Joan Kerr, director of supplier diversity and sustainability at Pacific Gas & Electric Co., was honored with the Corporate Trailblazer Award by the National Minority Supplier Development Council at the Leadership Awards Gala on May 21.
A current board member of NMSDC, Kerr has played a pivotal role in PG&E’s supplier diversity success. Under her leadership, the company has more than doubled its MWBE spend to $2.3 billion. Last year, PG&E was named by Diversity Business.com as one of the Top 50 Organizations for Multicultural Business Opportunities and as one of America’s Top Corporations for Women Business Enterprises by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. In addition, the company was honored as one of the Ten Best Corporations for Veteran-Owned Businesses by the National Veteran-Owned Business Association and as one of the Top 50 Employers for Persons with Disabilities by CAREERS & the disABLED magazine.
Kerr came into the supplier diversity field in a somewhat roundabout way. She began her career at Pacific Bell as a lawyer. One of her internal clients was the procurement department. While working with them on regulatory filings and hearings, she was inspired by their great work supporting minority-owned businesses. She was asked to lead the supplier diversity program, but resisted at first. She was told if she did not like her new diversity role, she could go back to her legal job in three years. That was in 1992, and she’s never looked back.
One of the best things about her job, according to Kerr, is that it aligns her skills with her personal beliefs. Her parents were supporters of civil rights, and she graduated with a master’s degree in social work. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of her role models. She loves her job because it is inspiring and motivating when she is making positive changes in people’s lives. “Doing something to help others is very important to me,” she said. “It’s a great confluence of my skills and my interests.”
One of the proudest moments in Kerr’s career was being on the team at Pacific Bell that developed the first minority business valued- added reseller program. It was a huge change management effort initially, and it took a while to get full buy-in. But, the majority companies she worked with eventually came around. They soon saw that allowing qualified, minority-owned businesses to take on critical supply-chain tasks, such as sourcing, manufacturing, logistics, warehousing, customization and installation, made sense for everyone. “The large national and global companies benefited by allowing smaller, more nimble, suppliers to manage customer-specific requirements and service. Ultimately, both companies benefited because the product got to the customer faster and at reduced cost,” she said. Today, the breakthrough initiative she helped create is a model used across many industries.
Kerr is also proud of PG&E’s innovative programs that are helping diverse businesses not only get the competitive edge, but also win bids. These include everything from industry trade show missions to technical assistance training on sustainability initiatives, global strategies, quality certification and employee safety programs. Its latest initiative is helping diverse businesses with emerging technologies in renewable energy and smart grid. “It’s a constant reinvention for businesses,” she said. “They can’t keep doing the same thing in the same ways.”
As for the future, Kerr hopes that more companies will see the value of supplier diversity the way PG&E has and provide the internal resources and the staffing needed to ensure a strong and robust program. “This is not just a cosmetic PR program. It’s not a veneer,” she said. “Companies need to be committed and grounded in supplier diversity and be willing to make a change. You can’t do that with only one-tenth of a person.”
Finally, Kerr believes that working together, the NSMDC can effect change, and the economic empowerment and social benefits to society resulting from supplier diversity efforts are part of a virtuous circle. “There is still much to be done to ensure that minority businesses have a strategic place in corporate supply chains,” she said. “It’s important for us to see ourselves as leaders. We have the opportunity to make an impact.”
BY GENNY HOM-FRANZEN