‘Building bridges of hope and opportunity’: PA leaders convene for 2024 City & State Diversity Summit

More than 200 people attended the half-day conference.

Norman Bristol Colón

Norman Bristol Colón MR Gruber Photography

Approximately 225 government and business leaders from across the commonwealth packed the Penn Harris Hotel in Camp Hill on Tuesday for City & State’s 2024 Diversity Summit, a half-day conference that explored the opportunities – and challenges – facing small diverse businesses across the state. 

The summit featured keynote remarks from Norman Bristol Colón, chief diversity officer for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who told the story of his Puerto Rico upbringing and credited Gov. Josh Shapiro’s commitment to the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion. “Only by diversity and inclusion and equity (am I) standing before you as the commonwealth chief diversity officer – because we have a governor that believes that diversity is our strength,” he said.

“We are going to work together to ensure that Pennsylvania’s best days are still ahead of us when we embrace the values of diversity, equity, belonging and inclusion,” Colón added, noting that there is a strong economic argument to embracing DEI initiatives in Pennsylvania. 

Colón said the consumer buying power of different diverse communities in the U.S. is larger than the economies of most countries, with the exception of the U.S. and China, a fact he said should spur both state government entities and businesses to strive to be more welcoming to diverse communities.

“I want resources to come back to Pennsylvania. I want some money to be spent in Pennsylvania, and the only way that we are going to be attracting a lot of money to Pennsylvania is by changing the way we conduct business,” Colón said. “We have to be a more welcoming place in Pennsylvania.”

However, Colón pointed out that lawmakers, business owners and other stakeholders need to take into account not just the economic considerations of DEI initiatives, but also the human element. 

“Everything that we do at the end of the day – we are impacting human lives. So this must be a labor of love, not only about making money,” Colón said.

The half-day conference also featured two panels, one focused on the intricacies of navigating Pennsylvania’s business climate as a small diverse business, and another examining the ways the state can strengthen its existing programs for small businesses, small diverse businesses and veteran-owned businesses. 

Speakers on the first panel included George Robinson II, director of supplier diversity and inclusion at UPMC; Nic Caputo, bureau director for corporations and charitable organizations at the Pennsylvania Department of State, and James Foley, CEO of Tactical Public Safety. 

The second panel featured Kerry Kirkland, deputy secretary of diversity, inclusion and small business opportunities at the Pennsylvania Department of General Services; Stephanie Shell, the deputy secretary for administration at the state Department of Human Services; ​Lisa Sanford, director of diversity, inclusion and small business opportunities at the Department of General Services, Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters Regional Manager Drew Simpson III, and ​Blane Stoddart, the president and CEO of BFW Group, a construction project management and administration company based in Philadelphia.

Moderator and City & State Managing Editor Justin Sweitzer at the podium, flanked by (L-R) George Robinson II, Nic Caputo and James Foley / MR Gruber Photography

During the first panel, Caputo highlighted how the Pennsylvania Department of State, in 2023, was able to eliminate a business filing backlog in three months’ time. “We were able to actually enact a number of pursuits that resulted in getting rid of the backlog. It took us about three months of very hard work, and all of the credit goes to those clerks, those unsung heroes that worked tirelessly in that bureau to make sure that happened,” Caputo said. 

“In three months, that backlog was raised. Not only that, but we’ve been able to actually keep the processing time to three business days or better,” he added. 

Robinson, from UPMC, encouraged business leaders in the room to take the time to track and understand the policies moving through Harrisburg, and said UPMC is advocating at the legislative level to find ways to help its diverse vendors. 

“We’re stepping out into new areas of support for our diverse businesses, beginning with our primary focus on legislative changes to help increase the amount of dollars that the commonwealth is providing to our diverse vendors,” Robinson said, adding that the company is also working to improve certification challenges facing diverse businesses. “I wanted to bring that to your attention. It’s not for us to get the shout out. It’s for us to help folks like us stand up, because we need a larger community than just UPMC speaking to our elected officials.”

Members of both panels praised a September 2023 executive order signed by Shapiro that aims to increase state agency participation in the state’s Small Business Reserve program, increase engagement between the administration and small diverse businesses and promote financing options and access to capital for small diverse businesses. The order also established an advisory council on inclusive procurement.

Moderator Teresa M. Lundy looks on as Kerry Kirkland answers a question, flanked by Drew Simpson III and Stephanie Shell / MR Gruber Photography

In response to an audience question from Democratic state Sen. Sharif Street, who was in attendance, Kirkland implored state lawmakers to codify the executive order to ensure that the existing procurement and contracting policies remain in place under future administrations.

“Executive orders are wonderful, but they’re not sustainable,” Kirkland said. “We’re extremely blessed to have an administration like the Shapiro-Davis administration, who have a very high value on DEI and make sure that we do substantial business with small, diverse and veteran-owned businesses. However, if another administration came in and didn’t have that value, that's when you see those ebbs and flows, that’s when you see that rollercoaster ride.”