Lamont Robinson, director of supplier diversity at AmerisourceBergen Corp., spoke with Chain Drug Review editor-in-chief Jeffrey Woldt about the origins of diversity, equity and inclusion programs and the company’s commitment to leadership in the field. He also addressed the benefits that veteran-owned, women-owned, minority-owned and other diverse businesses derive from AmerisourceBergen’s DE&I efforts; and his passion for his work. An edited transcript follows. The full interview can be seen at chaindrugreview.com.
WOLDT: Maybe you could begin by telling us a little bit about your backvground, for those in our audience who might not know you, and your role at AmerisourceBergen.
ROBINSON: Absolutely. So, at AmerisourceBergen, I’m the director of supplier diversity. And I’ve been in this role since February of last year, of 2021. And I’ve been in supplier diversity for actually 18 years. And, of those 18 years, the majority of it was in health care. So, I was very familiar with the space already in terms of the industry. And I was also somewhat familiar with AmerisourceBergen. But thrilled that I’m now a part of the family.
WOLDT: Lamont, maybe you could talk a little bit about the origins of supplier diversity. How it got established in business, and how it’s evolved over time?
ROBINSON: Thanks, Jeff. So, when you think about the foundation of supplier diversity, I like to personally trace it back to World War II. During that time, the larger businesses were able to support the war efforts, but the smaller businesses couldn’t. And so, Congress in 1953 established the Small Business Administration. And so, then that provided loans to those small businesses.
But really the way that we see in the true makeup of supplier diversity, how we see it today came from 1969 during the Civil Rights era. During that time, President Nixon signed an executive order that mandated the usage of minority-owned businesses. So then it evolved from something that was a mandate in the ’60s and ’70s to something that was more about corporate responsibility in the ’80s and ’90s. You heard a lot of corporations saying it’s the right thing to do. But now it’s become an economic imperative, especially after 2020 and the social unrest.
And so, a lot of organizations, especially in health care, are starting to build supplier diversity programs because they really see it as not only a situation where it could generate revenues, help communities, but then also could be used as a recruitment tool as they go out and try to hire the Generation Z that’s coming up, and really supporting, or asking the companies that they work for to support their efforts.
WOLDT: Maybe you could tell us a little bit about the origins of AmerisourceBergen’s supplier diversity team, and what exactly it does.
ROBINSON: So the thing about the supplier diversity program at AmerisourceBergen that I enjoy is that actually the foundation was created before I got there. The global indirect sourcing team led the efforts, but because they didn’t have somebody that was dedicated solely on supplier diversity, it struggled. And so when I came on board in February of last year, my job was to really take it to that next level. And so, for me, even though we already had the infrastructure built, I had to focus on areas where strategically we could grow the program, and make it into a world-class program. I’m very excited where we’ve taken it. But I’ll tell you, none of that would’ve been possible without the previous work already started before I got there, as well as really the support of the leaders at AB.
WOLDT: Tell me a little bit about why you feel it’s important for a pharmaceutical wholesaler to have this type of program. And then maybe, if you’d like to elaborate a little bit on what you’ve done in the year you’ve been in your job, and how you’ve advanced the program.
ROBINSON: So, when you think about what supplier diversity is, which in essence, it’s a program that allows corporations, like ours, to do business with companies that are at least 51% owned, operated and controlled by minorities, women, veterans, LGBTQ and disabled individuals, as well as small businesses. When you think about the essence of that, for us, we had to establish a program so that we could, No. 1, meet the needs of our customers. We started to see a significant increase in the public and private sector customers of a request for proposals that included supplier diversity language.
Another key element of the importance of building our program is that supplier diversity is a way for us to be able to help build out the communities which we reside in. A lot of diverse businesses are the ones that are employing individuals in underserved communities. And so, for us, the more we do business with companies like that, the more it allows us to be able to help increase the number of jobs in those underserved communities.
And another piece I want to talk about is competition. Our competitors had programs already. And so, for us to be able to fully meet the needs of our customers, we wanted to make sure that we were at least at the level of where our competitors were in terms of their programs. But I’m a competitive person, as well as AB, so we want to make sure that we build a program that is a differentiator in terms of going after business opportunities.
WOLDT: In your efforts to build connections with the network of diverse suppliers, I think of small companies, and correct me if I’m wrong. But the pharmaceutical industry is such a capital intensive industry, does that make your job all that much more difficult?
ROBINSON: Honestly, that’s what intrigued me about the job itself. Being in health care for the amount of years that I was in it, I saw the pharmaceutical industry as an industry that did provide a lot of challenges for small and diverse businesses. Mostly because it was difficult because of the regulations, the economies of scale that was needed for small businesses to be able to thrive. And so, from that perspective, I was intrigued because I wanted to come to an organization that gave me an opportunity to be able to make a difference. I didn’t want to go to a status quo situation. And the beautiful thing about it is that we all get it at AmerisourceBergen.
WOLDT: And on this journey of diversifying your supplier base, how far along are you? How much progress have you made? How much more work is there still to be done?
ROBINSON: So I always call year one the infrastructure building phase. It’s really where you go out and you try to increase the internal and external awareness of the program. You’re integrating supplier diversity into key documents. You’re educating as many groups as possible about supplier diversity, so that we could all be on the same page. And so, from that perspective, we were successful in 2020 and in 2021, especially.
And so, from that year, what we did now was to make it more strategic. So after you’ve built that infrastructure, just like a house, you want to build on top of it. And so, that building on top of it included us establishing tools so that diverse businesses could register with us for future opportunities. It established strategic programs, like our finance team connected and invested into an African American bank in New Orleans called Liberty Bank through JPMorgan Chase. And so, that allowed us to be able to help that community as well in New Orleans.
And so, this is where you start getting into the fun part of supplier diversity, where after you’ve educated folks, and made sure that everybody’s on the same page, that you get the proactive engagements from our senior leadership. And also, the board of directors, we had to present to the board of directors. And so, for me, the success is there in terms of we’ve got an organization that sees it now strategically, and not just something that’s tactical, as far as us purchasing products from diverse businesses.
WOLDT: As I hear you speak, it seems that your reach extends beyond a narrow pharmaceutical end, that you look to the broader community.
ROBINSON: Absolutely, because the thing about supplier diversity is, first off, you look at your industry because, as I mentioned earlier, you want to see how you compare to competitors, and how you can help diverse businesses in the industry that you represent. But AmerisourceBergen is a top 10 company in the United States of America in terms of revenue generation. So, we also have to look how we compare against the top 10, and what are they doing that’s different than what we’re doing?
WOLDT: You’ve touched on this a little bit already, but maybe you could expand on it: How do you identify good candidates for you to work with?
ROBINSON: That’s a great question. For us, my background is procurement, so I’ll say that first. And I think because of that background, it’s given me an opportunity to really look at diverse businesses in terms of development of those businesses. I want to make sure that if we’re introducing a new diverse business to buyer internally, that it’s the right business, and we’re doing it for the right reasons.