DETROIT — Leaky sunroofs helped launch Leon Richardson's chemical management empire.
Frank Venegas Jr. got the seed money for his company, which handles auto plant construction projects, by winning a Cadillac in a raffle.
The aerosol company that Amish Shah's father started in an Indiana garage turned its focus to the automotive industry after getting a contract to provide glass cleaner to General Motors dealerships.
The time a young Terri Chapman spent playing under her father's desk and talking business with him at dinner led her to eventually take over his automotive fastener company.
But in addition to some fortunate breaks and plenty of hard work, these entrepreneurs have been helped along by automakers' longstanding efforts to nurture an ecosystem of diverse suppliers. Just getting a foot in the door is plenty difficult, but for those who get that far, demand for suppliers owned by minorities, women and members of the LGBT community can swing it open much wider.
GM says automakers sometimes recommend suppliers with diverse ownership to one another, understanding that the growth of these companies helps keep all of them alive while benefiting the business cases of the automakers that rely on their services.
Richardson, a Marine veteran with a business degree and a passion for chemistry, traces his success directly to GM giving Chemico, the company he founded in 1989, a shot at fixing a staining issue that popped up during the leak discovery process for Cadillac Sevilles.
"I wouldn't exist," he said. "Not only did GM allow us to get started, GM supported us, GM nurtured us, GM developed us, GM gave us the opportunity to have access to the industry."
GM was the first automaker to begin a minority supplier program, in 1968, and now has a roster of around 300 diverse suppliers it does business with. Ford Motor Co. began its supplier diversity development operation in 1978. Chrysler followed five years later, and it has spent around $62 billion with diverse suppliers since 1983.