Despite Empty Promises, The Office Furniture Industry Still Isn't Diverse

May 10, 2022 (PRLEAP.COM) Business News
February was Black History Month. Everywhere you looked, people and companies were declaring their commitment to assisting Black enterprises. Despite this optimism, minority-owned businesses are struggling. In fact, Black-owned small businesses were twice as likely as non-Black-owned small businesses to close during the epidemic.

The issue is not individual purchasing, but internal supplier relationships. As a minority founder of a small office furniture company, I have watched my field outwardly evolve but internally stay the same.

When I asked the top five public technology companies why they didn't buy furniture from diverse vendors, the buyer told me, "We really struggle to get minority dealers from furniture companies like MillerKnoll, Steelcase, Kimball, and Haworth." Some have even termed them "closed club manufacturers," meaning that they do not accept minority vendors. It's the same situation for government entities like the Pentagon, U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Army.

The issue is across the board, including not only manufacturers but the distribution networks. Hundreds of individuals filed a petition in 2019 criticizing Herman Miller, the world's largest furniture manufacturer, claiming that less than 1% of their 219 distributors and sales reps at the time were African American or single-digit minorities.

While there is a lot of rhetoric about taking steps to provide minorities more opportunities and close the racial wealth gap, policies and meaningful inclusion for historically marginalized groups are still lacking.

Shortly after the alliance was revealed, Miller teamed with another office furniture behemoth, Knoll, to establish MillerKnoll. With their combined scale, small manufacturers will find it even more difficult to compete without meaningful changes on every level of the business.

Here are a few things that can actually be done to promote diversity in the furniture industry:
  • Companies should diversity targets to better represent the country's demographics (Census: 13 percent African Americans, 18 percent Latinos, 6 percent Asian Americans, 50 percent women).
  • They must use these demographic representation percentages to set goals for minority dealers/distributors, Black designers, and board members.
  • They can create mentorship programs for small minority businesses so they may work together on government contracts.
  • They should recognize on an enterprise-level that minorities and disadvantaged enterprises have long been marginalized, and that advancement may take some training and mentoring.
  • Boards can create an accountability report that highlights public companies' success in terms of diversity, inclusion, and equity using quarterly KPIs.
  • Customers should insist that the biggest shareholders of these publicly traded furniture companies (BlackRock, Vanguard, Blackstone, pension funds, investment banks, and institutional asset managers) take steps to enhance diversity.

  • Before dismissing this information, companies should take a look at their bottom line. 83 percent of buyers say that "if all else were equal, they would buy from a more diverse sales organization," according to LinkedIn's State of Sales Report for 2021.

    Greater diversity isn't just about doing the right thing. It's just good business.

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