By Erin Cristales
When she received the page that the Milwaukee Police Department was on the line, Shaleta Dunn hurried to the phone. Earlier in the evening, a college student was rushed to Southern Illinois University Hospital in critical condition and all anyone knew about him, other than that he required emergency surgery, was that his father worked as a physician in Milwaukee. As the hospital's ER ward clerk and a Milwaukee native, Dunn offered to call her hometown PD to help locate the patient's parent. They must have found him, she figured. Finally, she thought as she grabbed the receiver, some good news.
"We're with your siblings."
The words took a moment to sink in. All the while she'd been trying to reach the Milwaukee police, they'd been trying to reach her. There'd been no sign of her mother for the past two weeks, the officer told her, and Dunn's three younger brothers were found at home with no heat and little food.
"If no one can come get them," he said, "we'll have to place them in foster care."
The call was unexpected. The news was not. Growing up, Dunn had known her mother to vanish for long stretches, disappearances fueled by undiagnosed bipolar disorder and consequent drug addiction. She and her siblings alternated between her mother's care, her grandmother's house and foster homes. By 16, she often used the money from her part-time job to cover the bills, and when that wasn't enough, she booked a motel room for the family while they awaited space in a local shelter.
"Please don't take them to foster care," Dunn said. "I'm coming to get them."
A 21-year-old college sophomore at Southern Illinois University, she'd already assumed guardianship of her 3-year-old sister. On that frigid Sunday night in February 1997, she hopped in her 1986 Chevy Cavalier and drove seven hours to Milwaukee to also take custody of her three brothers, ages 14, 9 and 5.
Now a guardian of four, Dunn moved back to Milwaukee. Denied state assistance, she devised ways to make every dollar stretch, and when her youngest brother was diagnosed with epilepsy, she worked to find the resources to meet his medical needs.
Raising four kids as a young adult was "really, really hard," Dunn said. But in many ways, the rocky road she'd traversed doubled as a path to her professional purpose: leveling the playing field for diverse — and often intentionally under resourced — communities.
"When I think about the health equity work that we're doing at Vizient, I have a lived experience of that work — I understand what it means to not have equitable access to housing, food, healthcare, basic resources," said Dunn, who serves as vice president, supplier diversity and social investment impact at Vizient, where her exceptional leadership of Supplier Diversity recently earned her a spot on the Journal of Healthcare Contracting's list of 10 People to Watch in Healthcare Contracting. "Diverse businesses increase the socioeconomic status of their communities. They're the creators of more jobs in the U.S. than any other supply base, they provide access to insurance, and they pay workers 48% more on average than other employers. All of those things address the social determinants of health that drive better health equity."
Vizient staff, providers and suppliers mingled at the Supplier Diversity Reception, which took place at the 2022 Vizient Connections Summit in September.
'A cure for the inequities that plague us'
At this year's Supplier Diversity Reception, one of the annual Vizient Connections Summit's premier events, attendees toasted the achievements of Vizient's Supplier Diversity program with reds, whites and rosés from Brown Estate, the first and only Black-owned winery in Napa Valley. A few months before, Dunn had set her sights on recruiting Brown Estate to provide the evening's refreshments — just one more way to champion the work of diverse-led businesses from across the U.S.
That was, after all, the purpose of the reception, where providers, suppliers and Vizient staff celebrated the partnerships forged, largely through the determination and direction of Dunn and her team, that support the development of minority-, woman-, disability-, LGBT- and veteran-owned business enterprises. Supplier Diversity connects Vizient member hospitals across the nation with diverse suppliers in tier 1 and tier 2 categories, supporting healthcare organizations in achieving inclusivity and diversity in their supply chain and further bolstering the communities and patient populations they serve.
"Healthcare is the business of improving the lives of the people around us," said Simrit Sandhu, Vizient EVP, strategic transformation and clinical supply solutions, during the reception's opening remarks. "Taking care of human beings is not just something you treat at a point of illness — our communities have another form of underlying disease that is born out of health and social inequity. More and more, healthcare providers and suppliers are realizing the potential of spending power as a cure for the inequities that plague us."
That's a primary reason Vizient set a goal in 2021 to create 85,000 jobs over the next five years by driving $5 billion in spend to diverse and local suppliers. There are currently more than 200 certified diverse suppliers on contract, and Vizient continues to develop leading analytics to help providers identify, track and verify their diverse spend, along with analytics to measure economic impact, including the numbers of jobs created through their supplier diversity programs. Additionally, Vizient's Supplier Diversity program offers advisory services and dedicated resources to help providers develop and implement their own three- to five-year supplier diversity strategies.
One of Vizient's newest and fastest-growing supply chain and health equity strategies is Community Contracting, which was tested and piloted in the summer of 2020 in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Oakland. Community Contracting 1) identifies diverse suppliers in underserved communities and educates them about the healthcare supply chain; 2) facilitates providers in those areas to direct spend to diverse suppliers to improve economic resiliency and overall community health; and 3) builds a sustainable ecosystem to direct investments to the geographic community while building business opportunities for the local diverse supply base.
In just its first 10 months, Community Contracting drove $10 million in spend and created more than 180 new jobs, leading Vizient to invest in a formalized program that has now officially launched in upstate New York, southern Mississippi and Louisiana, and is set to launch in several other areas across the U.S.
Organizations just beginning their supplier diversity journey have been floored by the growth potential and the positive impacts they're able to generate within their communities. Much of that is due to Dunn's convening of strategic partnerships, said Ade Solaru, CEO of California-based SupplierGATEWAY, a Vizient contracted cloud-based supplier management platform that automates and simplifies vendor management processes. Nearly three years ago, he and Dunn discussed an idea to offer providers a broad suite of tools to measure their supplier diversity efforts — a joint venture that has continued to evolve.
"At the time, Shaleta had recently joined the Vizient team, and part of what we're doing today is a result of her vision around how we can scale the economic impact of supplier diversity in members' operating units," Solaru said. "She helped us articulate our idea to the members and senior management, and ultimately move the needle toward better equity. It doesn't matter if it's 4 in the morning or 9 at night — if there's important work to be done, Shaleta's on it."
When Dunn joined Vizient in March 2018, she'd already made an impressive impression in supplier diversity circles. In 2016, as director of supplier diversity and diverse talent at Manpower Group, she was named the National Minority Supplier Development Council's Corporate Catalyst Award honoree and one of Diversity Plus' Top 25 Women in Power Impacting Diversity. In her previous role as manager of emerging business with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, Dunn's projects — including the construction of low-income housing in one of Milwaukee's highest unemployment areas — were frequently featured in local media.
But at Vizient, she saw a new, and irresistible, opportunity — one that married her professional expertise with her personal journey. Ever since her early days as a ward clerk at Southern Illinois University Hospital, coupled with navigating the ins and outs of seeking care for her youngest brother's epilepsy, Dunn had felt an unmistakable pull toward a career in the healthcare industry. That enticement was amplified by Vizient's unique approach to supplier diversity, which is treated not simply as an extension of the supply chain but instead involves actual contracting.
"What attracted me was not only what we do at Vizient, but how we do it," said Dunn, who also serves as chair of the Diversity Networking Association Black@Vizient. "We are aware of all the challenges and barriers and successes that come along in supply chain because we're on the frontlines doing that contracting. Because of that, we see a bit more than our peers do regarding the challenges of being a diverse supplier — not only in this industry, but also just competing in the world that we're in."
Upon Dunn's arrival, diversity had already emerged as a significant focus for Vizient, and the Supplier Diversity program was further increasing its influence across the healthcare continuum. In October 2020, it expanded to include businesses owned by people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, as well as companies owned by people with a disability. The following month, Vizient was recognized by Minority Business News USA as one of its 2020 All-Stars of Supplier Diversity, which honors corporations for their commitment to managing and growing supplier diversity programs.
To better support the advancement of diversity sourcing and procurement among member institutions, Dunn created the Supplier Diversity expert panel, which meets quarterly and awards continuing education credits to participants. She also spearheaded the Supplier Diversity Virtual Expo, which allows members to learn about awarded diverse suppliers and their products.
And in the fall of 2020, Dunn helped Vizient build a strategic partnership with The Exeter Group that aims to support all Vizient members in the development of supply chain diversity, equity and inclusion strategies to create healthier communities. Headquartered in Chicago, The Exeter Group is a diversity- and inclusion-focused healthcare consulting firm that integrates research, practice and actionable data to deliver measurable results based on providers' stated objectives. Supplier diversity strategies are essential as hospitals are often a community's "anchor institution" — playing a pivotal role not just in the delivery of healthcare services but also in job and revenue creation for local businesses, said Alex duBuclet, founding principal of The Exeter Group.
"I think for a long time, and even still today, many healthcare organizations don't immediately see the connection between supplier diversity and health equity," he said. "That's why I'm so excited about our partnership with Vizient. Even more important than the individual strategy we help stand up is increasing the overall understanding of how supplier diversity impacts the health of the communities these hospitals serve. That's the big win."
What he's been particularly impressed by is that even among the daunting day-to-day details, Dunn never loses sight of the big picture.
"She can look out for the corporate bottom line and at the same time be a visionary on how to achieve greater health equity for patients," duBuclet said. "Enhancing supplier diversity strategy is one thing. To always keep the patient at the center of it all is extraordinary."
And yes, Dunn said, the initiatives and panels and resources and partnerships are important parts of doing business. But the Supplier Diversity program is, more importantly, about the business of setting things right.
"It's about creating generational wealth, especially in under resourced communities where those opportunities were taken away," Dunn said. "And it's hard. When you're in the world of change management, there are complexities to that. But you're changing practices that have been inequitable. You're addressing stereotypes and biases that affect diverse communities. You're changing lives."
'It's all come full circle'
In mid-October, Dunn took a few hours away from her supplier diversity work to adapt books for visually impaired elementary students as part of Vizient's annual Community Day event. She was in an especially bright mood, and not just because of the opportunity to better the lives of local children. That morning, her younger sister had made the permanent move from Milwaukee to Dallas.
"It's so great that she's here," Dunn said.
The week before, all five siblings had gathered for a quick Midwest reunion, even snapping some photos to memorialize the meetup. Now grown, Dunn's siblings are all excelling in their respective careers. They're healthy and happy. It's not the future she would have predicted when she received that phone call from the Milwaukee Police Department 25 years ago. But now it's a future she envisions for everyone, no matter where they're from or what challenges they face.
And she's invested in playing her part in making it a reality.
"Raising my siblings was the most life-changing and formidable experience of my life, and it also was an opportunity for me to support them," said Dunn, who noted that her mom, after receiving proper care and medication, is now recovered and thriving. "And in turn, I'm able to pour those lessons learned into the work I do today."
She pauses for a moment, then smiles.
"It's all come full circle."