Making DE&I personal

NRF 2022: Leaders from Saks OFF 5TH, The Vitamin Shoppe and YUM! Brands on the imperative to foster more inclusive workplace culture and drive meaningful progress

For some, efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion amount to not much more than compliance. But James Rhee, founder of advisory firm Red Helicopter, hopes it won’t be long before DE&I is also associated with fun, creativity, curiosity and growth.

Rhee helmed a session, “Recruit, advance and retain: Scaling DEI efforts in today’s market landscape” at NRF 2022: Retail’s Big Show. The keynote discussion included James Fripp, chief equity and inclusion officer, YUM! Brands; Sharon Leite, CEO, The Vitamin Shoppe; and Paige Thomas, president and CEO, Saks OFF 5TH, all CEO Action signatories.

NRF 2022: Retail's Big Show

Couldn't make the show? Take a look at our event recap to catch up on content from NRF 2022.

In the session, sponsored by PwC, Rhee asked each of the panelists about personal experiences: Fripp about a time when he faced overt racism from a customer while working as the general manager of a Taco Bell; Leite about going incognito at her own company during the filming of the reality show “Undercover Boss”; and Thomas about the challenges of building trust, relationships and progress after starting her job in February 2020, immediately before the pandemic hit.

Leite said the TV show, which was filmed a year ago but airs on Jan. 21, offered an opportunity to know people on a different level. Employees thought she was just a colleague to be trained rather than a leader.

“In that experience, I got to learn not only what they had to deal with at work, but what they were dealing with at home, how that made them who they are, what that meant in terms of engagement with the customer,” she said. It taught her to make time for curiosity and asking the “next layer” of questions, and to take the idea of leading with empathy to another level.

Inclusion, diversity, equity, fairness and the like are very important issues, Rhee noted. At the same time, we can overthink them. “Some of this is also just very basic humanity, slowing things down, having humility, laughing at yourself,” he said. “That’s part of this conversation. You can’t advance things if you don’t talk about them.”

Though the conversation included race, it also touched on the LGBTQ community and on gender.

Thomas, as an empty-nester mother of three, said the pandemic caused her to consider how different things might have been if she had been a woman with young children. It prompted conversations with associates to better understand their experiences and points of view. There were surveys and roundtables, all leading to a formal hybrid work environment, empowering employees to work on their own schedules.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Learn more about DE&I and the retail industry.

There are “moments that matter,” when it’s important for people to be physically present for collaboration, development and other team efforts, Thomas said, but “we also heard that moms wanted to take their kids to school.” Flexibility, she said, has been “key.”

Fripp, meanwhile, spoke about experiencing pushback in his approach to being multicultural. People might say that another group’s issues are different than their own. But that’s the very crux of it, he said: “Everybody is solving for their own issues.” That’s very different than solving issues for others.

It's important, he said, to understand a person’s plight from the seat they’re in, rather than the seat where we are. At his company, Fripp said, which is 98 percent franchises, that means really getting to know people to better understand their needs. Some franchisees have offered bus passes for employees, or prepaid Uber or Lyft. Some have helped workers find daycare. And in the corporate environment, there have been flexible schedules and a daycare that has remained open so employees can have some level of consistency for their children.

There’s also reverse mentorship; people of color and women in particular tend to be “overly mentored and under-sponsored,” he said, and reverse mentorship focuses on building authentic two-way relationships rather than just top-down insight and feedback.

At his company, Fripp said, issues like these are talked about in context of being “RED” — relevant, easy and distinctive. Those who are not relevant are not connected with today’s cultures. “If you’re not relevant, you won’t be successful,” he said. “In order to be successful, you need to have everybody at the table.”

In a keynote session at NRF 2022: Retail’s Big Show, The Vitamin Shoppe CEO Sharon Leite and Saks OFF 5TH President and CEO Paige Thomas discuss how leaders need to create an inclusive environment on a personal level.

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