Mastering the Art of the Cross-Discipline Initiative

The American Association of Blacks in Energy has helped uncover diverse suppliers in the clean energy industry by working closely with for-profit partners.

For many organizations, trying to find a way to bring together two important disciplines into a single initiative can create an opportunity.

And sometimes, that opportunity shows itself simply because all of the right pieces emerge at the right time. That’s the situation the American Association of Blacks in Energy has found itself in as it takes a key role in helping push forth a clean energy initiative that aims to encourage more diversity among suppliers.

“It’s been an initiative that has evolved over several years, and now it’s reached a critical point, an inflection point where it just takes off,” said Tracey Woods, AABE’s vice president of operations.

Improving diversity in the energy space is a serious issue for the industry. In Help Wanted: Diversity in Clean Energy [PDF], a recent report that AABE contributed to, it was noted that while nearly 40 percent of workers in the clean energy space were minorities, just 8 percent are Black, a level that is underrepresented by 40 percent compared to the population as a whole.

A Program Built Around a Specific Need

The Diversity in Clean Energy (DiCE) initiative, which aims to help resolve this disparity, came up as the result of a mixture of businesses and nonprofits looking to leverage an opportunity. As Woods explained, the wireless provider T-Mobile, which has a commitment to using diverse suppliers, was looking to work on clean energy projects, and reached out to Duke Energy to receive a list of diverse suppliers. Duke Energy did not have such a list, but Cheryl D. Comer, a senior strategic account manager with Duke, had seen other signs of interest for diverse suppliers, and reached out to Woods. While AABE did have a list of suppliers, it was set up as a basic spreadsheet. There was an opportunity to do more.

One of the parties interested in helping to resolve this issue was Microsoft, which at the time was looking for ways to better serve Black communities in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Upon uncovering the supplier diversity issue, the company offered to assist in building a digital application for this project as part of its Microsoft Philanthropies initiative, which Woods said will launch sometime next year.

“They won’t be using an Excel spreadsheet” when the platform launches, Woods said. “It will be set up as a place where diverse suppliers can even open their storefront.”

The project will take steps to identify suppliers, to help those suppliers get resources they need (such as vendor certifications), and to serve as a home base for requests for proposals (RFPs) from interested companies.

Lessons for Associations

Cross-discipline initiatives like DiCE often emerge due to a specific need that no one organization can tackle on its own. As a result, it requires a lot of teamwork, even if one party (in this case, AABE) takes ownership of the final deliverable.

Woods said that the initiative, which held a webinar in November, reflects the power of bringing a lot of stakeholders together to focus on one area, even if their underlying needs differ significantly. Other insights:

Look for opportunities to solve real-world problems. One of the things that helped push this initiative along was the fact that there was direct interest in it from a large energy company. “It becomes really interesting when your customer that you have a relationship with says, ‘You know, what? I got this problem, and I strongly believe that you can help me,’” he said. “And they didn’t just end at, ‘No, we can’t be useful;’ it was really about, ‘OK, let’s see.’” That created an opportunity for AABE and other stakeholders to get involved and tackle a larger problem—and even helped to bring in other stakeholders like Microsoft Philanthropies’ Darrell Booker, who was able to connect the effort to the technology giant’s own work.

Have a strong facilitator in the room. When a lot of stakeholders are discussing a challenging problem—whether inside the association space or beyond it—keeping everyone on the same track is important. Woods credited Comer for helping to manage the number of different voices helping to build out the initiative.

Look for opportunities to improve the experience for customers. If your organization finds itself serving the needs of a business with a specific problem, it could present an opportunity to improve customer service by acting as a proxy of sorts for the industry at large. “Not very often do these opportunities move beyond the usual players,” Woods said.

(ASphotowed/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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