When first-generation Cuban American Sadzi Oliva was a young girl in Chicago, she believed that all the clients for her grandfather’s denture-making business had to speak Spanish because they were all Hispanic.
What she would later realize was that as a Cuban immigrant, her grandfather had little choice but to cater exclusively to the Hispanic community because he couldn’t get a foothold with non-Hispanic dentists.
“I think if he had been given that opportunity he could have grown his business, employed more people and there would have been a positive and prosperous domino effect,” said Oliva.
Oliva was picked last year by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner to be the first Hispanic woman to serve on the Illinois Commerce Committee, or ICC, and was recently named the new vice chair of the Subcommittee on Supplier and Workforce Diversity for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, or NARUC.
Oliva’s focus will be to work closely with the subcommittee’s chairperson, Michigan Commissioner Rachael Eubanks, to improve diversity and inclusion initiatives in the utility industry across the country.
Illinois serves as a model when it comes to the utilities’ supplier and workplace diversity initiatives, said Oliva. The Illinois Public Utilities Act calls for the ICC to work collaboratively with Illinois utilities to encourage diversity among its suppliers.
As of the last reporting cycle, she noted that utilities have spent $2 billion on diversity in the state. She said the ICC is the most diverse utility commission in the country and noted that of the 198 commissioners nationwide only four are Hispanic. And of these four, two – including herself — are from Illinois.
But she understands there is always room for improvement.
Among the areas of her focus is increasing transparency between vendors and utilities; bolstering the number of minority vendors who provide more specialized and higher paying professional services such as IT, architecture, legal and finance; providing minority vendors with enough time to review contracts that are out for bid and breaking up large contracts so that more minority vendors can benefit.
“I think it’s important for the decision-makers who are making decisions…to understand that [vendors] want to be given an opportunity to show they can do a really great job,” said Oliva.
Before being appointed to her 5-year term on the ICC, Oliva served as General Counsel for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. She also previously served as an Assistant Illinois Attorney General, as well as Administrative Law Judge in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services among other positions. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from DePaul University and her Juris Doctorate from Loyola University School of Law.
“Until we’re at a point where we don’t have to talk about it anymore we have to keep going, asking and imploring the utilities to get better and better every year,” said Oliva. “It will have a positive effect because then they [the minority venders] can grow their business, hire more people and it’s just a positive for everyone.”