moderated. Please, no personal attacks, obscenity or profanity, selling of commercial products, or endorsements of political candidates or positions. We reserve the right to remove any inappropriate comments.