On one arm, Michele Leff balanced appetizer-sized bowls of salads, topped with seared tuna. In the other hand, she carefully held portioned dishes of perfectly seasoned couscous. She glided through a line of people, and set each plate down with ease, positioning them flawlessly. She had done this before.
Leff, the owner of 12th Street Catering, was preparing, with her staff, her vendor’s table—clad with eye-catching flowers and other intricate details—for Penn’s third annual Supplier Diversity Expo, which took place at Houston Hall last Thursday.
Leff’s business, which evolved from a small Mexican restaurant in Reading Terminal Market to what it is now—a full-service catering company, with its headquarters in nearby Powelton—has been working with Penn for more than 20 years.
“We started making food for food services, for the students, a long time ago, when Penn had a much smaller operation,” Leff said. “Then word of mouth spread and we started catering events, which we still do often. We also opened a couple cafes on Penn’s campus; there’s one at the School of Nursing and one at the [Weitzman] School of Design.
We have been so lovingly embraced by the Penn community,” Leff added. “We really cherish our relationship.”
As a woman-owned business, 12th Street is just one on Penn’s ever-growing list of diverse suppliers. In fact, Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli said the University has added 635 new, individual local and diverse suppliers just since 2014. Last year alone, the University spent $126 million purchasing from diverse suppliers, $90 million of which were based in West Philadelphia.
“We’ve made great strides toward becoming an inclusive community that strives for inclusive excellence,” said Senior Vice President for Institutional Affairs and Chief Diversity Officer Joann Mitchell, noting that it’s important the University is intentional about strengthening existing diverse partnerships, and creating new ones.
“Intentionality is a very powerful concept,” said Carnaroli, “particularly for an anchor institution like Penn.”
From the perspective of Britten Magnus, account executive and solutions provider for BTC, a printing and promotions business, what the University’s partnership provides is immense for the strength of his father’s company.
“Because it’s an anchor institution, you know it’s not going anywhere,” Magnus said. “It behooves us as a diverse company, in which [Penn] also has a priority to do business with, to work with them and build a relationship because their stability trickles down to us.”
Gabriella Nemati, of Nature’s Gallery Florist, noted how Penn is “really the economic engine of the city.”
“I think the determination that Penn has to work with minority-owned businesses is making an actual difference in the city,” she said. “For us, as a company with several employees, we can give more hours to them, we can support our local neighborhood schools,” thanks to the University’s support.
Nemati has worked with Penn for a few years, assembling flower arrangements for special events on campus. This year’s Supplier Diversity Expo, and the Forum that preluded it, was the second she’s attended, both experiences she has been thankful for. Chatting with a prospective client, Nemati could be overheard saying, full of gratitude, “We appreciate your business more than I can describe in words.”
The Expo bustled, with nearly 30 suppliers—varying from those that provide scientific materials to desserts in jars—showcasing their products and services to the Penn community, as well as neighbors and community groups. The goal each year is to raise awareness of the diverse and local resources, and suppliers that are available, and encourage collaboration.
“It really heightens our visibility,” said Valerie Feola, who was at the Expo representing A. Pomerantz & Company, a furniture supplier owned by Garry Maddox, a former Phillies player and Vietnam veteran. Winfred J. Sanders, president of Neta Scientifics, agreed, adding that the event is also an easy way for suppliers to get “feedback from [Penn’s stakeholders] in terms of what their short-term and long-term goals are.”
Sanders, who runs the laboratory supplies and solutions business with his wife Garnetta Sanders, the company’s CEO, participated in the Forum’s panel discussion at College Hall, alongside Lucia DiNapoli, director of strategic initiatives for administration at the School of Nursing; Jennifer Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; and Craig Williams, president of American Power Electrical Supply Company. Moderated by Mark Mills, executive director and chief procurement officer at Penn Purchasing Services, the group touched on collaboration as a mechanism to advance supplier diversity and inclusion, giving advice for suppliers—and purchasers—alike, emphasizing the need of all parties to stay present, persistent, and relevant to each other.
For suppliers specifically, Williams explained the importance of developing a relationship with the institutions they want to work with, and being prepared when the opportunity of collaboration is presented, as well as having patience.
“You need to understand that at an institution like the University of Pennsylvania, they have the resources they need,” Williams said. “So if you are given the opportunity, you need to step up, be competitive, your pricing needs to be competitive, and your offering needs to be solid.”
It’s this notion of reliability that keeps “esteemed institutions like Penn,” said Leff, so loyal.
“The fact that Penn can use anybody and that it chooses to use us is life-affirming,” she said. “People trust us to run a conference or to have a dinner party or farewell event, or to do something for the students. It really validates what we do.”
It’s enlightening, too, Leff added, to look around at the Expo and be reminded of how open and inclusive Penn’s message is.
“Penn is embracing the community and incubating small, local businesses,” she said. “I think it’s really cool.”
The Penn Supplier Diversity Forum and Expo is hosted each year by the University of Pennsylvania, under the auspices of the Offices of the President, Executive Vice President, Government & Community Affairs, and the Division of Business Services.