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Diverse supplier programs want to certify entrepreneurs like you

By: Sherlyn Assam

The federal government has spent the last six years using pilot programs to try improving procurement opportunities for underrepresented groups, but there are non-profits that have been working to bring minorities into the bidding game for decades.

This year, the Canadian Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council (CAMSC) celebrates 20 years of connecting Indigenous- and minority-owned businesses with large companies and government departments that seek diverse supply chains.

But diverse supply chains go beyond racialized groups; inclusive supply chains should also consider gender. According to Open Contracting Partnership, only 10 percent of the Canadian government’s SME suppliers are owned by women. Just 14 percent of the bids Canada received are from women-owned suppliers and only 7 percent of bids are from Indigenous owners.

“It’s not just women. It’s women and women of colour,” says Cassandra Dorrington, CAMSC president and CEO. “Let’s be clear: Indigenous women and women of colour fit that same criteria because we often do not get invited in. We often do not have the networks to get inside.”

But when corporations and governments are seeking diverse suppliers, business certifications can put underrepresented businesses on their radar. Certification increases visibility and verifies that enterprises are owned and operated by the underrepresented communities in need of affirmative support.

Dorrington says when CAMSC began two decades ago, people didn’t know what business certification meant. Over time, as more companies and governments prioritize hiring entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds, it has become easier to share its benefits.

Among CAMSC’s resources is their business directory of corporate members and certified Indigenous and visible minority businesses. It offers suppliers a chance to scope out future clients and see other businesses to collaborate with. Dorrington says CAMSC has 165 corporate and government members that suppliers can now access and build relationships with.

As announced at their 2024 Kickoff event in January, CAMSC is launching trade missions with Canadian suppliers interested in growing their businesses. They will be taking entrepreneurs to the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand. CAMSC’s supplier growth program will also offer sponsors for businesses that have yet to get their certification sponsored.

Dorrington also says CAMSC’s refugee program is also going strong. The program partners with TD Bank Group and the Tent Partnership for Refugees to provide tools and sources to certified suppliers from the refugee community to expand their business. As Dorrington says, the source of CAMSC’s work is: “How do we build the Canadian economy so it’s strong – so everybody has a place?”

CAMSC has been advocating for social procurement policies from the government for a long time. “They’re the biggest procurement agent in Canada. If we can get them on board, it opens the door,” says Dorrington. “Government buys everything in the country. If they would do it and if they would actually tap their tier ones on the shoulder, it just raises the level of opportunities that are available for women and other diverse underrepresented groups.”

Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) manages $15 billion worth of goods’ and services’ procurement contracts. PSPC is trying to increase underrepresented groups’ businesses through their Supplier Diversity Action Plan. Currently, the government accepts bids from companies who self-declare that they belong to an underrepresented community.

Organizations like the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (CGLCC) are trying to change that. Pru Girmes, the CLGCC Supplier Diversity program manager, says self-certification isn’t enough.

It’s why CGLCC co-created the Supplier Diversity Alliance Canada (SDAC) to inform governments, businesses and stakeholders on inclusive procurement policies and practices. The work the CGLCC and SDAC does helps build better practices around accurate identification and certifications.

“It’s important for businesses like CGLCC and other chambers or other institutions, other organizations to actually pool the resources so we don’t have to go everywhere trying to search for opportunities,” says Girmes.

Women Business Enterprises Canada Council (WBE Canada) has a similar mission. Silvia Pencak, WBE Canada’s president and CEO says access and bias against women are among the biggest problems women entrepreneurs face when acquiring big contracts.

Pencak says her organization still hears about women hiring male CEOs to represent them in meetings because women are disregarded immediately. On top of that, it’s not easy to navigate corporate and government supply chains when they are admitted, which is why WBE Canada prioritizes education – so women entrepreneurs can understand the criteria of the buyers. Her goal is to train women in risk requirements and assessments, acquiring strategic partnerships, leveraging ESG measures and certifying their businesses so they can show up to meetings with more confidence when they get access to bigger corporations and governments.

“Some of the top corporations and governments out there understand that “if I buy from women or if I buy from LGBTQ plus community, these people invest back into their community. What I’m doing actually helps invest into an ecosystem and bring more businesses,” says Pencak.

For women who are not ready for the giant bids, the large business scaling, or even the certification, WBE Canada’s Pathfinder program gives entrepreneurs membership so they can access resources and experts to help them grow their business at their own pace.

Pencak has four tips to the woman who wants to take her supplier enterprise to the biggest clients.

Invest in you

“Really investing about space, about the ecosystem, about the resources that are out there, about how to approach large corporations. It will transform your worldview. It will just transform your business for the years to come.”

Focus on growth

Pencak says sometimes women can be so focused on perfection that they forget to focus on their targets. She says entrepreneurs should ask themselves: “What are my milestones? How I’m going to drive my business in the next year? In the next five years? In the next 10 years? What is my expansion plan?”

Build business networks

“Nothing ever will open the doors for a woman like business networks,” says Pencak. “If people find out about you, they’re going to buy. They’re going to promote. They’re going to recommend you. That’s how business is done.”

This is why the built-in networks between diverse supplier programs are so beneficial to entrepreneurs beyond certification and successful bids.


“Success is actually diligent, intentional progress forward,” says Pencak. “It’s not built overnight. It’s not built easily. It takes effort, perseverance and patience.”

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada and CanExport Associations.