Executives with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. gathered Tuesday (Sept. 10) for a meeting designed to reinforce efforts to empower women like 20-year-old Avani Bhadra of India, and Veronica Moreno, a tortilla baker from Atlanta, Ga., and help them reach bigger dreams through their Women’s Empowerment initiative.
The retail giant held its first Woman’s Empowerment Summit in Bentonville to celebrate a three-year milestone toward three primary goals:
• Sourcing $20 billion of U.S. product from women-owned businesses;
• Double what is sourced from woman-owned businesses internationally; and
• Train almost one million women around the world by 2016.
“We met the annual goals in the first two years and our spending since then is $432 million ahead of our $20 billlion goal,” said MiKaela Wardlaw Lemmon, a recent senior director for women economic empowerment at Wal-Mart. Lemmon is now vice president at Sam's Club.
Wal-Mart Stores CEO Doug McMillon opened the meeting noting that empowering women goes beyond making sound economic sense.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We know that women invest 90% of their income back into their families and communities supporting causes that matter like education.”
He shared a story of how the Wal-Mart initiative helped elevate a small sister-owned wine operation in South Africa.
When Vivian Kleynhans was a child, the system of Apartheid law her and her siblings out of their small South African hometown. Twenty years later, the country’s changed political landscape opened doors for their dream of starting a business and now they produce wines not only sold in South Africa, but on two additional continents.
McMillon said working with Wal-Mart, Seven Sisters Wines now supplies products to more than 500 U.S. Walmart Stores. The wine products are imported by Heritage Link Brands, an African-American woman-owned company.
By investing in Seven Sisters, he said the investment is not only furthering the success of a woman-owned business – but also supporting growth in Africa.
Ryo Kanayama, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Walmart Japan, attended the meeting via webcast. He said women are under-utilized assets in many countries around the world.
David Cheesewright, CEO of Walmart International, agreed, saying businesses are the most successful with they connect the “heart with the head.” He said it doesn’t take a grand scale program to make a difference.
Cheesewright said he is proud of efforts by Walmart Canada to increase its number of women managers all because someone inside expressed the idea. He said a team worked on a game plan and within two years the number of women managers in Walmart Canada has risen from 17% to 26%. In Chile, the same program has helped increase the number of female managers from 35% to 70%. Cheesewright said when it works in one country the other markets will adopt quickly.
Wal-Mart also notes that it has double the female corporate officers — executive and senior vice presidents — than the Fortune 500 average. Female U.S. store managers have risen to 27%, up from 18% in the past years.
WOMEN SPEAK UP
Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Barack Obama, was in Bentonvillle for the Wal-Mart event. She shared a story illustrating how important it is for women to let their bosses know when they must wear the mom hat.
Jarrett said years back when she worked in the Chicago government she was called into a meeting in the mayor’s office with the another female, a member of his corporate council.
“He was talking and we were both looking at our watches. He asked what we were doing because we were both so distracted. In a moment of courage I spoke up and told him that the Halloween parade started in 25 minutes. To which he answered, ‘Then what are you doing here,’” Jarrett said.
She said from that moment on she was loyal and hardworking as ever because he understood and appreciated her position and respected her needs.
“I would say to working moms today to make sure you have the courage to speak up and make your needs known. If your boss doesn’t respect them then you might want to find another place to work,” Jarrett said.
Avani Bhadra knows all about standing up for her needs. The 20-year-old began working outside her home in Anhar, India, to support her three sisters and a younger brother, her parents and her grandmother.
Bhadra traveled to Bentonville for the Women’s Empowerment Summit though she does not speak English. Through an interpreter Bhadra said it was her mom that encouraged her to take a job outside the home, an act rarely practiced by unmarried women in her village.
She said economic times were bad and she was glad to take work at Wellspun, a Wal-Mart supplier near her home. Two years ago she began as amachine operator but was quickly promoted to a supervisory training role.
“I never saw myself working for a large corporation, but others have believed in my potential and are helping me to realize bigger dreams. Now that I am working, others in my immediate community are following along. I also have risen to a higher status in my family and I have a bigger voice in family decisions,” Bhadra said through the interpreter.
In five years Bhadra said she hopes to be married, working toward a college degree and moving higher up within the company. She said the job helps her reach her dreams and provide a better standard of living for her family. By teaching others the skills she’s learned, Bharha said she’s passing that legacy on to help lift her entire village.
Kathleen McLaughlin, president of the Walmart Foundation, told The City Wire one of the reasons she joined Wal-Mart was because of the massive scale of Wal-Mart and its ability to impact real change around the world.
“One of my personal passions is the role of the private sector in the role of development. I have been working in that space for many years. There is no better place to do that from than Wal-Mart. … To see Wal-Mart making as much of a difference as say a Gates Foundation in certain areas of development is powerful. We can take what is intrinsic to us — the purchase order — which is really a powerful tool and quite different from aid. While aid is important, so are our purchase orders. We are using the purchase order as means to elevate women who then invest back into their communities. It’s economic development,” McLaughlin said.
She said the training piece of the commitment is also critical because it allows entire regions to benefit. One example given during the event was the training of 500,000 women farmers working in emerging markets around the globe. In China, for instance 70% of the apple crop is planted and harvested by women. Bhartra was one of the 32,400 women to receive workforce training as the company works toward its 60,000 goal.
While the Walmart Women’s Empowerment campaign is global in nature there were also some U.S. results spotlighted at the meeting.
Veronica Moreno, CEO of Atlanta-based Ole Foods, was invited to attend the Bentonville event. Moreno said she began selling tortillas on street corners after purchasing her first press in 1988. The business, grew slowly with regional sales until she became a Wal-Mart supplier. Since that time Moreno has expanded into 3,000 U.S. stores and she employs 1,000 workers, and 50% of them are women.
Wal-Mart has roughly 1,000 suppliers who made their way on to the retailer’s shelves through the women-owned business initiative. Women-owned businesses contribute more than $1.3 trillion dollars to the U.S. economy and women are responsible for more than 80% of the consumer decisions globally, according to figures provided by Wal-Mart.