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A game-changer for Walmart

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Walmart employs 2 million associates, give or take. Most are competent. Some are particularly capable. And a special few are extraordinary, able to advance the retailer’s agenda, move the company forward, implement new strategies and execute difficult assignments.

Walmart employs 2 million associates, give or take. Most are competent. Some are particularly capable. And a special few are extraordinary, able to advance the retailer’s agenda, move the company forward, implement new strategies and execute difficult assignments.

One such person came to our attention recently, by the simple expedient of announcing her upcoming retirement. That retirement, to take effect next month, will surely be Walmart’s loss.

The person in question is hardly a familiar face in the supplier meeting rooms at Walmart and is mostly unknown in America’s broader retail circles — because she doesn’t really work in retailing. Rather, her primary challenge, for the past eight years, has been to make Walmart more attractive to two constituencies with which the company has sometimes struggled: women and African-Americans.

More specifically, she has been charged with transforming diversity from an alien concept to an everyday reality, burnishing the company’s sometimes less-than-laudable reputation among women and African-Americans, and developing and advancing relationships with America’s diversity leaders.

The woman in question is Esther Silver-Parker, Walmart’s senior vice president for corporate affairs.

Her duties are formally described as the “strategic planning and execution of Walmart’s stakeholder management efforts in the U.S. and women stakeholders in countries around
the world, where Walmart does business.”

The reality is much more complicated — and impressive. Silver-Parker was hired eight years ago with a daunting mandate: giving America’s largest retailer a positive image and presence in the African-American community. She has succeeded in this endeavor to a degree seldom equaled by anyone charged with that difficult assignment.

As an example of that success, Lee Scott, Walmart’s recently retired chief executive officer, remarked to a friend last year that the Reverend Al Sharpton, the controversial New York City-based black leader whom Silver-Parker initially introduced to Scott, was one of the CEO’s most reliable and valued supporters in interacting with the country’s various black populations.

“Whenever an issue arose within the African-American community, Al Sharpton was the person I turned to first for guidance and support,” said Scott. “And he never disappointed me.

“He was one of the leaders in this country on whom I could most rely, whatever the challenge, whatever the sensitivities. The extent of my regard for him would be hard to put into words.”

But bringing Scott and Sharpton together has been just one of Silver-Parker’s accomplishments at Walmart. During her tenure, she has softened the retailer’s image, put a face to a company that was sometimes viewed in various communities as an impersonal and intimidating presence, and convinced skeptics that Walmart should be considered a positive and valuable addition to the retail, employment and community landscapes.

In short, Silver-Parker has been a game changer at Walmart, a significant addition to an Arkansas-based company not always comfortable in reaching out to outsiders, however impressive.

Academically, Silver-Parker’s credentials for this role include a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from North Carolina Central University. As well, she completed Penn State’s Executive Management Program and holds an honorary doctorate in human letters from Benedict College.

Her business career is no less impressive, having taken her from Essence magazine, where she signed on as an associate editor in 1970, to two separate careers at AT&T, the latter as president of the AT&T Foundation.

But no résumé does her justice. She has traveled extensively throughout Africa on behalf of the Board of Global Ministries, to study and write about the health conditions and quality of life of African women and children. She speaks frequently and knowledgeably on such critical women’s issues as empowerment, diversity, inclusion, corporate responsibility and enlightened philanthropy.

At AT&T, she directed the company’s first stakeholder-relations organization and headed AT&T’s media relations, employee communications, consumer affairs and executive communications programs.

She is a past recipient of the Catherine. B. Cleary Management Award, the highest leadership honor at AT&T.

But Silver-Parker saved her best for the last. At Walmart, she has focused on core concerns, issues that affect emerging markets and small businesses.

Her diversity initiatives have touched supplier development, philanthropy, community relations and Walmart associates. She has had responsibility for strengthening her company’s relationships with the key leaders and leadership organizations, often minority groups, in the communities where Walmart does business.

Along the way, she developed Walmart’s diversity strategy, significantly advanced the retailer’s commitment to supplier diversity, and established a corporate external advisory council.

In short, it would be difficult to point to a Walmart executive who has done more to change the retailer’s agenda and perception among its various constituencies than Esther Silver-Parker. Largely through her efforts, Walmart has established a meaningful diversity strategy and agenda and is emerging in this century as a global leader in diversity.

Now she is planning the next phase of her astonishing career. That could lead her anywhere, although she insists that her primary focus will be on improving the lives of women around the globe.

There will be lots for her to do in that space, and many significant organizations have already lined up to offer support, involvement and financial assistance. Even now she is the global ambassador of the International Women’s Forum, an organization of 4,200 women leaders from 28 countries that focuses on issues and policies that affect women.
So it appears that this is a cause that Silver-Parker will have no difficulty influencing.

A word about Walmart: The world’s largest retailer, a company that has sometimes struggled with its image and reputation, deserves credit for bringing Silver-Parker to Bentonville and creating a role for her that many associates might have had difficulty getting their minds around.

Bentonville, after all, is not New York City or Los Angeles. At Walmart, she was given a meaningful if daunting assignment, then asked to report her progress directly to the chief executive officer.

She has succeeded brilliantly in that assignment — to the degree that Walmart, every constituency’s favorite target, has emerged in the last eight years as a corporate leader in social diversity.

Though it is not yet where it wants to be — or, indeed, where it should be — it’s a different and better company today than it was a decade ago. That is a tribute to those within Walmart who recognized that the world’s largest company needed to change — and to Esther Silver-Parker for enabling it to do so.


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