The federal government is looking to connect with catering businesses in the Atlantic region for future contracts, with one caveat: they must be women-owned or women-led.
It’s part of a larger federal plan to bring more diversity into the government supply chain, as prioritized in the mandate letter for procurement minister Carla Qualtrough.
Presently, of all small and medium enterprises that participate in federal procurements, women-owned enterprises make up about 10 per cent, according to federal government figures. In order to better reflect the proportion of businesses that are majority-led by women entrepreneurs in the broader population, in the 2018 budget Ottawa committed to introducing measures to increase this participation rate by 50 per cent, to at least 15 per cent.
Cindy O’Driscoll is the acting regional director in the office of small and medium enterprises — part of Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) — for the Atlantic region.
She told The Chronicle Herald catering was picked as a starting point for the pilot project in the region after some study and consultation with various organizations — it’s something the government regularly uses, the contracts are usually fairly modest, and women are well-represented in the industry as a whole while being underreported in the government supply chain.
In early October, PSPC posted a request for information on its buy and sell procurement portal for women-owned or women-led catering businesses in the Atlantic region.
This is not a tender but simply a way for Ottawa to gather details on the options that exist in the marketplace.
O’Driscoll said it will result in the creation of a database that can be accessed by different government departments and agencies to consider for their catering needs.
The list will showcase businesses based on the type of food, service, and area served.
“It’s really to find out how to increase the opportunities for underrepresented groups, women being one of them. This is a modest first step,” O’Driscoll said.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect — it’s a pilot and it’s new — but so far we’ve had over 40 (responses) and there’s more coming in every single day.”
For the purposes of this request for information, a business is considered women-owned if at least 51 per cent of the business is owned, managed and controlled by women, and is considered women-led when the chief executive officer, or the holder of an equivalent position in the organization, is a woman.
“We’ll assess throughout the year how much it’s used but then next October we’ll really look at it say ‘do we feel like this was a success? How many women on this list actually received business as a result of being on this list?’ And then we’ll decide whether there’s an opportunity to extend (the program),” O’Driscoll said.
Another version of the Supplier Diversity Pilot was launched in the National Capital Region in April and focuses on catering businesses owned or led by underrepresented groups as a whole, not just women.
Gordia Macdonald is the senior business development officer with the Centre for Women in Business at Mount Saint Vincent University and was the first person in Canada trained as a supplier diversity auditor for Women Business Enterprises Canada, an organization which provides certification for women growing their business by connecting them to large procurement channels.
When companies and governments have supplier diversity programs in place, they look to organizations like Women Business Enterprises Canada to find diverse suppliers that qualify. As an auditor, Macdonald would have been responsible for ensuring the suppliers were actually majority owned or led by women.
She also once co-owned a catering company in the Annapolis Valley, making her quite familiar both with the technical aspects of supplier diversity and the challenges faced by women-owned enterprises.
“Supplier diversity is relatively new in Canada, we have had national councils that supply a certification process for diverse suppliers for about nine years, and in the U.S., supplier diversity has been really around for over 50 years,” she told The Chronicle Herald.
Macdonald said while some might question the necessity of supplier diversity programs, it’s not about giving one business a leg up over another, but about ensuring women-owned businesses are equally as connected to the supply chain as their male-owned competitors.
“The opportunity to bid and win a contract is open to everyone and supplier diversity levels the playing field for diverse businesses,” she said. “It’s not a guarantee that those companies will get the work. It allows them to bid on the contract and have a fair opportunity to do that.”
And supplier diversity programs aren’t just about connecting big companies and governments to diverse suppliers, Macdonald said, it’s also often about bringing awareness to small and medium-sized suppliers who may not feel like they qualify for these contracts or don’t know where to start in bidding on them.
“It opens that door to start somewhere,” she said.
Jane Wright is the owner of Halifax-based Jane’s Catering & Events, one of the businesses that have responded to the Atlantic Supplier Diversity Pilot request for information.
She said she received an email from someone suggesting she sign up for the program and was quite pleased to learn the government is making an effort to encourage supplier diversity.
Anecdotally, Wright said, it seems like the catering business in her area is fairly female dominated — but as for who is getting government contracts, she doesn’t know.
Wright said it seems like the federal government is spending less and less money on catering these days; the bulk of her business goes to corporate clients
“I do subscribe to notices of government tendering, but it seems like I’ve rarely ever seen a tender for catering,” she said.
Wright said she’s hoping the pilot project might encourage a little more spending on catering in general.
“It seems like a great initiative,” she said, “I hope the phone rings.”