Immersion and Exposure

When Sharon Orlopp was 12, her parents moved the family from a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood to one that was mostly African American and Latino. Active in the civil rights movement, they believed their children should live more closely with people different 
from them.

Orlopp, who today is global chief diversity officer for Walmart’s 2.2 million employees, credits that early experience with helping her feel comfortable interacting with people from many backgrounds and sharpening her awareness of exclusion.

Diversity Woman spoke to Orlopp about how her early experiences influence her work at Walmart.

Diversity Woman: What is the idea behind Walmart’s diversity “immersion field trips”?
Sharon Orlopp: I kept thinking about what my parents did for us—immersed us in situations where we looked different from everybody else. That’s how I came up with the idea.
Our signature trip was to Montgomery, Alabama. We took about 20 people, including the CEO and his leadership team. We went to the Martin Luther King parsonage, the Rosa Parks Museum, the Southern Poverty Law Center. The people on that trip, regardless of their background, were really moved. If you touch the heart, you can change behavior.

What diversity metrics are most important to measure?
SO: Retention is the moneyball stat. Getting people in the door is the easy part. Retaining, developing, and pulling them through the talent pipeline are more of a challenge.
When we look at management positions in the US, we’ve seen strong progress. Our female store managers in the last 10 years went from 18 to 27 percent; people of color store managers went from 12 to 21 percent.
The one that gets overlooked is women of color. [They] have not made nearly the progress of white women. Our representation of women of color is typically double that of all industries in the US, but it’s still small. We need to focus on that.

Have you identified strategies?
SO: We will be engaging in a project with Springboard Consulting. They will be interviewing women of color at different levels in the organization and their peers and supervisors.

DW: Other priorities in the next couple of years?
SO: We’re continuing to work on leadership competencies around inclusion. For example, speak up, speak out. Ask quiet associates for their opinion. And my favorite: never let anyone sit alone.
I’m also passionate about building strong relationships in communities. When Ferguson [the Missouri town in which an African American man was fatally shot by a Caucasian policeman] happened, we held open-dialogue sessions where we could just talk about what’s going on. We are looking at, how do you make it okay to have conversations about [tough issues] and still have respect and inclusion?

Walmart was the subject of a class action suit alleging discrimination against women. How did the suit affect the company’s D&I activities?
SO: A handful of women had concerns, but I don’t know that they were representative of the large body of women in the organization who have had a lot of opportunities.

DW: Did the suit cause Walmart to make any shifts?
SO: No. We already had a strong nondiscrimination policy and a lot in the culture around respect for the individual. What surprised me most when I joined the company was the dichotomy between how we’re portrayed in the press versus how our associates feel about us.

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