When Dionne Sandiford walked through the doors of the TD Convention Center two years ago, she wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
The Greenville businesswoman was just hoping to connect with a few people who could help her grow her small embroidery business, A Celebration of Us LLC, which she had originally started as a hobby.
She felt like the proverbial small fish in a large pond as she mingled with business leaders who had gathered for the fourth installment of Spartanburg County-based BMW Manufacturing Co.’s annual Tier 1 Supplier Diversity Matchmaker Conference.
In her arms, she carried a stack of golf towels embroidered with the logos of a handful of BMW suppliers.
Sandiford said she gave out all but two towels to the companies on her list and hoped the towels, as well as her company logo on her “uniform shirt,” might earn her a call back.
But little did she know her life was about to change forever.
“I walked around and did my dog and pony show,” Sandiford said. “I had sat down at a table next to Joan Benore and her daughter, Jaimie [Benore]. Jaimie and I had something in common because she had just worked on a T-shirt quilt project and that’s one of the things I do a lot of.”
Joan Benore is a principal of Benore Logistic Systems, a BMW supplier that has participated in the diversity conference since its inception in 2012.
“If I knew who she was, I probably would’ve been too afraid to talk to them,” Sandiford said. “We really hit it off. God blessed me.”
After the event, the logistics company had a golf outing for its employees and customers. Benore remembered Sandiford and placed a large order for golf towels.
The company then decided to give out baby blankets to new parents within its workforce and the company again called Sandiford.
Sandiford also received an order from Berrang Inc., another one of the companies she met at the conference, to do the logos on the companies work shirts.
“What this conference did for me is it gave me confidence,” she said. “I was a small dog just sitting on the porch. Now I’m a medium dog and I’m ready to step off the porch. Soon I’ll be a big dog and I’ll be ready to run with the rest of them.”
Sandiford was one of about 2,000 people from across the country that attended this year’s conference held Thursday, April 6, at the TD Center.
Louise Connell, supplier diversity coordinator for BMW, said the event featured 213 of BMW’s Tier 1 suppliers and community partners. The event was originally geared toward women- and minority-owned businesses. This year, BMW added veteran-owned business to the list.
She said the first year the conference was held at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research, it featured about 50 suppliers and attracted about 600 participants. During the second year, she said, supplier participation doubled. The event has continued to grow every year.
Connell said the participation of minority- and women-owned businesses in the plant’s supplier network has increased by 400 percent during the past five years.
“It’s something we’re very proud of,” she said.
Knudt Flor, president and CEO of BMW Manufacturing Co., kicked off this year’s event with a short speech during a luncheon where he thanked suppliers for their work.
“Your success story is also our success story in the U.S.,” he said.
It is estimated that the Spartanburg plant supports more than 37,000 jobs in South Carolina.
“The U.S. is our second home,” he said. “We’re here to deliver, not only to produce. We want to create jobs and support your businesses to make this company grow.”
Markus Duesmann, board of management member for purchasing for BMW Group, said BMW employs about 70,000 people in the U.S.
“We need diversity,” Duesmann said. “As a leading manufacturer, inclusiveness enables us to attract and retain talent — to develop a talented supply chain.”
Theresa Carrington, founder of The Blessing Basket Project and a winner of BMW’s Intercultural Innovation Award, served as the keynote speaker.
Participants were each gifted a placemat crafted by women in Uganda that are among artisans in seven countries supported by Carrington’s nonprofit. She encouraged attendees to embrace their own stories and share them with others.
Those in attendance also were given the opportunity to glimpse into the future at BMW. The automaker showed off the four BMW Vision NEXT 100 vehicles it introduced in 2016 as part of its centennial celebration.
The vehicles include that latest in electric, autonomous, connectivity, and other technologies.
After the luncheon, those in attendance gathered in a separate hall for the networking portion of the conference.
Ron Harvey, a vice president and partner at Columbia-based Global Core Strategies & Consulting, said it was his company’s second time at the event.
Harvey said the company, which specializes in helping employers maximize the performance, morale, and productivity of their workforce, hopes work with BMW and its suppliers.
“There are a lot of things that are happening and we’re looking at how we can get involved with these big companies,” he said. “An event like this is great for us because it gives us opportunities we might not have otherwise to get in front of them.”
John Ryan, engineering systems manager for BMW supplier FAIST ChemTec Inc. in Gastonia, N.C., said his company also found the conference to be helpful.
“I’ve never been to a trade show quite like this one,” Ryan said. “A lot of people come up to us and they want to ask us what we do… I am glad that BMW does this. Diversity is important to our customers.”