GRAND RAPIDS — Varnum Riddering Schmidt & Howlett will be presented with the Advocate of the Year award at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s Minority Business Celebration at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park tomorrow.
Advocate of the Year is one of six Minority Business Awards available to businesses and individuals deemed by the chamber’s Minority Business Council to have best demonstrated a commitment to help advance the local minority business community. Three will be handed out at the Tuesday luncheon.
Varnum was founded in 1888 and currently employs 150 lawyers across five offices in Michigan and Wisconsin.
By its own account, Varnum not only represents women- and minority-owned businesses and advocates on their behalf, but it also supports organizations dedicated to improving the business climate for minorities.
Its members have worked with organizations that advance the interests of minority businesses, such as the local Commerce Minority Business Month Committee, the Holland Chamber’s Business Connections Committee, the Grand Rapids Urban League’s Micro Loan Committee, Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and Heartside Ministries.
Varnum has participated in the Grand Rapids Bar Association’s Minority Clerkship Program since its inception in 1990. More than 10 years ago, it established a Diversity Committee to promote corporate-wide awareness, understanding and appreciation of diversity. Many of the firm’s attorneys have completed the Institute for Healing Racism program.
For more than five years, Varnum has provided legal counsel for several Native American tribes in Michigan, as well as offered pro bono assistance to individual tribal members in establishing businesses and joint ventures.
A few years ago, Aquinas College’s Woodrick Institute approached the firm about the possibility of creating an organization that would work to enhance community life for professionals of color and offer them social networking opportunities. Varnum provided the seed money that gave birth to the Multi-Racial Association of Professionals (MAP).
David Rhem, chair of the firm’s Diversity Committee, said Varnum’s work with MAP is especially significant..
“The Woodrick Institute came to us and asked if our firm would contribute money and legal expertise to get MAP up and running. I think the organization was sorely needed because it’s an important tool for attracting and retaining professionals of color in the community.”
Rhem also thinks the firm’s support of the Summit on Racism, both in Kent and Ottawa counties, has been important. He has been personally involved in planning the Ottawa area summits and in co-chairing a business action team that created a tool kit for employers to help them recruit and retain people of color.
“I think that by supporting efforts like the summits to increase awareness about racial issues and diversity helps raise the bar for everyone,” he said. “Part of the initiative is focusing on vendor-supplier diversity so that’s a direct tie in to that process, as well.”
He said a survey at a firm retreat recently revealed that staff “overwhelmingly” agreed that diversity within the firm is good for business, too.
But it’s not just minority-owned business clients that are demanding that, it’s general counsel from Fortune 500 companies, too, he observed.
“They have diversity on their agenda and that’s what they ask us when they put out requests for proposals. The question has gone beyond ‘what are your numbers?’ to ‘what are you actually doing?’”
Rhem noted that Varnum’s involvement in the minority business community has not been “just a one- or two-year thing,” but an ongoing effort. He believes that is what led to the Advocate of the Year Award.
Varnum Attorney Patrick Miles Jr. said Varnum is “really a leader” in the legal community in terms of diversity, as well as assisting minority businesses. The firm, he said, represents many minority-owned companies in the area and has also helped many of its large corporate clients find minority business partners.
“Clearly that’s an important issue in the automotive and office furniture industries, as well as others. So, it makes good business sense for us to be part of that effort. As clients grow, we like to grow with them.”
Miles’ work with Bing Goei, owner of Eastern Floral, is a case in point. Goei wanted to expand his small floral shop and sought help from Miles, who, like Goei, is a “minority person.” Miles handled the legal details that allowed the company to grow into a five-shop operation with 110 employees.
Miles would like to see local minority businesses grow in size because he believes they would make a big difference in the cultural, political and economic environment in Grand Rapids.
“There’s a business and economic imperative to diversifying your employment base, and we’ve been acutely aware of that for well over a decade,” Miles remarked. “We have tried to stay at the forefront of recruiting, hiring and promoting people of color and women.”