Open for business
Cooper works to recruit minority vendors
Photo by Dan Addison
William Cooper talks with vendor Dolores Johnson, president of Monticello Event and Conference Center in Charlottsville, which is on contract with the University.
By Anne Bromley
William Cooper, the University’s new head of diversity purchasing, recently attended a dinner at U.Va. President John T. Casteen III’s home on Carr’s Hill. He first visited the residence as an undergraduate almost 30 years ago — protesting on the steps.
To be dining inside Carr’s Hill and not chanting outside is a bright sign to Cooper.
“Top-down commitment [to diversity] is a critical factor for success,” he said, and Casteen’s invitation was evidence of that. Casteen will soon voice his support of diversity procurement efforts in a video message on the U.Va. Web site for the Supplier Diversity Program.
Cooper has gone from his college days of calling for equity for African-American students to full-time days offering minority-owned and other firms new opportunities to work with U.Va., one of the largest state agencies, and to encourage the U.Va. community to reach out, too.
The backdrop for hiring Cooper, a Richmond entrepreneur who mixes 25 years of business savvy with abundant enthusiasm, was Gov. Mark Warner’s 2004 executive order to increase the state’s purchasing from businesses designated as SWAM — those that are small firms or owned by women or minorities. Warner’s action last July came after an independent study found that total state spending with minority-owned firms in 2003-2004 was less than 0.44 percent. (U.Va.’s percentage of procurement was slightly higher.) Figures for woman-owned businesses weren’t much better.
The state’s Department of Minority Business Enterprise (DMBE) certifies the three categories — small firms, women-owned and minority-owned businesses — and provides other information and services.
“Because larger companies get most of the state’s business, the idea is to help small firms to increase their economic activity, too,” said DMBE’s Shay Hope.
It is clear that new strategies are needed, said Cooper, who serves on the Virginia Minority Supplier Development Council. A Darden alumnus, Cooper also earned two architecture degrees from the University, his master’s in urban planning. His first job involved revitalizing the Starr Hill area’s small business community in Charlottesville.
Cooper has consulted throughout the state in areas ranging from executive development to digital print solutions. He owns a “quick-dining” franchise, Dominic’s of New York, which is not your ordinary hotdog stand but serves a premium sausage sandwich. He is a member of the Richmond Renaissance Board of Directors Executive Committee and the Richmond Jazz Society Board of Directors. Cooper chaired the Small Business Committee of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce from 2001 to 2003.
After taking on several business ventures over the years, from owning a beauty salon in Charlottesville, to owning Choice Communications Inc., one of the largest black-owned printing companies, Cooper is not afraid to take on the challenges of improving U.Va.’s diversity procurement program.
“My many years of being in business for myself have helped me understand how a place like U.Va. works. It can be overwhelming,” Cooper said. “Our goal is to have a world-class supplier diversity program,” he said.
“Bill’s vast knowledge of the vendor base and his entrepreneurial attitude bring new vigor to our diversity program,” said Eric Denby, director of U.Va. procurement services. “In his short tenure at the University, many projects are being exposed to the SWAM vendor community, stirring a great deal of positive interest.”
U.Va.’s Vice President for Management and Budget, Colette Sheehy, added that Cooper has “a practical business approach to supplier diversity, and the energy and desire to see the University of Virginia lead all institutions of higher education in this area.”
Cooper stresses that his function is to help companies get through the door to participate in the University’s procurement system, but they have to stand on their own and market themselves to get U.Va. business. Vendors need to think about matching up the goods and services they have to offer compared with other companies, who might be larger or have other strengths.
A member of the “Men Who Cook” group in Richmond and at one time sommelier for Charlottesville’s former Le Snail restaurant, Cooper mentioned that catering, for example, is one service where a SWAM firm might really shine.
“Think about crudités, how somebody can carve and arrange the vegetables to look really fancy,” he said. On the other hand, a small office supply company probably can’t sell paperclips cheaper than a bigger company.
He also is reaching out through informal networks, such as black churches and other groups to make contact with business owners, he said. Participating in relevant organizations is another strategy for building sustainable relationships. U.Va. has become the third university to join the national organization of the Minority Supplier Development Council, which maintains a database of minority companies and provides other services. In addition, Cooper belongs to the Virginia Association of College and University Purchasing Professionals for U.Va.
The University began its minority procurement program about 15 years ago. The previous director, Don Jones, is working on a history of minority procurement at U.Va. and will retire in May 2006.