Talking About Supplier Diversity in Procurement with RBC Director Kiruba Sankar

March 26, 2018

For our latest interview, we spoke with Kiruba Sankar. Kiruba is Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for Global Procurement at the Royal Bank of Canada and recognized as a thought leader in his field.  Kiruba’s efforts to help lead the Procurement field towards a more diverse supplier base – and to help diverse suppliers connect with large companies like RBC – have earned him recent awards from WBE Canada (Women Business Enterprises) and CAMSC (Canadian Aboriginal & Minority Supplier Council). He was also recently profiled in a cover story for trade publication PurchasingB2B.

We spoke with Kiruba about the benefits supplier diversity can provide organizations, ways that companies can think about setting up supplier diversity initiatives, as well as the current barriers to supplier diversity in the marketplace.

For our readers who might not have heard of supplier diversity initiatives, could you give an elevator pitch for what they’re about and what they offer organizations?

Sankar: Supplier diversity initiatives provide opportunities to groups which aren’t traditionally included in the supply chain or purchasing process for major corporations. Some of these underrepresented groups include Aboriginal communities, women, minorities, LGBT, people with disabilities, or veteran-owned businesses. The supplier diversity program identifies businesses which are majority owned and operated by the members who fit into one of these categories of diverse business owners.

At RBC, it’s not only about doing the right thing and being a good corporate citizen. We also believe that supplier diversity drives business value. By including diverse suppliers in sourcing, RBC gains access to greater innovation, more competitive offerings, and culturally diverse business interactions. This positions RBC to meet the requirements of our diverse customer base.

That’s the connection that we try to show: it’s a journey.

You mentioned in your PurchasingB2B interview that diversity and inclusion are at the core of innovation and we happen to agree. In which ways do you think that a diverse supplier base helps companies’ Supply Chains become more innovative?

Sankar: When we include diverse suppliers in the supply chain, it helps organizations to think more broadly. It provides access to more creative and diverse ideas – which delivers quicker solutions for problems. If you look at it in terms of time to market: how can you get things done quicker? Sometimes, large organizations aren’t nimble enough to customize a change to meet the client requirements. A diverse supplier, smaller in scale and more agile,  will be able to help do that, which then allows the  larger corporation to deliver the solution much faster.

One of the biggest successes I would say we’ve had is in identifying diverse talent pools.   RBC is constantly looking to identify diverse talent and bring diverse talent pools into the organization in order to accelerate innovation.   In this regard, we are seeing success from diverse suppliers in the staffing sector who are bringing in diverse candidates.  Another success is bringing in professional services suppliers who provide creative, innovative ideas. We’re looking for diverse thinking, and they’re often able to bring it to the table as a consultant.

Supplier diversity is becoming a more established initiative at RBC. How can other companies – even those who might not have resources for formal supplier diversity programs – work to make their supplier base more diverse?

Sankar: I look at it this way: a supplier diversity program isn’t just one person’s role in the procurement area. It has to be integrated into the procurement process. Part of the supplier identification process should include creating opportunities for diverse suppliers to enter the supplier base. When you widen that supplier base, you increase competition, which gives opportunities for better costing, or better quality goods and services. It opens up opportunities for suppliers of different sizes and tenure, including Fintechs who often have great tech solutions.

My suggestion is that every sourcing professional should include diverse suppliers in the sourcing process, by truly providing the opportunity to compete. A procurement leader can identify members of their team who have a true passion for supplier diversity, and support them to develop a program. Then when you build a program, ensure you are getting buy-in from management along the way. Set goals and milestones so you and management can track progress.   As you build momentum and create successes, organizational buy-in grows.  It needs to be a groundswell of commitment across the organization, so that it’s not just one person’s or one area’s commitment i.e, Procurement. Try to align supplier diversity with the organization’s larger goals, and when the program grows, leadership will see the value, and then they’ll be more inclined to allocate resources to the program.

From your perspective, what are the biggest current barriers to supplier diversity in the marketplace?

Sankar: I would say in the Canadian market, the main thing is that not enough suppliers are aware of this program. Because of that, there is a limited number of diverse suppliers in certain categories. Other countries have had government-mandated supplier diversity for a number of years.  In Canada, it’s a process of building and creating awareness in the supplier community, and then helping suppliers through the certification process. At the same time, we’re sharing best practices and successes with other corporations, so they can see how it’s helping the Canadian economy overall.

The Toronto Star and CBC both recently reported that the government is trying to support women owned businesses, so we’re seeing progress as the idea around supplier diversity begins to take hold.

Are there any industries or Procurement categories (e.g. IT, marketing, professional services) that are particularly well-situated to bringing on a diverse supplier base right now?

In Canada, one burgeoning category of diverse suppliers is staffing firms and professional services companies. Those categories seems to have a high number of diverse suppliers. Marketing and promotion products, as well as facilities, also have a high number of diverse suppliers.

Keep in mind that there are many more companies in the market who could be certified as diverse suppliers. It’s still a very small pool of certified suppliers right now, so education and communication is part of the pathway to progress.

We encourage anyone interested in supplier diversity – either as a Procurement organization or a supplier themselves – to check out the following links:

  • WBE Canada – an organization offering certification for Women-owned businesses.
  • CAMSC – Canadian Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council offering Certification for Aboriginal own businesses and Minority Own Businesses
  •  CCABCanadian Council for Aboriginal Business offers certification for Aboriginal own businesses in Canada
  • CGLCCCanadian Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce offering certification for LGBT own businesses
  • IWSCC – Inclusive Workplace and Supply Council of Canada offering certification for Diasabled own businesses and Veteran own businesses
  • The Diversity Edge – PurchasingB2B’s recent cover story about Kiruba Sankar and RBC’s supplier diversity efforts.

A big thank you to Kiruba Sankar for taking the time to do this interview with Argentus!


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