Developing Diverse Relationships: Q&A with Liz Whitehead & Heather Cox, Diversity Masterminds

This article was penned by CAPIS   The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) is an advocate for and the largest certifier of women-owned businesses. CAPIS first gained its accreditation as a WBENC-Certified Women’s Business Enterprise in 2015 and was just recertified this month. But firms that have gained the certification, or begun to pursue…

This article was penned by CAPIS


The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) is an advocate for and the largest certifier of women-owned businesses. CAPIS first gained its accreditation as a WBENC-Certified Women’s Business Enterprise in 2015 and was just recertified this month. But firms that have gained the certification, or begun to pursue their own type of diversity initiatives, can frequently struggle with what to do next. 

Coleen Donohue

Fortunately for those who find themselves uncertain of a diversity path moving forward, Liz Whitehead and Heather Cox are there to help. They founded a business consultancy, Diversity Masterminds™, with the exact aim of helping those with supplier diversity certifications who feel like they are underutilizing that certification, by offering concise courses and masterclasses. (Supplier diversity certifications refer to certifications across a range of categories such as gender [like our WBENC certification], race, and veteran status.)

So, I sat down with Heather and Liz for some background and perspective on how firms of all sizes approach diversity efforts:

(Note: The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.)

Coleen: How did you two first meet and where did this idea for Diversity Masterminds come from? 

Heather: I was going to have my first child and I knew corporate America was not mommy-friendly so I began asking around [about people’s experiences raising families while pursuing a career] and started meeting people. These powerful businesswomen really resonated with me, just as people and the passion they bring to what they do. 

But somehow in our conversations, they’d mention this certification they wanted to get done. So I did a little research, the certification process isn’t rocket science but it’s really time intensive. What something’s called in California is not what it’s called in New Jersey is not what it’s called in Texas. People get frustrated. Then two, three years later, you’re still not certified. So I said, “I can do that for you.” It went from there. 


Liz: I met Heather when I was in New York. Heather had a company that was certifying diverse businesses, in all different categories, and I actually was working with the organization that provided the certification and connected women with opportunities. In the course of doing this work, you notice a lot of things you can’t do — there are a lot of different priorities, maybe there aren’t enough resources, and people don’t have the know-how to do it at scale.

We knew there was a way for us to come together — Heather had it in her mind that there could be a class for people. Busy entrepreneurs can take a class for one hour a week and we can teach them everything they need to know so they can get started. One day, Heather called me up and said, “What do you think?” and Diversity Masterminds was born. 


Coleen: How exactly does Diversity Masterminds help businesses? 

Heather Cox

Heather Cox

Heather: I noticed a common theme among all the suppliers that I worked with: about a few years in, they’d say that they’re not recertifying, they got nothing out of it, that it was a waste of time and money. And I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, pump the brakes! What do you mean you got nothing out of your certification?” I see how powerful this tool can be. I tell people all the time, it’s not a magic wand. Don’t expect a $1m contract to fall from the sky.

I ask the suppliers, “Are you doing this or that?” — what I thought were basic, 101 things. But they didn’t know all of these different pieces, so there is definitely a gap — and we needed to fill that gap. 

What happens is you say “Go do this,” but that’s saying, “Once you get to the top of Mount Everest, plant your flag.” And they don’t know how to get to the top of Everest. We needed to break it down into bite-size pieces. By demonstrating and educating how to really leverage that certification it’s a win-win for the entire ecosystem. 


Coleen: Your core area of expertise is helping certified diverse businesses like CAPIS, connect with supplier diversity programs. These types of partnerships tend to thrive when companies have strong internal diversity programs or initiatives. What does a good program or initiative entail?

Liz: A program is only as strong as the person in the seat, plus the corporation’s commitment. Is the CEO involved? Is there one person in the seat whose job it is to do supplier diversity and a little bit of workforce diversity? Can they get a sense of the company’s commitment versus some companies who have a person in the supplier diversity seat, and advocates within HR, legal, etc? It’s all about how strong their commitment is to it. 

Heather: It has to be a top-down initiative. You’ll see companies that say “Diversity is really important.” Then the CEO says, “Uh, yeah, sure.” We worked with a company and in every single interview, the CEO mentioned diversity. It was part of the DNA of the company. It showed.


Coleen: What’s the first step a firm considering a diversity program should take? 

Heather: The first step is to know where you are. Whether that means you hire someone to put together a report, or you have someone reach out to every one of your suppliers, you need to find out where you are. You might be pleasantly surprised, or surprised the other way. But knowing where you are is the first step in knowing where you need to go. So if you know you spent $0 on diverse legal, but outsourced $2 million a year… I’m pretty sure you can find a good diverse supplier to outsource some of that legal work to.

Liz Whitehead

Or, in an example that pertains to the finance world that CAPIS is a part of, if your treasury area is considering working with multiple brokers on new debt issuance, why can’t one of them be diverse?

Liz: It’s a great point about knowing where you are. For example, we spoke with Kroger, and Kroger had just made a huge commitment in 2020 that by 2025 it would go from $3.6 billion in diverse spend to $10 billion. [Management] said, “We [grow those numbers] every year anyway, so it was on the horizon and we knew we could do it. The announcement just gives us more excitement and enthusiasm.” The commitment could be public and huge because Kroger knew where it was and knew it had a strong program.


Coleen: As a member of the finance industry, CAPIS is beginning to see more mid- to small-size managers follow the lead of the bulge bracket banks in regards to working with more diverse vendors. Regarding the business benefits of diversity, why should companies work with diverse vendors?

Heather: Bottom line, it’s about the bottom line. Every single study that has been done on supplier diversity shows that companies that have robust supplier diversity programs make more money. Diverse suppliers bring a greater value to the supply chain. It’s a matter of bringing in a diversity of thought, a different value proposition — it all comes together. 

Have you ever been knocking on the front door of a company, asking and asking for a meeting, and thinking that if only they had 5 minutes with you, they would love you, but you just never get an answer? Supplier diversity is a side door. 


Stay tuned for another piece about how firms can set themselves up to succeed with their diversity initiatives based upon the conversation with Liz and Heather. 


If you have questions or would like to learn about CAPIS and our status as a WBENC-Certified Broker Dealer, please reach out to Coleen Donohue @ [email protected] and follow us on Twitter (@capisinc) and LinkedIn for additional updates and insight from our team.