Alexis Herman, who served as secretary of Labor in the administration of President Bill Clinton -- the first African American in that Cabinet position -- offers a high-level resume in government service and private enterprise.
Her top positions mirror a career of accomplishment. As secretary of Labor, Herman was responsible for regulating areas like labor and employment, pensions and workplace safety. But ask Herman about her some of her accomplishments and what truly stands out in her career, and she will tell you about her work as a 20-something advocate for women as head the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau in the administration of President Jimmy Carter.
In that role, Herman, inducted into the Minority Business Hall of Fame for 2007, challenged corporations to makes diversity in hiring a priority. During her tenure, Herman launched and advocated training programs to give women skill sets as many of them entered the labor market for the first time, and she pushed for opportunities for women business owners.
Such advocacy for women in the late 1970s was tricky, Herman said in an interview with MBN USA , because at the same time support was fervent to create business opportunities for minority-owned enterprises.
"We still struggle with that today," Herman said, who runs Alexis Herman & Associates, a consultancy from Washington. "We said this is a big pie that we all have to share in and we can't substitute one for the other."
Herman, a graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans, said she is proud to have been in a position as director of the Women's Bureau to co-chair the first women's business owners initiative for the federal government. Legislation followed in 1979 to afford women with more opportunities.
"We had no policies at all in place for doing business with women entrepreneurs. There were no government programs that either encouraged or required the participation of women business owners," Herman said.
Following her stint of service in the Carter Administration, Herman worked actively with
Fortune 500 corporations to assist them in setting up some of the first supplier diversity programs - helping companies to "roll up their sleeves" and get about the business of diversifying their supply bases.
Part of that was changing a corporate mindset that would use the excuse, "We would hire them if only we could find them," Herman said.
"In supplier diversity, we said we've got them and we can find them. You've got to have the commitment to use them," Herman said.
Supplier diversity is no less important today than in the 1970s and 1980s, Herman said. In fact, the stakes are exponentially higher today, she added.
"It's very important that we recognize that the future growth and strength of our country is in direct relationship now to the growth of people of color and women in our country. We need to make sure that we relate to the customer base that is going to be part of the future growth of our country," she said.
Herman, a native of Mobile, Ala, noted the vitality of the small business segment of the U.S. economy, where typically minority- and women-owned businesses are competing.
"When you look within that segment and who are those small business owners, largely they are women entrepreneurs. Small businesses are the biggest the contributors today to job creation in our country. So, minorities and women are key to any kind of economic growth for our country in the future," Herman said.
Herman said access to capital remains a vexing issue today for entrepreneurs, particularly minorities and women.
"We can do a better job particularly in the private sector to strengthen access to capital by looking at more long-term commitments and being clear in terms of contractual relationships and business investments and how you create partnerships that aren't a year or two years. Corporations can really help a business grow by forming real, lasting partnerships," Herman said.