Women in Northwest Arkansas celebrate successes, discuss career paths

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,785 views 

(from left) Prathibha Rajashekhar, Sam’s Club senior vice president sourcing and private brands, and Angie Cooper, executive director of Heartland Forward, spoke at the 2021 NWA Business Women’s Conference in Bentonville on Tuesday (Sept. 14).

Women of all ages, ethnicities and professions are taking time this week to celebrate successes, discuss challenges and continued work toward gender equality and empowerment at the Northwest Arkansas Business Women’s Conference.

The conference is going on Monday through Wednesday this week through multiple in-person and virtual events. More than 10,000 participants have joined this year’s hybrid conference and several hundred took part in the in-person event held in downtown Bentonville Tuesday (Sept 14).

Laura Rush, vice president of frozen foods at Walmart, was the opening keynote speaker and shared her personal struggles with a busy calendar that was running her life before COVID-19 stopped the world in its tracks. Rush said it wasn’t until her entire calendar for the busy family and herself was wiped out that she realized all she had been denying herself. As a manager, Rush said she was proud of having an open door and consequently was often distracted by near-constant visits from co-workers.

“When I began working at home, literally half my day was freed up, I scheduled purposeful meetings and took time for myself to walk or bike with my kids, my mom and my friends,” she said.

In that time, Rush said, she also began reflecting, planning and problem-solving. She admits there were plenty of huge issues that had to be solved as the pandemic persisted, but Rush said she was happier about the work and more able to give 100% as she was no longer saying “Yes” to everything. Her advice to the professionals was take time to truly unwind and get away from the work that will always be there.

“Schedule the vacation and take it, really take it and unplug from email and get away. It will all be there when you return and you will get more accomplished because you have been recharged,” Rush said.

Other words of advice and support came from Angie Cooper, chief program officer of Heartland Forward, and Prathibha Rajashekhar, Sam’s Club senior vice president sourcing and private brands.

Cooper said she spent 17 years at Walmart, first miscast in the merchandising department upon graduating college. Just as she was about to quit nine months into the job, her supervisor encouraged her to transition to the retailer’s then small corporate affairs division. Cooper said having interned in Washington, D.C., she felt at home in that role which at times had plenty of challenges. Cooper said she made lateral moves at times to get to work in areas of interest and she never regretted those experiences because they paid off down the line.

Rajashekhar said her one goal growing up in India was to become a financially self-sufficient woman so she focused on education. She got a computer science degree and did some work in the manufacturing industry but realized she needed to better understand how business decisions were made so she began working on a master’s degree in business administration when her daughter was two. After getting the degree, Rajashekar said she first sought a job with Procter & Gamble as a brand manager, but they were not hiring. Her second choice was Walmart, where she signed on as a technologist just to get her foot in the door.

“My fear was that I would die in technology, and I wanted to work in areas closer to the consumers. I was a technology manager for 11 months but then an opportunity came open for me to run business strategy for back-office operations at Walmart. That got me closer to customers as I scouted locations for customer support centers across the world,” she said.

Then she got an opportunity for promotion to supply chain strategy. Laughing, she said she could spell “supply chain” but that was about it. But as a strategic thinker she quickly saw the responsibility of next-generation supply chain strategy and how close that was to the customer. A few years later she was asked to work in human resources in an analytics role.

“I couldn’t see how that was going to help me, but a mentor told me to take the job because it was at the officer level. I took it and worked on some specific tasks in HR and it was in that role I made the contacts to make the move to Sam’s Club to oversee sourcing and private brands.  All the roles I had better prepared me for my responsibilities today,” she said.

Walmart International CEO Judith McKenna was the final keynote of the day who joined the event virtually through a fireside chat with Blake Woolsey of Heartland Forward. McKenna oversees more than 550,000 employees in 23 countries. She said people around the world are more alike than they are different. Now into the second year of a global pandemic, McKenna said there were huge lessons learned in the past 18 months. She said resilience of people to keep stores, distribution centers and fulfillment centers running has been unprecedented. She said Walmart looked to partners, suppliers and others for solutions when trying to navigate the unknown and no one had all the answers. She said it became even more important for businesses to give employees space to create, think outside the box and innovate, sometimes fail and start over to ensure the solutions were reached.

“If you have a North Star with a purpose and the shackles are taken off your talent will solve the issues. We knew we needed to blend stores with online grocery around the world but thought we had three years to do it. We quickly saw we had just two weeks to get it done in markets like Latin America,” McKenna said.

She was asked about women taking time off with family during COVID and how that might reflect on their resumes when it comes time to return to work. McKenna said to take the time when you need it.

“The single thing the world will never have enough of is great talent. If you were valuable before COVID that has not changed. Get back on the wagon when you want. Network your way back if you have to but the work will always be there,” she said.

Also at Tuesday’s event, Bianca Montoya, director of communications and marketing for BikeNWA, was honored by the Inseitz Group as the Emerging Leader of the Year. Catherine Grubbs, executive director of Circle of Life Hospice, received the 2021 Woman of the Year Award presented by FlyXNA. A final day of events that focuses on small business and entrepreneurship will take place Wednesday (Sept. 15).