Being the different one in the room is a feeling executives in Northwest Arkansas said they have experienced. Bringing attention to differences and embracing commonality was the purpose of the NWA Unity Conference held Thursday (April 28) in Springdale.
The event was organized by John Gaiters, a graduate student at the University of Arkansas and president at Trendsetters NWA. Gaiters, who is set to graduate with a master’s degree in two weeks, said the project is about connecting the sometimes forgotten or overlooked with resources and opportunities in the business world. Trendsetters is a nonprofit financially supported by corporate sponsors like Walmart, J.B. Hunt Transport, Unilever and Walton Family Foundation.
Gaiters said after graduation he will continue to mentor and consult young adults working to connect to the business world. He said his goal is to connect people and bridge conversations that break down barriers and create a more inclusive community. He said the business has been willing to lean into sometimes difficult conversations he hopes will eventually promote more regional unity.
Arkansas native Latriece Watkins, executive vice president of consumables at Walmart, grew up in McGehee, which she says is sometimes referred to as “the place on the way to somewhere else.” She said she’s often the different person in the room and it’s occurred so often in her professional life over the years she no longer thinks about it.
Watkins was part of a panel discussion led by Walmart chief financial officer Brett Biggs. She was joined by William White, chief marketing officer at Walmart, Anna Guerrero, vice president of stationery at Walmart, and Terry Thomas, chief customer officer at Unilever.
Watkins recalled an incident that happened to her as a 16-year-old waitress in McGehee. She said a couple asked her boss for another waitress. She didn’t understand what was happening until her boss stood up and said she was the best he had and if they didn’t like it they could go somewhere else. Watkins said that was her first recollection of advocacy which is an important part of inclusion and belonging. In her professional career at Walmart, Watkins said advocating for change and diversity of thought is far more common now and is moving in the right direction.
Thomas said he was raised by a single mom who didn’t graduate high school. He said great teachers invested in him but when entered high school his guidance counselor handed him a schedule.
“I had already taken some of those classes in junior high and that was not the schedule I felt would be best for a college track. Rather than be disrespectful to the counselor I reached out to a friend of mine from the other side of the tracks. We played on some of the ball teams. I asked Andy Small if I could see his schedule. Both of his parents had graduated college. For the rest of my high school time, I took whatever classes Andy took,” Thomas said.
Inclusion is being invited to a party, said Walmart’s Guerrereo.
“Being asked to dance is belonging,” she added.
Guerrero was raised in Mexico City and said she has always embraced being different. Having lived abroad for several years in Europe and Latin America, she said it was when she returned to the U.S. a few years ago that she was referred to as a “woman of color.”
“I didn’t even know what that meant,” she added. “I have often been the one with the accent or the one that wears bright colors or some other description that focuses on my difference,” she said.
Guerrero said it’s important to be yourself in a world that is constantly changing. She advocates going to the dance and dancing alone if you have to. Guerrero said having difficult conversations and modeling inclusion can be hard. She said being uncomfortable is a good place to be as it’s just part of growing pains.
Watkins said advocating for those who are not invited to the dance is also important. Thomas said in his case he would go to the dance regardless of the invitation.
“Sneak in the backdoor if you have to. But if you want to belong sometimes you have to invite yourself,” he said.
Biggs said he was in his 40s before he experienced being the different one in the room. Admittedly, he said, it was uncomfortable but also eye-opening. Biggs said it was that experience that prompted him to become involved with the National Urban League which is now a board member.
White said everyone is on a journey and at different places along the way. White’s advice to the students at the event was to be curious and have conversations at each stage in their journey. He said curious minds allow for learning and growth. Thomas also advised the students to find their anchor or north star that can keep them grounded in a fast and furious world.