Being an advocate has always been Mecca Mitchell’s calling.
“I’m the person who can’t see injustice and not fight to correct it in whatever way I can. It is part of the core of my being. It always has been from the time I was a little girl,” says Mitchell, Burlington Stores’s senior vice president of leadership and organizational development, DEI and community impact, on this episode of NRF’s Retail Gets Real podcast. Mitchell is also being honored as a member of the NRF Foundation List of People Shaping Retail’s Future 2024.
Mitchell used to think her job made her an advocate. As an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, she advocated on behalf of women and victims. As an executive director of Equal Employment Opportunity & Diversity Management for the New York City Department of Education, she advocated on behalf of students and faculty. And as chief diversity officer for the state of New York, she advocated on behalf of underrepresented and marginalized citizens of the state’s population.
Now, Mitchell leads with her advocacy — not her job title — which is manifesting itself in retail. “Once you figure out who you are — where you land, where you work, is just the manifestation of that authentic self. And so that’s why I tell people, don’t worry about the titles — titles will come and go,” she says. “Figure out what your calling is and then build a life, build a career around that.”
Mitchell says Burlington Stores Inc. has been the perfect place to build connections and create true business transformation. “We were always very intentional about impact,” she says. “We were very intentional, and coupled with that intention was the need to build up a real strategy … that was aligned with the business priorities.”
A big part of Burlington’s DE&I initiatives are focused on being good corporate citizens, she says. “If you’re like us at Burlington, we have a national footprint. We have a footprint that is steeped in diverse communities, from the diversity of the populations, socioeconomically, geographically diverse communities.”
The retail industry can have a huge impact in creating change within communities, she says. “That’s retail. Retail has the ability to be an anchor in these communities. When retailers are looked to from the standpoint of thought partnership or social justice or what they’re doing to drive greater impact, it’s an awesome responsibility, but I see retail step up each and every time,” she says.
Listen to the full episode to hear more about Mitchell’s impressive career journey, her passion for change that makes an impact, Burlington’s five-pillar DE&I strategy, and the leadership model that works best for Mitchell and her teams.
Episode transcript, edited for clarity.
Bill Thorne: Welcome to Retail Gets Real, where we hear from retail’s most fascinating leaders about the industry that impacts everyone, everywhere, every day. I'm Bill Thorne from the National Retail Federation, and on today's episode, we're talking to Mecca Mitchell. She's the Senior Vice President of Leadership and Organizational Development, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Community Impact for Burlington Stores.
She is also one of the dynamic leaders of the NRF Foundation's List of People Shaping Retail's Future 2024. We're going to talk to Mecca about her unconventional career journey, Burlington Stores’ diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and the power of leading with passion and authenticity. And for today's conversation, I'm going to hand over the microphone to my colleague, Ceara Flake.
Ceara, take it away.
Ceara Flake: Thank you, Bill. Mecca Mitchell, welcome to Retail Gets Real. It is a pleasure to have you join us today, Mecca. You and I have had the opportunity to connect on a number of occasions and the more I get to know you, the more I am inspired and grateful for the trail you've blazed in retail. Please share with our audience a little about your career and background, and why did you transition into retail?
Mecca Mitchell: Thank you. Thank you, Ceara. Well, the pleasure is always mine. It’s always nice to connect with other people who share your passion around this important work and supporting the NRF and its endeavors.
So, it's interesting because I have so many people who knew me 25 years ago when I started working, who wonder how this career unfolded. Because many people may not know I actually am an attorney by background, and started out practicing law in Manhattan, and did that work in the public sector on and off for the whole first part of my career.
I was an assistant district attorney, and so I was fighting sex crimes and violent crimes and domestic violence, and loved the advocacy on behalf of victims and women. And really let that passion lead me into other legal roles, whether at the New York City Department of Education or for the State of New York.
What I started to realize throughout that early part of my career journey is that — what I really loved, more so than being attorney, more so than the title and the money and everything else — was the advocacy associated with that. I really liked helping people. I really liked fighting for causes. And so that began to take precedence when it came to the choices I made professionally and really helped drive kind of where I ended up.
When I started to evolve from the practice of law to the practice of advocacy, it took me in a direction I could have never seen coming. Whether it was being the chief diversity officer for the State of New York, whether it was going into health care and focusing on issues of health equity. And then ultimately landing at Burlington, where I get to oversee a large portfolio of work that's really all about creating change, creating transformation, creating opportunities for people to contribute. For people to maximize their engagement — both professionally and personally. For people to be better, to be more than.
While my journey is definitely nonlinear, nontraditional — again, that true North around advocacy has really manifested itself throughout my career and I'm just fortunate to be able to do it now in retail. But I think the universe puts you exactly where you're supposed to be, and for me, that's retail at this time.
Flake: Wow, Mecca, what an incredible journey from practicing law to leading with passion and authenticity in retail. You mentioned diversity, equity and inclusion, as someone with deep experience in this space. You talked about your work with the state, you talked about your work with health care equity, and now here you are at Burlington leading DE&I efforts. When you think about the diversity, equity and inclusion space, how do you think the retail industry as a whole is really doing in terms of creating not just change, but impactful change, in a sustainable way?
Mitchell: Oh, my goodness. I think there are so many avenues within which retail is really having an impact. If you look at just purely employment, in and of itself, retail is still one of those industries where you can come in kind of on the ground floor, or the store floor, right, and really work your way up. It is not heavy degree-centric. It is based on talent. It is based on skill. It is based on your own grit and determination, your natural leadership skills and your entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with a strong intellect.
So, I love the fact that retail offers a wealth of employment opportunities and pathways of ascension that other areas of business — I mean, you and I are both attorneys, we know — that other areas don't necessarily offer. So that's one of the ways it's making a difference.
I think the other way that I look at it: Retail is one of those spaces where diversity, as a core component of what it is, is so important. When you think about retail, retail is about being on trend. It's about what's next. It's about catering to the needs of populations based on everything from their race, their ethnicity, their gender, their culture, their history. It's about tapping into what matters to the consumer and then being responsive to that need.
Well, that's all driven by diversity and making sure we build those connections. It's all driven by the need to innovate and having different ideas and different perspectives that are welcome and expected to really drive good business. And so, I think the industry as a whole is just a place where diversity of thought, perspective, contribution and the actual talent — it's allowed to really thrive.
And then I guess the last big one for me would be this role of retailers as good corporate citizens. We know that retail as an industry, and people's ability to look at retail to say, what are you doing to drive positive change with the impact that you have? If you're like us at Burlington, we have a national footprint. We have a footprint that is steeped in diverse communities from, again, the diversity of the populations, but socioeconomically, geographically diverse communities.
And so, the obligation that goes along with this is what are you doing to help create vibrant, thriving communities where you find your stores located. That's retail. Retail has the ability to be an anchor in these communities. And so, I think when you see, en masse, when retailers are looked to from the standpoint of thought partnership or social justice or what they're doing to drive greater impact, it's an awesome responsibility, but I see retail step up each and every time.
Flake: Absolutely, Mecca. You're so spot on as you talk about innovation, as you talk about the industry really being positioned to create change in this impactful way. And I think we all agree that if the one true constant is change, and that's a fact that cannot be argued, there's value in not only learning how to cope with change, but like you talked about, driving results really amid uncertainty. And uncertainty is exactly what we were all faced with during the global COVID-19 pandemic, which was one of the world's, and of course, one of retail's, most difficult times in history.
Mecca, thinking back to those early days and, and you and I have chatted before, and I understand that your transition into retail was during that time. As you think about those early days of your job, what were some of the biggest challenges during the pandemic and what steps did you take to overcome those challenges?
Mitchell: Yeah, it was a difficult time. I was not in retail [yet]. I was in health care when the pandemic hit. And I tell people: For the rest of the world, many people went on pause during that time. People started working from home. People's lives were altered in various different ways.
In health care, we never stopped working. I was a leader in my health care organization so from the standpoint of someone who was, like everyone else, facing fear, uncertainty, seemingly surrounded by death all the time, on the news, in your communities, in some of our families. And yet having to come to work every day, having to walk into an institution and try to console family members, trying to console your own staff, trying to build systems and processes to ensure the safety of the associates, and making sure communities got equitable access to health care.
It was a tremendously difficult time for me, both personally and professionally, and for my family. It was difficult as they saw me walk out the door every day and go to a job where I was exposing myself to risk. And so, we managed through. I think it was one of those times where people, teams galvanized, and you tapped into that inner source of strength. And the resilience that goes along with being in health care in particular. Where you have to overcome because you have people who are relying on you. I did that.
Just I fortified myself by really leaning into things like meditation, really leaning into self-care. Really leaning into when do I need to see a doctor about this anxiety that I'm having? When might I need greater assistance? I am not so strong as to not recognize when I need assistance. And that's one of those realizations that I think we all have to come to sometimes in our life.
And so being able to just be self-reflective was helpful to me. And then pouring myself into work that really made a difference. Being open to the opportunity of what comes next. As you said, it was after several years of being mired in that situation and doing really good work, I knew that I was ready for a refresh, and retail offered that to me.
It was the idea that I can have an impact — a nationwide impact — by going to an organization and continuing to drive change. But change in a way where I could be reinvigorated. And so that was my COVID journey, and again, I think I'm like many of us who suffered through really a difficult time, but tapped into that resilience to help us overcome.
Flake: Thanks for sharing that, Mecca. You know, that resilience and being in a very challenging dynamic, both personally and just kind of globally as a culture. And it sounds like some of that was really what spurred you into taking on this new opportunity in retail. Can you talk to us just a little bit more about that pivot and what it looked like for you?
Mitchell: Sure. So, for me, I've always been someone who was looking for the next challenge. I've had great success across — again, criminal justice space, education, government, health care — and now retail. And I'm always looking at what's the additional change I can drive. What's the additional impact that I can have. I always tell people jokingly when I'm a hundred years old sitting on a beach somewhere, I won't look back and think about the promotions. I won't look back and think about the nice offices or the trips. I'll sit back and think about the change and the opportunities I created for others.
And so, when I had come up on — almost six years of my last role, and really helped us navigate through the COVID craziness that was at that time — it really caused me to look around and say, ‘OK, where do I want to have additional impact? What can I do that, again, is going to touch, move and inspire me to continue doing the work that I did?’
And so, when retail presented itself as an opportunity, I've got to admit, I didn't see it right away. I didn't think there was much that retail had to offer. But I couldn't have been more mistaken. Because again, I have found a place where when you look at — from a talent management standpoint to an impact on community standpoint, to an impact on customer standpoint — retail really offered, and continues to offer so much to me. And it was a place to, again, grow, build, create large impact in a way that transforms lives. And so that really, for me, that transition, and when it happened, why it happened, those are some of the reasons.
Flake: So, talk to us just about how Burlington Stores, what you guys are currently doing to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace and community? You talked about talent. You talked about the impact on community. We're curious about the efforts that you're involved in now and kind of how those efforts have evolved and what you see for the future?
Mitchell: So, one of the things that I really loved is when I came to Burlington, I had meetings with several of the senior leaders. And what I kept hearing echoed over and over again is — not only, Mecca, are we committed to doing this work, we are committed to doing more than we have ever done before, and we are prepared to leverage the resources, the time, the attention necessary to really create impact.
And so, we were always very intentional about impact. You could have a lot of activity around this DEI space, and have absolutely no impact, either in your organization or in retail in general. We were very intentional, and coupled with that intention was the need to build up a real strategy. A strategy that was aligned with the business priorities. A strategy that really spoke to all facets of the organization. Not just training. Not just the one-off. Not just the feel-good. But really connected to, and wed to, how the organization functions as an off-price retailer.
And so, I took the time. I did my due diligence. I got out to all parts of the business. I was doing store visits every other week. I was out with the merchants. I was out in vendor meetings. I was in our distribution centers walking the floor, understanding how that works. I was with our supply chain teams, to really become a master of the off-price business model, and then take my expertise on building DEI programs, and to wed those two together in a way that would be substantive, but also sustainable.
And so that's what we did, and born out of that was our five-pillar strategy around diversity, equity, inclusion. The first pillar is all about leadership and workforce diversity, because again, representation matters, and making sure we have equal opportunities for people to be successful, to grow at the organization. Making sure our leaders are skilled and trained up on the competencies needed to lead the workforce of the future.
We focused on the creation of inclusive and equitable environments for everyone — our associates and our customers. So, everything from the signage and the pictures that are represented in our stores and in our marketing materials, to our policies and practices that we have within our workplaces. Making sure that all of that is, has a DEI lens to it.
We do lean in heavily on enhanced education and awareness. And again, I don't like saying training because that really minimizes what it is. It's not about training. It's about transformation. It's about how do we raise the cultural intelligence of an organization so that is just able to be more responsive to the evolving needs of the business and the external and internal climate.
And then our fourth pillar is all about our products, our vendors and supplier diversity. How do we make sure that the products that end up on our shelves are responsive to the needs of our customers and that the array of vendors that are out there have equal access and opportunities to engage in procurement opportunities with Burlington?
And then our fifth and final pillar is all about our community advocacy. Again, we talked about it a little bit. How do we make sure that we are engaging in strategic partnerships with organizations that are really driving community vitality because that's where our stores are located. That's where our associates live and work. That's where our customers are based.
This five-pillar plan is something that we communicated largely to the leaders. We made sure they understood the expectations around their responsibility to support the plan. And so much of what we do is viewed through this lens of our actual strategy. And again, strategies evolve over time, but without a strategy, you end up mired in a space of lots of activity, no real impact.
Flake: Lots of activity, no real impact, and little transformation, right? And laying out our strategy is so key because it gives you that sort of global perspective. There's a saying in the Bible even, ‘Write the vision and make it plain.’ So, it looks like that's precisely what you and your colleagues at Burlington have been able to do — to write that vision and make it plain.
And Mecca, I'm curious — just in terms of success, right? What does success look like when you think about that strategic plan at play? Just give us a taste of a bit about what that looks like for you.
Mitchell: Sure. People ask that, they say, ‘Well, how do you know? What's the magic number we need to get to? What's the …,” and I said, ‘There is no magic number.’ Right? Success isn't a point in time. We talk about this being a DEI journey or transformational journey. It's just that.
Success is a state of being. It's a constant state of being that I want to evolve the organization to. Where — ongoing, all the time, every meeting, every decision — these are considerations that are informing our decision-making. And so again, if you look at the work as, ‘Hey, we've hit this milestone and that's it.’ That is so precarious. That’s not integrating this work within the fabric of the organization. That allows people to do things like the box-check that creates so much chaos when it comes to this work.
I say this is an evolution, and again, it's a state of being. A state of existing. It's like a state of grace when, you know, again, the work is kind of feeding on itself, and people are getting it.
When that happens, I'll tell you, Ceara, why it's so important. When it happens and when it's done right, you don't need Mecca Mitchell in every room when every decision is made. Because the people who are just in that room are bringing the DE&I lens with them to the work that they do. And I don't care whether it's marketing or finance, or everything from the security services that we employ, people carry that lens, and they look at their work through: is this creating great creating greater access opportunity? Are we taking all perspectives into account? And as such, we’ll be a better organization for it.
Flake: So good, Mecca. I had to jot that down. Success is a state of being. Listen, so good.
Mitchell: It is. It is. I wish more people would embody that because it's the lazy way out to say, ‘Give me the magic number. Give me the magic thing that's going to say, we've made it.’ It takes the intellect out of the exercise. I'm going to make people do the hard work, which says, this is a constant state of being.
I don't know any business that says, ‘You know what? When we hit $5 billion, that's it. We're done. We wrapped it up.’ That's not retail. Retail says, ‘Hey, what's the next milestone and the next one?’ It's a state of success. I look at DEI the same way.
Flake: Absolutely. Retail is indeed a state of success. And Mecca, as a proven leader, you talked to us about your beginning journeys, as a proven leader in the public and private sector. You have navigated top echelons. Talk to us about your approach to leadership. Who or what truly inspires you?
Mitchell: Sometimes I reflect back on my career and pivots that I've made, and mistakes that I've made. I've leaned into being a really hardcore, ‘Got to drive people, drive success, drive achievement’ leader. And that didn't work for me.
I've leaned into kind of being very, very soft and, really taking a back seat as a leader, and waiting, and being very deferential. And that didn't work for me.
And so, over the course of my career, I think the balance I find is that idea of really bringing that authenticity that you talked about to the role. I am someone who is, again, people have heard me say this, unapologetically ambitious. I am not afraid to say that I have high expectations because the work we do matters, and I am about pouring into my team. I'm about pouring into others as a leader to say, ‘I'm going to help you be the best that you can be for yourself and for the business. And here's how we're going to get there together. And I'm going to tell you about the good, the bad, the ugly. I'm going to praise you when you get it right. I'm going to pull your coat when you get it wrong. Because I care enough about you to invest and pour into you as a senior leader.’
And I don't think we ever stop doing that. That's our obligation. To grow the next wave of talent that's going to help an organization be successful. But like anything else, the leadership journey is a delicate navigation. You get some of it right. You get some of it wrong. You learn, you grow, you never stop. There is no title that could cause me to stop being self-reflective every day about what I did and the contribution I made, and what I could have done differently, and I think that makes a difference.
Flake: Absolutely. And I so appreciate how you really summed it up that the work we do matters. And the work you do matters, and it's paying off. Mecca, you are being recognized for your contribution, for your impact. And we're really excited. You're being named to the NRF Foundation’s List of People Shaping Retail's Future. I'm curious for you personally, Mecca, what does that honor mean for you both personally and professionally?
Mitchell: I'll start with the latter first, and I'll bifurcate my answer a little bit here. So, for me, professionally, it's a tremendous honor. Again, the NRF is such an institution and the work that the NRF supports — the caliber of events, the abundance of content and resources that the NRF shares on an ongoing basis, the innovative initiatives that have been created to expose new generations of talent to careers in retail — is really inspirational. So, professionally speaking, it is the highest honor to be recognized by an organization like the NRF.
Personally, I often tell people this work does not always work for me. As a Black woman, as someone who has felt the sting of discrimination and feeling marginalized at different points throughout my career, this fight hits home in a very personal way. And so, to be recognized and celebrated for getting into the fight. I had a boss who used to say that, ‘People forget — the good fight is just that. It's a fight.’ So, to have these opportunities where I am celebrated for — still, after all this time — engaging in the good fight. Still engaging in activity that advances this work, and creates space for others to shine, to grow, to thrive, to have an opportunity to create transformation for themselves, is really an honor.
But it's also that reminder that there's so much good work to be done, and that the work I do every day is actually making a difference because we forget that sometimes. With some of the challenges that are in the world, some of the challenges that hit closer to home. It's easy to forget or to get mired in the muck of all that's wrong and all the hate and the vitriol that's out there. But to remember for what we can control, for what we can impact, this is that good fight. And this honor by the NRF is just a reminder of that.
Flake: Thinking about what we can control and, and what we can do in, in the midst of so much of uncertainty and uncertain times. This question is a bit self-serving: I want to know career advice, Mecca, and I'm sure our listeners want to know the same from someone like you. What's your best piece of career advice?
Mitchell: Sure. It's something I actually heard on a radio show years ago. I remember driving where I was going, probably on a business trip, and it was on a radio show and the host said, ‘A job is what you're paid for. A calling is what you're made for. ‘
And it was one of those moments that just struck a chord in my very spirit. Like it spoke to me like no other. I have always been guided by the feeling that what I was engaged in wasn't a career, it was a calling. That to your point — the work we do, and I don't care, you can find a calling in so many spaces — but whatever you're doing with the time you have on this earth, figure out how to make a contribution. Figure out how to make it better for someone else. Figure out how to not only take care of your immediate circle, but make your circle as big as possible and pull everybody else in with you.
And that's what a calling is about. The calling is your true North. That's the thing that you're guided by. That's what I tell people — that's the marrying of marrying of your passion and your purpose in life. My advice to anyone is whatever you choose to do, do something that speaks to your calling in this world. Because if you do, not only will you never be really disappointed, but at the end of your days you'll be able to look back without regret because you would have used your time here wisely.
Flake: Absolutely. Mecca, how would you sum up your calling? You talked about a job is what you're paid for. A calling is what you're created for. What does that look like when we're thinking about, ‘Hey, what is it that I'm created for?’ Because it sounds like it's not a particular title or a job, but it's something deeper than that.
Mitchell: It is. And that's the perfect way to kind of to end where I began, which is my calling — and I have a bracelet that says this — I'm an advocate. I'm the person who can't see injustice and not fight to correct it in whatever way I can. It is part of the core of my being. It always has been from the time I was a little girl.
And again, I used to think that that had to do with being a certain thing. That I could be an advocate because I was going to be a lawyer, right? It's the other way around. Being an attorney was just one of the ways that my advocacy manifested itself. You know how else it manifested itself? It manifested itself when I went to work for the Department of Ed. It manifested itself when I went to work for the Governor’s Office. It’s manifesting itself in retail now. It's the advocacy, which spoke to who I am. Once you figure out who you are, where you land, where you work is just the manifestation of that authentic self.
And so that's why I tell people, don't worry about the titles — titles will come and go. Figure out what your calling is and then build a life, build a career around that.
Flake: Absolutely. That's exciting and it's inspiring because it helps us understand that there is space in retail for so many different callings. You can manifest who you are and what you're called to all throughout our industry. And so, thinking about the retail industry, the industry that we both belong to, what is exciting you about the future of retail?
Mitchell: I think what excites me now is what drew me to retail in the first place. Which is that, again, I don't know any other industry, en masse, that literally is all about what's next. It's all about what the evolution is — whether that's evolution in trend, styles, ideas, what's hot, what's not — it is all about change. It is all about this constant state of transformation, and best ideas, and best contributions, and best talent.
When you go into retail stores, you see a diversity of products. You see a diversity of customers. You see a diversity of ideas and energy. And I think that for me is so incredibly exciting because there is an energy associated with retail that I just do not find in all the other spaces I've been. I do not find it.
And there is a pure and genuine celebration of that diversity, and that ‘what next’ kind of attitude that I think for me is something that keeps me coming back for more. Because it always looks different. What it looked like today, is not what it's going to look like two weeks from now, not what it's going to look like four months from now. And I think that's the beauty of retail — is that it evolves to the need and that that evolution for people like me who are always looking at making constant change really speaks to where I want to spend my time, where I want to contribute my efforts.
Flake: Mecca Mitchell, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you for joining us today.
Thorne: Thanks, Ceara. And thank you all for listening to another episode of Retail Gets Real. You can find more information about this episode at retailgetsreal. com. I'm Bill Thorne. This is Retail Gets Real. Thanks again for listening. And until next time.
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