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Minority software suppliers in short supply

Nov 8 2016

DETROIT -- A senior Nissan executive fears that Silicon Valley's race to develop software for connected cars, collision avoidance and other high-tech functions is leaving minority suppliers behind.

John Martin, Nissan North America's senior vice president for manufacturing, supply chain management and purchasing, says he has begun asking Tier 1 suppliers to do business with minority-owned software vendors.

Martin says he has raised the issue with Microsoft and other software vendors.

"These conversations are at a very early stage," Martin said during a Rainbow PUSH Coalition conference late last month here. "It's a problem that I spotted. As we start to work with companies like Microsoft, we're asking them, "What are you doing about this?'"

This year, Nissan has earmarked 5 percent of its North American purchasing budget for minority-owned vendors, a category that includes businesses owned by African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, Asians and women.

Nissan also has asked its Tier 1 suppliers in North America to allot 5 percent of their purchasing budget for minority-owned suppliers. The problem, according to Martin, is that minority software entrepreneurs are in short supply as demand for software is soaring.

"Software is going to account for more and more of our total expenditures," Martin said. "If we don't address it now, it's going to threaten our overall [minority purchasing] targets. And that's a big issue."

While Martin calls his discussions with Microsoft "embryonic," Rainbow PUSH President Jesse Jackson has been lobbying Microsoft for some time. 

Rainbow PUSH has opened an office in the Bay Area, and Jackson has pressed companies such as Microsoft, Google, Apple and Hewlett-Packard to add more minority board members. 

"We are working with them on goals, targets and timetables," Jackson told Automotive News.

He's had some success. In 2014, Microsoft named John Thompson -- a veteran African-American software executive -- chairman of the board. And Microsoft earmarked $2.5 billion of its purchasing budget last year for minority suppliers. 

As industry leaders such as Microsoft take such steps, the rest of Silicon Valley likely will fall in line, Jackson predicted. If so, there appears to be a nucleus of black-owned tech firms that would benefit. 

Asked to identify black-owned tech firms, Rainbow PUSH named several. Two examples are World Wide Technology Inc. in St. Louis, and Reviver Inc., a startup in San Francisco. 

World Wide, which started in 1990 as a reseller of software and printers, has grown into a $7.4 billion integrator of information systems and supply chain management. 

Reviver is still in startup mode. Its founders, Mike Jordan and Neville Boston, are marketing a so-called smart license plate dubbed Slate that has cloud connectivity. 

While the vehicle is in motion, Slate is a conventional plate. But when the vehicle is halted, Slate displays a variety of digital bumper stickers, such as the motorist's college mascot or a corporate logo. 

Boston, contacted last week, wrote in an email that his company is completing another round of funding. 

Reviver is marketing an aftermarket product, which won't help Martin fulfill Nissan's purchasing quotas. But it does support Jackson's contention that there's a growing core of black entrepreneurs who could benefit from Silicon Valley's outreach. 

Said Jackson: "It's not a talent shortage -- it's an opportunity shortage."

By David Sedgwick via Automotive News

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