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Penn State Smeal promotes diversity with launch of Minority-Owned Business Network

June 17, 2021

By MELISSA MANNO 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new initiative of the Penn State Smeal College of Business aims to help alumni who own businesses network and engage with the University. 

According to Dean Charles H. Whiteman, the Smeal Minority-Owned Business Network is designed to afford more opportunities for alumni whose businesses are classified as Black-American, Hispanic American, Native American, Asian-Pacific American and Asian-Indian American owned to become involved in the University’s procurement program. 

“The Smeal Minority-Owned Business Network is a wonderful resource for our minority business owners, from access to the resources of the network to giving and receiving advice on how to navigate procurement processes — including but not limited to Penn State,” Whiteman said. 

Businesses can submit their information to a database on Smeal’s website, where it will be viewable to the public upon approval.

“Small, minority-owned businesses don’t have the same budget or reach that a lot of other companies have to let our presence be known on campus when certain services are needed,” said Troy Cromwell, an alumnus who serves on the Smeal Board of Visitors.

Cromwell, founder and CEO of CromTec Cyber Solutions, shared some of the challenges he has experienced in doing business with the University at a July 15, 2020 Smeal Alumni Town Hall: Supporting & Engaging Our Alumni of Color. 

Previously unaware of these issues, Whiteman immediately began envisioning how the college could help minority-owned businesses like Cromwell’s increase outreach not only to the University but across Pennsylvania as a whole. 

Duane Bullock, manager of supplier diversity and environmentally responsible purchasing at Penn State Procurement Services, worked with Smeal to launch the network. Bullock said he’s “all about supporting small diverse businesses in competing for services and projects whenever we can and giving as many opportunities as possible to bid on projects and provide their services to the University community.”  

“The SMEAL Minority-Owned Business Network will be a great resource to tap into since it showcases what our own Penn State alums have created in terms of entrepreneurship,” Bullock said. “It will be great to combine the suppliers this network gathers with those already in our own Procurement Services Department.” 

Bullock emphasized that decisions are ultimately made based on the commodity or services the supplier provides; the University’s need for those commodities or services; and the contracts currently in place. However, he added, “continuing to diversify our supplier pool is always a good step.” In addition, providing Penn State alumni with increased opportunities to grow their companies and provide needed services to the University community is a continuation of Penn State’s goal to engage its students and alumni in a lifelong relationship, Whiteman said. 

The network also adds to a growing list of efforts by Penn State to diversify its suppliers, such as the Procurement Services Supplier Diversity Trade Fairs launched in 2018, the University’s membership in the Eastern Minority Supplier Development Council and the ongoing workshops offered by Penn State on how to conduct business with the University. 

Michelle Houser, Smeal’s senior director of Development and Alumni Relations, said the network demonstrates the college’s support of alumni amid a year full of uncertainty and beyond while showcasing diverse companies founded and managed by Smeal alumni.

"The events of the last year highlight just how important it was for the Smeal community to reach out to its alumni of color and look for ways to offer our support and assistance,” Houser said. “I'm so proud of how the college came together to create this resource that will showcase our minority business owners and provide them with greater access to business opportunities both at the University and within the wider Smeal network. We hope this is a valuable tool and that it sparks meaningful connections for our alumni.” 

For Cromwell, this initiative answered the question he and other alumni raised to the University: “How can we put front and center reputable companies of people who have been committed to Penn State, and how can we make it easier for Penn State to reciprocate that relationship?”

Alumna Karla Trotman, president and CEO of Electro Soft Inc., also had a seat at the table for the Smeal Alumni Town Hall.

“Our hope for the network is to allow people to see that our companies exist and show that Penn State is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Trotman said.

According to the 2018 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, African American women are the leading female minority group of business owners, and women of color are 4.5 times more likely to start their own businesses than any other demographic.

Trotman described her business as “an outsourced manufacturing partner of custom electronics” similar to what Foxxconn provides for Apple.  Many people do not realize that electronics manufacturing is taking place in the U.S.  Smeal’s Minority-Owned Business Network provides her and other business owners the opportunity to explain their services on an interconnected platform.  

The launch of the network comes at a pivotal time, as the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to major losses and economic disruption for minority-owned businesses. According to a new poll by advocacy group Small Business Majority, the next few months will result in 32 percent of Black businesses closing temporarily, 23 percent closing an office or location, and 18 percent shutting down forever.

“That’s a tremendous loss on all the gains that have been made throughout scores of years,” Trotman said, emphasizing the way many business owners and their families strive just to keep their businesses afloat.

Trotman said she hopes the new Minority-owned Business Network will continue to foster an environment where increasing diversity participation is viewed as a way to enhance one’s supplier base. 

For Smeal, the initiative demonstrates a commitment to implementing strategies to celebrate, promote and prioritize diversity across the college community.

“You can put out statements about equity, diversity and inclusion, but it’s all meaningless until you put resources and energy behind it — which we are seeing Penn State Smeal do,” Trotman said. “Smeal has the desire to make that change and puts forward that energy, which makes Smeal unique when compared to other institutions and Fortune 500 companies.”

Learn more about the Smeal Minority-Owned Business Network online.

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