Then & Now: Bill Akins uses data to tell Walmart story

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 754 views 

Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the July 8 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class.

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Bill Akins, chief of staff and director of data planning and communication for Walmart Labs and Global Data, has always loved storytelling through big data.

Data has been an overarching theme throughout his career, and as valedictorian at California State University, his commencement speech to the class of 1996 was about balancing humanity and technology. The ability to automate without losing the human element has been one of the many issues Walmart Labs has tried to solve.

“We have the largest data footprint, which, of course, I was attracted to that,” he said in a recent interview. “But what’s different than our competitors is we’re using people and we’re using technology to enable data and analytics.”

When Akins was named to the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class in 2006, he was director of market development for Bentonville Software Associates. The company became Shiloh Technologies in early 2008, and he remained with the company until 2009 when he joined Hamilton Beach Brands Inc. With Shiloh, Akins played a pivotal part in helping the company grow to scale.

Akins, 45, spent the bulk of his career helping grow Rogers-based digital agency Rockfish. He worked there from 2010 until December 2017. Communications giant WPP acquired Rockfish in 2011 and became VML in 2017 before becoming VMLY&R after a 2018 merger. While with Rockfish, Akins and a small team helped to build the first Sam’s Club mobile app, and it scaled quickly to reach millions of people. He also ran a spin-off company that was merged into Rockfish.

Akins left the agency after he was accepted into the Stanford LEAD program, focused on corporate innovation. It offered him the opportunity to complete projects in Silicon Valley alongside companies such as Apple and Tesla, and he received a certificate in corporate innovation after completing the one-year program.

He joined Walmart Labs in November, and while he said he couldn’t discuss specific projects, he is entrenched with data science, helps Walmart tell its most exciting stories and works with the merchant side of the business.

“It was like going from 5 mph to Mach 3 as it relates to data innovation, machine learning and artificial intelligence,” he said.

Akins oversees a team of six and is part of a team of more than 1,000 employees who work in Global Data. He reports to Ray Boyle, vice president of talent and change, who directly supports Bill Groves, chief data and analytics officer for Walmart. Akins is based at the David Glass Technology Center in Bentonville and has teams worldwide.

Akins, who is a frequent speaker at universities, expects the CEOs of the future to be data scientists and analysts. He pointed to Airbnb, with a market cap higher than hotel operator Hilton. Airbnb has zero assets, but data drives the company. The CEOs of the future will take something complicated, break it down and make value out of it.

Over the next three to five years, he looks to help Walmart become the top employer of choice for data science.

“Data is Walmart’s largest asset,” he said. “And you have to figure out the talent strategy of ensuring that these are the most cutting edge jobs in the company hands down. How are you enabling career paths? How are you recruiting from some of the largest, most prestigious academic institutions around the world into that environment?”

Recently, Akins spent nine weeks at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) participating in an entrepreneurship boot camp and working on a blockchain project. Out of 100 projects, venture capitalists selected Akins’ as one of the top three.

Education is important to him, and Akins said the opportunities in Northwest Arkansas in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) have led him to raise his children here. The Atlanta native is a founding member of the Ozark STEM Foundation and is a board member for the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, Scott Family Amazeum and MBA Alumni Advisory Board for the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.

He and his wife, Karen, have two sons, 10-year-old Henry and 6-year-old Oliver. Akins enjoys anything on two wheels, including riding mountain bikes and motorcycles.

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