The Power Of Culture, Diversity, and Inclusion at Walmart Labs

Bringing The Community Together: The Power Of Culture, Diversity, and Inclusion was an event sponsored by Walmart Labs in Carlsbad, where Walmart executive team members gave a deep-dive panel discussion about culture, diversity, and inclusion at Walmart and beyond.

Walmart Labs teams “develop industry-changing innovations to make on and off-line shopping a more seamless experience for millions of daily shoppers” and include brands such as Jet, Modcloth, Hayneedle, MooseJaw, Shoes.com, and JetBlack. The Carlsbad office opened about six years ago and the team has been working to bring the community together, as the event title says.

Claude Jones, Sr. Director of Engineering – Experience Tools, moderated the panel. In addition to his role at Walmart Labs, he runs the Elevate Foundation and is the founder of San Diego Tech Hub.

The panelists were:

  • Ben Hasan, SVP Chief Culture Diversity & Inclusion Officer
  • Jae Evans, SVP | Global Infrastructure Engineering and Operations
  • Rahul Joshi, SVP | Walmart eCommerce Customer Care
  • Aanan Contractor, VP | Customer Experience Engineering

Claude said he hoped to have an open and honest dialogue about how can we start change, because everyone in the audience was a leader in their respective areas, dealing with some of the same challenges that Walmart faces.

Defining Diversity and Inclusion

The panelists introduced themselves, starting with Ben Hasan, responsible for culture, diversity, and inclusion. He explained that these are commonly used terms in corporate environments, however, each company approaches them a bit differently. Ben spent 33 years in tech, and about four years ago, he was asked to take this job at Walmart. “And so as technologists, one of the things we wanted to do was be perfectly clear in the definitions … We were purposeful in the definition because it includes everybody … We believe that diversity is the identities, experiences, styles, abilities, and perspectives of our workforce.” Walmart’s definition of inclusion is ”the intentional act of understanding, supporting, and championing individuals in all their uniqueness, so that our culture then becomes a place where people can come to work every day and feel comfortable, and welcome, as whoever they are, and reach their own potential. We’ve been very specific, because it’s different than the way most people think.”

Ben said when he first took the job, the employee resource group meetings would be filled with women and people of color, which he compared to preaching to the choir. “So one of our objectives is how do we get people who feel like they’re excluded from the discussion, into the discussion?”

Jae, SVP of Global Infrastructure Engineering and Operations, was asked to provide insight on the various programs she’s been involved in at Walmart, and how Walmart upholds a diversity standard. She said as a woman in tech, she’s very passionate about that space. “What I love about it is that women and men are allies, and are actually coming and creating more grassroots type of programs and organizations that then come and ask, can I help sponsor? Versus me saying top down, we will create a program.” She’s also an executive sponsor for Ecommerce in an African American business resource group. “We’re partnering to help with pipeline and bringing talent into Walmart, from an inclusion and diversity perspective. We’re also adding other meetings internally to talk about things we need to do very intentionally, purposefully, from a retention perspective to help grow and develop our existing associates as well. So we’re really looking at this programmatically, but it also has a very grassroots, natural way to do it organically.”

Walmart is a (Diverse) Nation

Aanan has worked at Walmart for three years and said, “It didn’t occur to me at the time that Walmart is a nation. We will talk about it at scale, but it is a nation. And so this dialogue that we’re having, is really elevated at that level, where as a nation it’s not just about gender diversity, not just about ethnic diversity, it’s about diversity of anything and everything that you do.”

Walmart is the world’s number one retailer, and recently in Bentonville, Arkansas the executive team was having a dialogue with newly promoted officers, “from the get go, from

the onboarding process, about defining culture and diversity inclusion.” That was very encouraging for Aanan to see during the beginning of her time at the company. Ben, SVP Chief Culture Diversity & Inclusion Officer, was one of the first people she met while onboarding.

Aanan said their biggest customer persona is the busy mom, who needs a diverse team of individuals to anticipate her needs and make her shopping experience easier and better.

Walmart Labs Diversity Inclusion

Diversity is Not Fluff

The next question asked about individuals who see diversity initiatives as a bunch of fluff to make people feel warm and fuzzy, and asked what strategies Walmart uses to address that concern.

Rahul said that it’s a big challenge which can be solved by bringing it back to the benefits of the business. As Walmart Labs, a startup division within the company, was starting to scale, they talked to the teams and “thought about different backgrounds, different ideas, different experiences that people would bring, to help us scale. To that point, the widget builders and the skills that you need to build a place and scale it are quite different. And then as I began to introduce new ideas and concepts, to the folks that had indicated that I could actually have the conversation.” He said you don’t need to be in a startup to do this, he’s worked in more traditional companies that have done this at scale, bringing together the idea of diversity of thought as the way to lead the conversation. Not focusing on having more diversity just because it’s “nice” and the right thing to do, but ensuring diversity is making sure you are bringing in the most talented people to do the work you need, since that talent can come from different kinds of people.

Unconscious Bias – Fast Brain and Slow Brain

Rahul spoke about how a Lyft driver told him about being a devotee of a guru, about how in a past life he was born in India, and Raul said that’s fantastic but was embarrassed that he may not be able to answer this guy’s questions since he didn’t grow up in India. He also spoke about how people’s first impressions of him are that he is a doctor or engineer, because of the stereotypes or bias on how he looks.

Later, Ben explained that just because the people in this room probably think diversity and inclusion is important and don’t need science to prove it to them, there are some people who actually do not understand why it is not fluff.

Walmart is working with neuroscientists such as Dr. Steve Robbins, who says that the brain operates on an efficiency principle, it is literally 2% of your body mass, and uses 20% of the energy. And so your brain is constantly looking for shortcuts. Your brain has both a fast brain and a slow brain, where the fast brain can process hundreds or thousands of pieces of data in a second. Your slow brain can process 40 pieces of data in a second. Being rational and working things out the right way happens in the slow brain, but you spend 90% of your day in your fast brain, and that’s where all of your unconscious biases come from. “So what we’re trying to educate leaders on is the fact that that it happens, we all have biases. And you also have to say, from a scientific standpoint, bias is neither good or bad. You can get a good outcome from your bias. It’s a balance,” Ben said.  He believes that the most “insidious” place that bias exists in corporate America is along the HR process, how you recruit, hire, promote, compensate, and more.

Identifying Unconscious Bias

Ben explained that when you see your favorite sports players on stage or on the field and you ask how did they do that, what you don’t see is when they’re offstage practicing. They become better because they practice. So you have to practice identifying your biases. And then you have to practice slowing down and asking yourself, ‘are my biases making decisions about people and choosing people were all like me?’

Teaching Girls to Be Brave, No Perfect (Quoting the book from Reshma Saujani)

Aanan spoke about the lack of women in technology due to the role of generations of society gender roles and bias, and about how she has a daughter and son. “They’re playing in the playground, and I teach my girl to be careful. And I teach my boy to be brave, try that Monkey Bar…”

Another common story about gender bias she told is about a car accident where the father dies, them the son is taken to the hospital and the surgeon comes in and says that “I cannot operate because that’s my son”…it takes our brains a minute to figure out the surgeon is his mother, because we’re used to seeing surgeons as male.

“It exists in all of us. And we really need to break it down consciously,” she said. Jae spoke about another exercise they practiced as a work meeting, she said, “It was a big awakening. And that’s the big part to me, it starts with the awareness. We all have unconscious biases, which we all talked about an experience … I’m the one who’s actually working in a profession, my husband is actually the one who’s at home with my two children right now. This is the kind of life that we’re living, but yet I still had that unconscious bias in myself.”

How to Address Bias in an Organization

Ben said he’s an IT guy at heart and business person first, so you have to address it from a system standpoint. One approach is asking how to get diversity and inclusion out of the diversity inclusion office and into the systems that affect people. The HR systems are probably the place to start, he said. Taking a look at where you’re recruiting from, asking what is the diversity of the finance people at the places that you recruit from, does the diversity of the campus actually represent the diversity you want in your organization, and if it doesn’t, add another campus to your list. “I think you have to systematically go after the places where you can actually impact and make a difference.”

Rahul said that people that he worked for often said they found this great person, they’ve got great experience. But those people basically look like you, so that was the easy decision to make. He said you should then push back and say we should get 10 other prospects. “And then it turns out when you look for 10 other people, you certainly get a lot more diversity. But more importantly, you get the best talent that’s available to do the job, and not the easiest person to find.”

Be Willing to Listen to Crazy Ideas

Ben also says to address bias you’ve got to be willing to listen to different points of view. He spoke about a woman who is a buyer for bakery cakes at Walmart, who had an idea that the stores should sell sweet potato pies. She first was almost chased out of a room. Then she partnered with Patti LaBelle on the pie, got it approved, “and we made billions of dollars on what showed up in a room as a crazy idea from a diverse person who no one wanted to listen to what she was saying,” he said.

“We have customers in every ethnicity, every gender, every religious belief, sexual persuasion, and we want all those customers. And we can only serve them if we have people like them in our company. And we believe that talent lives everywhere. In every one of those groups, there’s talent. And if we don’t have those groups represented, then we’re missing out,” Ben said.

Walmart hires 500,000 people a year. “We want them to be able to come in, feel welcome, comfortable, and safe to be their whole selves every day, and then they will also want to provide better services. Now we don’t always get it right … bad people get in. And it’s our responsibility to get them out as fast as we can,” Ben said.

What role does inclusion play the talent and career progression in Walmart?

Ben said it is very effective, it is quite data driven. They look at who the person is, what they really did, how did they perform, against the goals that were given to them. Then compared the ratings data to diversity data to make sure biases were not occuring and if they were, correcting them. “I actually have to take this data into the room directors, sometimes three times. And because I’m a tech guy, that’s where I started, I actually can talk to the data scientists. I can tell you, by ethnicity, by gender, how people feel about the culture, because we actually track that. I can tell you how they how they feel, by all those different isms, by department. One of our best practices is that when managers do their evaluations, and then they go into what we call calibration sessions, a group of about 100 will get together and actually look at the curve of ratings. We’re hoping for a normal distribution of the rankings, and we figured you have a group of statistical significant around 100, you expect to have a normal distribution of ratings. Even at Harvard, where the smartest people go, there’s a normal distribution. And so that’s our expectation. But then the other filter is we will say, ‘Okay, let’s put a diversity and inclusion lens on the ratings.’ The first couple times you do that, it’s not surprising, all the guys have all the high ratings, and all the women got all lower ratings. Remember, I told you how great athletes are great because they practice in the dark, and they perform on stage. So this ability to actually practice looking at the ratings in a way that you say, ‘okay, is this reality?’ And once people start stopping and thinking through it, they say ‘let’s take another look at it, make sure we get it right.’ And over time, having these conversations actually helps create a more inclusive environment around ratings, how people are compensated, but it takes work.”

Diversity at Job Interviews

Jae said it’s also important that the job interview panel be diverse and that the company is very deliberate about who is part of that interview panel, to prevent diverse candidates from feeling excluded or unwelcome while being interviewed by an all-white male panel. “We have a lot of different cultures within our company, because we have a lot of different locations, so also giving associates opportunities to meet with candidates from different locations is also another something we do about diversity and inclusion.”

Audience Questions

How is Walmart promoting young people into leadership positions, considering the widening of the workforce as people are retiring later?

Ben said he thought they were going to talk about age from the standpoint of Baby Boomers, but this question was saying that young people may not be getting opportunities to lead since the older generation hasn’t retired yet and made room for advancement. Ben said there’s a large percentage of Gen X and Gen Y managers in the company, that Walmart knows the future is not possible without that next generation. The 77,000 leaders at the company are required to mentor at least two people that are not like themselves for a year. “That’s another way that we try to make sure we’re spending time with folks who might be new to the workforce, versus folks who might be experience workers.”

Rahul said, “The thing that is fascinating about this place is that I believe you will find that many people in significant positions started as employees in high school, in college, in the backroom. Think about running a Walmart store. That is an incredible challenge and a lot of people get to do that, at a relatively young stage of their career. Managing a Walmart store is not just managing, it’s managing the workforce, it’s managing people, big budgets, and more. There’s no better training. Our CEO started in a store as a young person … those stores could have $200 million a year in revenue, and 400 to 600 employees … with a six digit salary plus bonus.”

Why did you choose Carlsbad and how can you find the talent that fits all the above diverse requirements? [implying that he only sees white people here – which was later contested by others in the audience saying if he travels east of the 5 he will find a lot of racial diversity]

Claude said he worked for Yahoo Finance, and said a senior leader at Walmart saw things getting saturated in the Bay Area and thought to take a look at San Diego. Walmart Labs went from 13 people to a 16,000 square foot building, to a 90,000 square foot building. They now have a diversity, cultural summit, where they are inviting people in. “Walmart is looking at hiring over 200 associates here, and looking to expand and grow the efforts on behalf of our partners and network that we built. We are looking to hire diverse individuals. And when we talk about what diversity means, you have each of these leaders up here saying diversity isn’t about minorities. Diversity isn’t about whether you’re white, or black, or female. There’s a lot of folks with autism that we have hired, we talked about veterans, we talked about other routes outside of what we traditionally think about diversity. So if we change the perspective of what we think about diversity, instead of just being women in tech, or a black male, that’s what Walmart Labs is trying to do here. We’re trying to change the way that we think about the person that’s challenging the status quo.”

Walmart has always been a leader and creating opportunities for people with disabilities, specifically those developmental disabilities. What are you doing for the neuro diverse, people with autism? Does Walmart have any plans for any corporate autism at work initiatives?

Yes, at Walmart corporate there are numerous accessibility of the workplace, software, etc. examples the panel mentioned, such as a blind employee who writes one of the panel members’ speeches, employees with service dogs, and more. There is an employee group within Walmart working on a white paper and a recommendation for the CEO for associates with disabilities. At the Arkansas headquarters, there is a sensory room built for employees with autism. A panelist said Walmart is launching its very first Autism Awareness Month and working on some initiatives right now about autism.

An audience member who is a CEO of an inclusivity-focused company said, “This is what I do. I just want you to look at these panelists, because these people are part of strategy and infrastructure, they are not just HR, they are global infrastructure, they are in customer experience, they are in really strategic places in the organization. So when we look to what top organizations are doing, we want to see these examples because as women, as people of color, we want to look up and be able to say, ‘I see my face up there, and that makes it possible.’ “… then she spoke about how in top organizations, 50% of employees at the bottom are women, but they lose 33% people of color and women in middle management, who never make it to senior leadership. Looking at the talent pipeline and where it is leaking is important as well, using Jae’s example of first of all, to have diverse people in our organization, we have to actually interview diverse candidates and when we actually interview them, we have to see multiple kinds of faces around, not just white males, in the talent pipeline as we go along. Evaluate what the company is doing for performance evaluations, educating our leaders to give women and people of color stretch assignments so that they can prove their leadership, what they are doing all the way through succession planning, so that we can actually intervene and do something about the lack of diversity.

Ben said that a year ago someone in one of the senior councils asked why Walmart was so secretive with the diversity data, why most organizations don’t share that data, why it is hidden in the diversity office then reported to the CEO once a year as a big secret. “So he said, ‘if you’re serious about this, you can share the data.’ And we built a tool that allows every officer of the company to see the diversity data in the organization. And the more I thought about that as we got pushed, and they see the numbers, this is actually worked out really well. They have the ability to see it, along with their HR leaders, and then develop their own customized plans for the business function based on what the data is telling them.” The data and diversity statistics are also public record on the corporate Walmart website.

A lot of times in major big companies, they hire heads of diversity and inclusion or culture that don’t understand or have a knowledge base of every culture or of diversity. So they’re a figurehead. How do you deal with those issues and not becoming a figurehead?

Ben said after 30 plus years in business he was asked to be chief of diversity, and he turned it down because he had a really cool job leading people in three cities and thought, “Why would I want to do that?” “But I’ll tell you that I’ve found my passion. And I’m a business person first. I went to undergraduate school with a computer science major. I’ve got a master’s degree, I spent several weeks in Harvard’s Advanced Management Program two years ago. Being a business person brings a set of credibility that diversity and inclusion leaders don’t always get. [The person from Walmart recruiting him] said, ‘I want you to take the job, because I believe people will listen to you, as you learn. Because you’re a business person, and you’re not theoretical, you’re going to talk about how this makes us a better business. And that’s what it’s all about. We are not a diversity inclusion organization. That’s not what we do. We’re a retailer, we buy stuff, we mark it up a little bit …That’s what we do. And we’re pretty good at it. But we believe that this notion of inclusion is important, particularly as the workforce is changing.’ And he said that 10 years from now, there are jobs that will exist and don’t we don’t even know what they are. And many jobs today won’t exist. But we believe fundamentally that companies that can get the people part of the equation right are going to be in it for the long term, because you’re still going to need people, they’ll just do different things.”

On a question about not painting diversity with a broad brush, Ben said, “We don’t we talk about the work with a broad brush. We also have been spending some time and focus specifically on the black experience. There’s a group that we’ve been working with, out of Greensboro, North Carolina, they called the Racial Equity Institute, they’ve met with leaders now twice at Walmart, they’re coming back two more times. We’re trying to convince the team on the West coast and the East coast as well. [They’ve spoken about how] racial inequity exists in all the systems in corporate America: the justice system, the financial systems, the childcare system, education systems … So you will need to address the systems before you can address the problem.” He also talked about two schools of thought on race in the U.S.: one is just get over it, and then the other one is ‘Why don’t they get it?’ He said we never have spent time as a country talking about what ‘it’ is. “And so this piece of work we’re doing is actually focusing on this notion of having a conversation about race, the origin of race in the U.S. … I believe that if you don’t talk about it, you can’t actually do anything.”

How is Walmart handling customer service and artificial intelligence at the intersection of predictive analytics, big data, and cultural factors? How effective is the technology because at the end of the day, it’s people, and it’s emotional, and the more emotional needs make things better.

Aanan said they recently spoke about bias in artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is as good as the person who writes it. So if an engineer is biased, they are going to unknowingly write that bias into the AI program. AI is directed by the data. It depends on what your exposure of the data, in the software, provides. It takes time to train the AI, the rules that gets created based on that data are also being transmitted. “So at the end of the day, all these efforts of bringing in diverse engineers start to pay off.”

Jae spoke about one accessibility and technology aspect of the store: grocery delivery or delivery to the car, for less mobile customers. Robotics are being used more in stores for some of the repeatable tasks that associates are spending a lot of time on, and not spending enough time helping customers, so human associates can now spend more time working on accessibility and the customers’ needs.

What is Walmart doing for veterans and their families?

They have 194,000 vets and just launched a program on Veterans’ Day that if the vet was honorably discharged, Walmart guaranteed to find jobs for them and their spouse. The panelists weren’t sure about service animals for store employees but at least one corporate employee has a service animal for a visual disability.

One panelist compared their past job of working on voting technology to their current job at Walmart, saying people in the U.S. vote every few years but buy groceries multiple times a week. Walmart is touching millions of people on a daily basis. Technology is really enabling them to reach people that struggle to get their groceries. “So it’s not just about the organization that you’re building, but it’s all the also the technology that you’re building and how it changes people’s lives. And I think we have a great opportunity to do that here. And I think all of you in your area is probably have the same opportunity, if you can identify those needs and challenges of the community, there are ways that you can make your products more accessible to those people.”

Ben quoted someone he works with as saying, “‘We don’t really have a diversity and inclusion problem, we have open-mindedness problem.’ People don’t want to be uncomfortable, to listen to other parts of you, to things you don’t want to hear. So how do you actually make that transition from always operating in your fast brain, and actually transition yourself to operating in a slow brain? It forces you to think. For example, think about multiplying 24 times 68 and you immediately go into your slow brain. It is something you really have to practice. Take small steps.”

How do you suggest we [diverse people/women/etc.] rise out of middle management and into the senior leadership?

Try to find a champion, find someone you can connect with who sees certainly abilities, who is more data driven about what you accomplished, Aanan said. Oftentimes we’re preaching to the choir, but it’s the people that are in more homogenous roles or environments, or in the unconscious bias that they’re not even realizing, how do you get their attention? “I have a champion who was able to sponsor me in a way that he thought more about what I could deliver than I thought I could do, and asked me to take on some stretch goals that I didn’t think I was capable of doing. He saw something, I was fortunate to find someone like that, who helped me. And as a result of that, I had additional responsibilities.” It doesn’t have to someone at a higher level than you. “So if I think about myself early on as a prototype manager, I would go into some of the meetings and I would sit on the edge and nod until someone gave me a little nudge, waiting for someone to say, why don’t you come join us on the table. And that became my mantra moving forward, that when I see someone who’s sitting behind, doesn’t matter who they are, I invite them on the table”. She also used to be hesitant about talking in meetings until a champion started encouraging her. “He would send me text messages like, ‘Girl, you’re on fire.’ She said she wouldn’t be sitting here today, and talking to the audience and running a worldwide dotcom without that sponsor.

Three themes for the evening

Claude closed the evening listing three themes:

  • When we think about diversity and inclusion, it’s very focused on exactly what that means, not limiting ourselves to just women or minorities, we think more broadly about what that looks like.
  • Think about unconscious bias, being conscious about it, and how it takes practice.
  • It starts with you. Each one of the attendees was there for a reason. Think about how every person could take this knowledge and apply it to what they know, in a position of leadership.

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