Jessie Spellman reflects on her personal DEI journey, and the complex and rewarding work she leads to operationalize bold DEI commitments at Walmart.
Walmart is #1 on the Fortune 500, making it the biggest company in the world by revenue and by workforce. The company employs 2.3 million people worldwide, and 1.7 million people in the United States. As we think about creating equity through employment, this scale represents tremendous potential. Walmart has begun to realize this potential to make an impact on associates and workforce issues in myriad ways, through both their business practices and their philanthropic efforts.
Through these efforts, Walmart is part of a growing movement within the private sector. More and more companies are committing to leverage their roles as employers to create greater equity and economic opportunity for all Americans. And, as we’re seeing through the OneTen coalition, as many employers are strategically creating equity through employment for Black Americans. With the median white family having $184,000 in wealth in 2019 compared to just $38,000 for the median Black family, this kind of focused intervention will lead to greater mobility and inclusion for all workers.
As the company with the largest frontline workforce in the country, Walmart has a unique opportunity to invest in upskilling and internal mobility to drive economic equity and meet their OneTen commitment of employing Black Americans in family-sustaining roles. For many years, Walmart has been working to accelerate the advancement of its frontline associates through its Live Better U (LBU) program. What began as a tuition assistance program is now a robust career mobility program with incredible outcomes: 89,000 associates are currently enrolled in one of more than 75 program offerings, where Walmart pays 100% of tuition and books. More than 15,500 have graduated.
Additionally, Walmart sees rate of retention four times higher when their associates participate in LBU and Black associates who participate are 87% more likely to receive a promotion than Black associates who do not. As an active member of OneTen, the company is leading the coalition’s retention and advancement working group to innovate new ways of supporting associates.
Grads of Life had a chance to sit down with Jessie Spellman, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Walmart, to better understand the changes she is pursuing from the inside – and the perspectives she brings to this work. Jessie comes to Walmart after spending more than 5 years in consulting at Bain & Company, and before that working as a teacher through Teach for America. Now, as part of her role at Walmart, Jessie serves as the company’s “Operational Lead” for its OneTen coalition commitment – a person designated at each OneTen member company to drive change and meet coalition commitments.
We at Grads of Life have had the pleasure of working with Jessie in our role supporting OneTen members and are excited to share below a transcript of our candid and insightful conversation.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. The following content reflects Jessie’s views and does not represent Walmart.
Q: Tell us about how you ended up here. What led you to doing this work at Walmart?
JS: As a white person who grew up in a suburb of NYC, I was ignorant and naïve when it came to race. In college, I quickly realized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not fix everything like my public school taught me, and I dove in head to first to learn why American cities remained so segregated 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement. I was convinced about the power of education, so I decided to become a teacher and I taught middle school math in Philadelphia. I quickly realized two things: First, teaching wasn’t the best use of the unearned advantages of my identity. I wasn’t from the neighborhood; I didn’t live in the neighborhood; all of my students were Black and most of the teachers were white women like me. Secondly, I wasn’t gaining the skills I needed to enact change at scale.
I became more and more convinced that our companies and corporations in the U.S. had the biggest ability to make the biggest change.
Q: You mentioned your experience teaching and I understand you have a range of different experiences prior to Walmart. I’d love to hear a bit more about your background and what you bring from your previous experiences to your current role?
JS: After teaching, I decided to go into management consulting because that would give me the broadest exposure to the most industries and a strong business acumen. I looked at my time in management consulting as business boot camp. I had only had experience in community organizing and public education before I went into management consulting. While working in consulting, many of the initiatives and programs I began to run were DEI programs, we just didn’t call them that at the time. After several years as a management consultant, I decided to get my MBA because I believed that I needed more corporate experience, and, frankly, more corporate credibility.
Even though the moral imperative is what drives me to do this work personally, I recognized that we also need to prove how it impacts the business in order to make real change so that’s what I was driving toward.
After I did my MBA, I went back to consulting for a few more years, and was able to do some more explicit diversity and inclusion work there before transitioning to Walmart.
On Walmart’s strengths and opportunities
Q: We’ve been seeing so much in the way of corporate commitments to DEI over the last few years. How would you characterize Walmart’s commitments in this realm?
JS: Walmart and the Walmart Foundation committed $100 million over 5 years and created the Center for Racial Equity focused on eradicating systematic disparities experienced by Black and African American communities in the United States. Walmart also invested in North Carolina A&T State University, the nation’s largest HBCU.
CEO, Doug McMillon, established the President’s Inclusion Council, which is made up of senior executives across the company working on various initiatives that they present to Doug. There are several initiatives that show up there; for example, I’m involved in a working group focused on making Walmart a more accessible and inclusive place. The group aspires to make Walmart the best place to work and shop for people with disabilities. Walmart is also taking a shared value approach to help address the root causes of racial disparities across social systems while seeking to generate business value such as competitive advantage, innovation and return on investment.
Walmart’s commitment to the environment also deserves a spotlight here because of the intersectionality of environmental justice. Walmart has championed The Gigaton Initiative to remove one gigaton of carbon from the atmosphere to address the climate crisis.
Q: What would you say is the current state of progress on those commitments?
JS: Walmart is not only a leading retailer, but also a leading company in this country and around the world. Walmart is doing amazing things and is absolutely a leader in this space. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be to drive this change, though Walmart, like every organization, still has many more opportunities to go even further.
Q: Where do you think Walmart is a leader in its industry when it comes to workforce equity and DEI? Where do you think it has room to grow?
I think about DEI progress as a spectrum: awareness, empathy, then action.
I would guess that many leaders in corporate America are aware of some of these major inequities – though there’s a real lack of even awareness that there are problems. I would say at Walmart most executives are aware that there are issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion not only at Walmart but around the country. When it comes to empathy, I continue to be blown away by Walmart leaders’ ability to take on other peoples’ perspectives. I think that is in part what led Walmart to take action and make a positive difference.
A great example is the way Walmart expanded and improved access and availability of maternal health care and reproductive rights. The past year has been a great opportunity to listen and empathize, and there was lots of that done at the company. As a result of that listening, and looking at the data (namely, the disparity between Black maternal health outcomes compared to white maternal health outcomes), Walmart piloted a doula benefit for expectant associates in Georgia in addition to other healthcare benefits, and then in 2022 the benefits team expanded these to four additional states.
Another example is how Walmart is working to ground talent management strategy in skills. Walmart is identifying the skills required for associates to grow or move laterally or move wherever they want at the company while ensuring a certain amount of stability.
This skills-based approach to talent management drives not only better hiring and business outcomes, but also drives more equitable talent outcomes. Skills are five times more predictive of job success than credentials. By evaluating candidates based on skills instead of college degrees, we also remove credentials that are not equitably distributed across the United States.
On driving change internally
Q: Walmart has both the blessing and the curse of a massive workforce at 2.3 million associates. The power of scale is huge, but I imagine there are also operational hurdles that come along with that size. Can you talk to us about what it looks like to make even one “practice change” – for example, implementing a sponsorship program for senior leaders, within Walmart?
JS: It is not easy, but I think one of the most powerful things that we can do is invest in change management and communication, and really understand what that means. I think a lot of people would probably answer that differently, but for me change management is about recognizing people’s humanity, which is often their resistance to change, and meeting them where they are. It’s unreasonable to push change unilaterally or to mandate things from the center without considering local differences.
On my team, we used data to develop an award-winning hiring manager training that was originally only going to be for senior executives, but we shared it with a few colleagues in different business segments and they advocated for it to be deployed throughout their segment’s leadership. They wanted to keep track of completed trainings and see if it correlated to improving equitable outcomes. It was fantastic to see leaders not only taking interest based on where the data told them to focus, but then investigate the solutions themselves. Since then, we’ve seen a desire across the business to adapt and implement a similar training to ensure that we are consistent and deploying the best research-backed practices.
When business leadership, not just HR and DEI teams, can clearly communicate and articulate why we’re doing this and what we anticipate the benefits are going to be, that’s when we see the highest likelihood of adoption.
Often, this kind of change takes piloting, testing and learning. It’s most important to always anchor in the experience of the humans involved in the process, and plan for the natural behavior change that’s required, knowing that can be a bumpy road.
Q: What has surprised you, being inside Walmart? What maybe is different from what you expected as a consumer and just, you know, member of the general public engaging with Walmart, prior to actually being a leader there?
JS: You know, I make a joke a lot as a way to poke fun at myself but also because there’s a lot of truth to it, I am a stereotypical “coastal elite.” I was born and raised in New York. I have not been to many parts of my own country, including Arkansas, before I started working at Walmart. What I discovered is that Walmart is a great place to work. I have been really inspired by the company’s commitment to the experiences of the people who work there and the people in their communities. It really is a people-centered place in a way that is above and beyond what I anticipated, and is demonstrated through one of our four core values – Respect for the Individual.
Q: What’s something you’re personally most proud of in this work so far, 18 months into your role at Walmart?
JS: In the first two year-end reports that my team put together, we saw increased growth in applications and accepted offers for historically excluded groups. It was amazing. Several things have driven that success. First, the hiring manager program I mentioned earlier is a critical driver of that success. I also think that we’ve done a much better job at providing access and insight into data by having regular quarterly business reviews with people teams as well as business teams to check progress and adjust. And finally, engaging in lots of different strategic external partnerships to drive applicants to our site.
On the broader equity movement in corporate America
Q: What do you think is promising about coalitions like OneTen and BRT?
JS: It is extremely promising that we are talking about these issues and moving towards action.
In an environment where talent acquisition is challenging and social justice and equity are front and center, we’re working together across companies and industries, and saying, ‘You know what, we all have a vested interest in this and instead of looking at you as my competitor, how do we together get at the root of some of these problems?’ I think that that is incredibly promising.
I also love that OneTen is focusing explicitly on Black Americans and that the initiative sits on an infrastructure of skills. It gets at the principles of universal design, or the “curb cut effect,” which is this idea that if you design solutions for the most excluded groups, you benefit everyone. The Americans with Disabilities Act mandated cuts in the sidewalk curbs designed for people who use wheelchairs. Today we all use those curb cuts, whether we’re pushing a stroller, using a cane, rolling a suitcase, etc. Having that cut in the curb is a helpful accommodation for all of us. I love that OneTen is acknowledging that the playing field is not level for lots of different people and we’re going to focus on Black Americans to start because of the history.
Q: Do you have any concerns about the focus of these conversations now? What’s not being discussed that needs to be?
JS: My concern is that we aren’t spending enough time on the history of how we got here. Our current economic system rewards capital expenditures and allows tax benefits for investments that are non-human. I think that we really need to dig into that complicated conversation, and I think we need to do more reading and reflecting to have it. I hope that as we continue to mature in our efforts at BRT and at OneTen, we continue to look under the hood of these issues and recognize that some of the systems of inequity are actually not broken at all. They’re working exactly as they were designed to work.
Q: How do you manage what can be a complicated dynamic between the moral and justice case for doing this work, and the need to prove the business value of the changes you’re pushing for?
JS: I think it’s an easy case to make for a company like Walmart. Walmart is the bedrock of so many American communities; there is a Walmart within 10 miles of 90% of Americans! Walmart is the number one grocer for American families. Walmart is expanding into healthcare, which is another core pillar of the community. If a company like Walmart can continue to ensure great jobs and careers for all the diverse job seekers in America, a company like Walmart will see improved revenues and mitigated costs, creating a virtuous cycle. Organizations like The Good Jobs Institute are collecting the evidence that this is true. I don’t think it’s too complicated – if you continue to make sure that people are fulfilled and have what they need, it will undoubtedly benefit businesses like Walmart’s.
Q: What’s one closing piece of advice you have for large companies trying to improve their DEI outcomes?
Businesses need to be honest about what they’re trying to do and then approach it like any other business initiative. When a company can clearly articulate its DEI goals, it’s easier to identify what success looks like.
The next question, which is much harder, is how are we going to get there? And that’s where OKRs and KPIs can be helpful, framing all DEI outcomes and strategies the same way any other business project or initiative is framed.
Q: What’s one closing piece of advice you have for individual leaders trying to drive change from within their organizations?
For the individual leaders, I’ve been very inspired by the words of Mossier founder, Nick Alm. On LinkedIn they talk about how DEI advocates have more faith than most people. We try our best every day to see the bigger picture and we know deep down that all of our actions, every conversation, no matter how small are contributing to the next big breakthrough. This work is absolutely exhausting, and you deserve peace and deserve joy. And I believe that our collective peace, our collective rest, and our collective joy will topple these broken systems. My closing advice to DEI practitioners: be kind to yourselves and keep going.