Terryl Calloway runs a small, Black-owned graphics and printing firm on Newbury Street in the heart of Boston — a short distance from about a dozen colleges, including Boston University, Simmons University and Emerson College.
“We print anything from business cards, fliers, banners, signs — anything print,” he said on a recent morning while handing out flyers on the sidewalk.
Though his business is surrounded by colleges, Calloway says it’s hard to arrange contract work with them. “Colleges have been pretty challenging. I call it ‘the good old boy system.' It's the easy way out,” he said.
The murder of George Floyd prodded colleges in Massachusetts to pledge to increase minority contracting, in keeping with the longtime assertion that diversity is one of their core values. In the two years since then, colleges' progress in doing more business with companies like Calloway's appears to be neglible, based on the limited information local colleges provided about their purchasing.
In 2020, a GBH News analysis found out of nearly 700 active contracts awarded by a big college purchasing consortium in Massachusetts, only 14 — or 2%— went to minority-owned businesses certified by the state. Two years later, despite a public commitment to increase supplier diversity expressed by many colleges, there's still no public evidence of any substantial change.
A spokesperson and the president of the Massachusetts Higher Education Consortium did not respond to our requests for comment. Its redesigned website, though, promises to help colleges support minority businesses. "Looking to support minority business enterprises?” one banner asks. “Our contracts have you covered."
“I haven't checked in with the consortium, but I can tell you that there is a commitment by our presidents to increase the amount of spending that is directed towards minority-owned businesses," said Rob McCarron, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts. Many of its 61 institutional members belong to the purchasing co-op.
"The focus over the last two years has been responding to the COVID pandemic," McCarron said, referring to the state's private colleges. The consortium's nonprofit members, which include the GBH Educational Foundation, do not make all their purchases through that entity.
UMass, the flagship public university system, had pledged to help lead a statewide effort to diversify its business partners. Two years later, its spending with minority-owned companies has edged up from 2.3% to 3.4% of the total.
“Institutionalizing partnerships with businesses that represent a broader array of owners is a priority of UMass. We are making progress, but we’re not satisfied,” said David Cho, chief procurement officer at UMass. “We are optimistic, however, that the diversity of our suppliers will continue to increase as we rebound from the pandemic, reach out to potential vendors, and encourage them to compete for UMass business.”
In American higher education, supplier diversity appears to still be more of an aspiration than a reality. Nationwide, the sector spends more than $632 billion each year.
“Most of that money is going to the big companies," said policy researcher Youngbok Ryu, who teaches at Northeastern Universtiy.
Ryu co-authored a report released earlier this year that finds large vendors account for most college expenses, including for construction, food service and legal work. But diverse businesses tend to be small, with 58% of the 359 Ryu's research team surveyed having ten or fewer employees. Not many of those companies are devoted to seeking new college contracts.
"Most of them mentioned that there is a huge barrier to entry to higher education, the procurement market,” he said. “And then universities are picky in terms of the selecting of the suppliers. They prefer large, reliable and more capable businesses."
To help change that preference, Northeastern University recently hosted an event focused on supplier diversity. More than 150 small business owners and procurement professionals watched the panel discussion online.
"If one more company tells me they can't find minority firms, I'm going to scream," Karen Wallace, who heads marketing with Associated Industries of Massachusetts, told the virtual room.
Before the event, Wallace said college leaders need to be more proactive in building relationships in their communities and providing financial incentives to procurement officers.
"You must pay people to do this," she told GBH News. "If we continue with the spend in the way that we've been doing it, it would take 333 years for us to close the racial wealth gap and if some of our organizations out there were to increase their spend by about five times with minority businesses, it would shrink to 15 years."
Some schools like Babson College are not waiting. The small business school in Wellesley recently hired its first director of vendor diversity, Jerry Epps.
"It's a slow process,” Epps admitted. “When I joined Babson, I said that it would take one to three years to fully establish the program."
Epps had worked for four decades at Boston's Children's Hospital, overseeing high-volume buying and negotiations of capital equipment and products.
"In higher education, it's a little bit behind the eight ball than it is in health care,” Epps observed. “It's not about just looking at illness and picking the supplier. It's about going out there and cultivating relationships with these diverse suppliers. You’ve got to have a point of contact and by developing that relationship with the suppliers, you gain trust."
Gaining that trust is critical to closing the racial gap, says Nicole Obi, president and CEO of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, which is already working with cities and towns to diversify their procurement and says it will launch a higher education program later this year.
“There is some genuine and sincere interest in making progress on this front,” she said. “The problem is that [colleges] are not addressing the right issues.”
“They can move the needle by not focusing on race, but they can focus on the size of the businesses,” said Obi, a serial entrepreneur. “We know that the majority of Massachusetts Black-owned businesses are micro in size, meaning they earn less than $1,000,000 a year in annual revenue.”
While colleges are still working around the edges to partner with those companies, Terryl Calloway says he’s noticed a few more schools reaching out for his services from his printing business on Newbury Street.
“Since Black Lives Matter, it has mattered — who you give your business to and how you do your business, does matter,” he said.
This spring, he landed a small contract with nearby Northeastern to print banners for alumni weekend. "A classic example of how opportunity meets a need," he said, smiling.
Kirk Carapezza @KirkCarapezza
Kirk is the Managing Editor and Correspondent for higher education at GBH News. He takes the time to capture the distinct voices of students and faculty, administrators and thought leaders.