Diversity & Inclusion
POC in Tech / Products / Small businesses

With the Economy League PAGE program, J’nelle Lawrence advocates for small business owners of color

The Philadelphia Anchors for Growth and Equity program works to diversity large supply chains. Its director says 2020's social unrest brought added significance to the work that she and others have been doing for close to two decades.

J'nelle Lawrence. (Courtesy photo)

This editorial article is a part of Racial Equity in Tech Month of Technical.ly's editorial calendar. This month’s theme is underwritten by Verizon 5G. This story was independently reported and not reviewed by Verizon before publication.

Small businesses owned by people of color often have difficulty attaining contracts with large institutions. Longstanding relationships between institutions and vendors can often preclude progress in diversity. The Economy League of Greater Philadelphia wants to change that.

Through the research and policy nonprofit’s Philadelphia Anchors For Equity and Growth (PAGE) program, Director J’nelle Lawrence works with local anchor institutions like Temple University to create strategies that will increase the number of local and minority-owned businesses in the supply chain.

“With PAGE, the network that we’ve built and relationships we’ve built with our anchors, we bring them all in and with one another to discuss best practices,” she told Technical.ly. “There is not any platform in Philly that brings our anchors together like we do to learn from one another what works.”

With 15 years of experience in supply diversity roles at local organizations — she created the supply diversity program at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, where she worked for seven years — Lawrence has seen firsthand how the work she does has evolved from its infancy in the early 2000s.

At earlier points in her career, Lawrence worked alone. She said she has found that connecting with orgs’ internal advocates can help her efforts in helping them reflect the diversity of the communities in which they exist. If smaller businesses cannot be a part of supply chains managed by large corporations, business owners and communities of color lose out on major opportunities to earn revenue.

The social uprising of 2020 has led to an increased recognition of the need for supply diversity work at major companies. Lawrence said that the social climate has placed an added significance on the work that she and others have been doing for close to two decades.

“Given the climate we’ve had in the last year, a lot of organizations have been under pressure,” she said. “Even if you have been in this space for a long time, people want to start seeing results.”

Lawrence believes that supplier diversity is not just fair, but exhibits good business sense on behalf of an organization or company. By diversifying the vendors they work with, companies stay abreast of trends and get the best value for their budgets.

“When you do an RFP for a particular job, if you always go with the incumbent and don’t get other folks or bids, how are you keeping your incumbent with your pricing?” she asked rhetorically. “There are things you may be missing out on such as new technology and new talent. It’s just great business sense.”

While the PAGE program is just one solution to a broader issue of equity for diverse communities in the corporations that serve them, Lawrence believes it is a step in the right direction. The work can be daunting, but necessary — because if it was easy there would be several million-dollar Black-owned businesses in Philadelphia, she said.

“When we talk about PAGE and what we do, we’re combating 400 years of racial inequity and systemic, institutional inequity,” she said. “We’re trying to now inject new ways of thinking and doing things. If you’ve got the same supplier for the last 30 years because the person before you had a relationship with their dad, it would be hard to bring in a company that’s Black-owned and woman owned. It’s a lot about building relationships. Relationships is a huge part of helping guide business owners and connecting them to these organizations.”

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: Economy League of Greater Philadelphia
Series: Racial Equity in Tech Month 2021

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