Located in a largely rural, somewhat Southern and almost Midwest region, Tyson Foods and Walmart are each striving to become more inclusive companies, according to local execs who took part in a recent business diversity discussion in Bentonville.
The event was sponsored by the Northwest Arkansas Chapter of National Association of Black Accountants and the University of Arkansas Department of Counseling. Taking part in the panel discussion was Brandi Joplin, chief financial officer for Sam’s Club, Steve Gibbs, chief accounting officer at Tyson Foods, Barbara Marchini-Ellis, partner at Ernst & Young, and Barbara Lofton, director of diversity and inclusion for the Walton College, at the UA.
Kim Smith, an executive in the global income compliance group at Walmart, was the moderator for the panel. Smith said she’s a recent transplant from Chicago to Northwest Arkansas.
Gibbs said he joined Tyson Foods in December 2018 from Keruig Green Mountain Coffee where he was based in Vermont. When asked by Smith to rate Tyson’s diversity and inclusiveness as a corporation, Gibbs said there is still work to do. He said geographically, Tyson is challenged in because of where some plants are located. He said the beef and pork business is headquartered in Dakota Dunes, S.D., and that area, in general, is not as ethnically diverse as the prepared foods headquarters in Chicago.
Gibbs said Tyson has made great strides in having a diversified board of directors, but moving down the ladder it gets harder to do in some locations. Gibbs also warned that a diversified team based on skin color is just one layer. He said diversity of thought, age and experiences are equally as important. He made the point that his children have been in private schools in the Northeast most of their lives which have largely shaped their experiences. Just because they have dark skin doesn’t mean they will have different viewpoints.
Gibbs said there is more Tyson could do on the diversity front across the corporation. He said Tyson does not have a chief diversity officer that reports to the CEO as does Walmart with Ben-Saba Hasan. At the top executive level of executive vice president or group vice president, there are 12 positions under CEO Noel White. Seven of them are near-middle-age white males, three are women, one is Asian and there are two younger males, one black and one white. Gibbs said Tyson is working toward more diversity but progress takes time and focus.
Joplin, who has worked at Walmart and now Sam’s Club, said she enjoys overseeing diverse teams because that’s where the strongest ideas are born. She also admitted it can be a challenge to become truly inclusive. Joplin said Walmart made a conscious effort toward diversity and inclusion, but carrying out across such a giant corporation has its challenges. Joplin said diversity and inclusion can happen organically when leaders begin to become more open to discussing unconscious bias.
Gibbs said one way he deals with overcoming unconscious bias at Tyson Foods is by opening his week-day lunches up to eat with anyone in the company who books an hour with him. He admitted that getting to know people over lunch is the best way he has found to work against unconscious bias.
“Just when I think I am eating with another duck hunter enthusiast, it turns out I find some really interesting facts and have insightful discussions. Taking time to know people is the best way I have found to overcome unconscious bias,” Gibbs said.
Joplin said she assembled a team at Walmart she was sure was diverse in thought. She was cautioned by her boss that the group looked a lot like she did.
“I was able to prove him wrong, but we were so diverse in thought it was hard to get to a consensus solution. There were so many different viewpoints with strong arguments it made it hard to decide which way to go. It took some time, but I feel like we did get to the best solutions in the end,” Joplin said.
Barbara Marchini-Ellis, a partner at Ernst & Young, said there have times in her 30 -year career where women were not seen as equal. She said it’s important for women and minority men to mentor others and sponsor them to help to push strong candidates for promotion.
Gibbs said he also believes in modeling inclusive behaviors, a practice he does at Tyson Foods. When he joined the business he wanted to hear from more women in the department, and asked to attend a working-moms group meeting at the company. He was told the group was really just for women who came to vent frustrations. Gibbs said he told organizers to advertise that he was attending and see what happened.
Gibbs said many women attended and he listened to the frustrations. Half were job-related and the other half dealt with home life. He took out a whiteboard and made notes of the things he could fix or get fixed for them.
“Some of the complaints were about being chided for having to take time off with a sick child. That had to stop. Tyson has a large enough staff to handle someone being gone an afternoon or day or two with a sick child. By talking through the issues we were able to handle just about everything work-related. I told them they were on their own when it came to husband issues,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs said he virtually attended his son’s soccer on a tablet in his office with sound up loud so everyone would see it’s acceptable to be part of the family experiences at work. He said he told his team they were to get their work done on time, but he doesn’t mandate a set work schedule. Gibbs said the best advice he could give any young person looking for work is to be their true self. He said to invest in skills that can set you apart, but in the end, find a job that’s a good culture fit.
“The shortest time I have worked for a company was 4 months. My skills are too valuable to waste on a company that is not a good fit for me. Be your true self,” Gibbs said.