What do you think of when someone mentions diversity? Most people would say race, gender, religion and age. Procurement professionals, especially, are increasingly urged and sometimes mandated to evaluate and increase diversity.

Recently I had the pleasure of listening to a speech by Dr. Steve L. Robbins entitled "Homie Sapiens." I have also read his book entitled What If? Short Stories to Spark Diversity Dialogue. In the speech and book, Dr. Robbins provides a very different look at diversity. He shows how diversity is not just about race, religion, age or gender, but also about different perspectives and experiences. Dr. Robbins explains how our upbringing influences the way we think and react to our surroundings and to others. The premise goes beyond the proverbial "it's your parents' fault" and includes influences that could have taken place during primary school, while hearing adults talking or through other experiences throughout our childhood years.

Let's look at a scenario: You are interviewing auditing firms. You are part of the interview panel. You look out your office door and see two auditing firm representatives waiting in the lobby area. At first glance, this is what you see:

Representative #1: A muscular man with arms covered in tattoos, long hair, dressed in a leather jacket, leather boots and carrying a helmet.

Representative #2: A petite woman dressed in a tailored business suit, well groomed, carrying a briefcase.

What would be your immediate reaction to what you just saw? Where does that reaction come from? Everyone's reaction may be a little different, but I'm guessing that many of us think that Representative #2 would be the better candidate. But what you don't know about the situation is that Representative #1 has the degree, meets all the qualifications, and comes with numerous glowing references from several procurement professionals that you know and respect. Representative #2 has the degree and the qualifications, but she has not disclosed that she has been fired from her last two auditing positions and is currently being accused of embezzlement.

Something in life, maybe our early experiences, has engrained in us a process to evaluate and draw conclusions of others. Really, when you think about it, these thoughts are related to diversity. Upon meeting someone, we are already thinking about how that particular person is different from our expectations or from our own standards of normal. It is very hard, and sometimes almost impossible, to keep these ingrained thoughts from occurring. Therefore, diversity can affect our choices and decisions even at times when we are unaware it is happening.

As procurement professionals, we sometimes evaluate diversity in our procurement processes, but are the evaluations always correct? I think our immediate evaluation of what we read in proposals is not always the correct one. When we have the opportunity to talk with, interview or negotiate with a potential contractor, our evaluation often changes. What we thought to be reality within the proposal is not always the true reality. The final evaluation can sometimes be better and sometimes it can be worse, but it will always be more educated.

As you can see in the scenario above, we don't always have all the information. We tend to jump to conclusions in our first evaluation without having all the information. Perhaps now you can see, as Dr. Robbins showed me, how different perspectives and experiences are also pieces of the diversity puzzle. The diversity puzzle contains not only gender, age, religion, and race, but is also made up of other pieces such as the way one dresses, the language one uses, or their piercings and tattoos, or lack thereof … and the list goes on. There are so many things that make up who we are and what we convey to others about who we are.

Clearly, we try to put others in our normal box when evaluating proposals, but maybe we should be expanding our box or even breaking down the walls of our box. By doing so, our environment becomes more adaptive to others so that we can become more open to change, and embrace diversity. I am continually working hard to break down the walls of what I consider normal and to do my part to embrace diversity and all of the wonderful new ideas, processes, and contractors that diversity can bring.

Kelly J. Okken, CPPB, VCO, VCCO, is Facilities and Capital Procurement Manager at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va. This article is based on the winning submission in NIGP's 2012 Diversity Essay Contest.