Alumna Sharon Orlopp champions diversity, inclusivity at Walmart

Sharon Orlopp serves as global chief diversity officer for Wal-Mart, the world’s largest employer.

Sharon House Orlopp grew up knowing about hatred and intolerance. Her parents — who were from very different religious and socioeconomic backgrounds — faced animosity even within their own families.

“Both sets of my grandparents were not happy that my parents married,” says the University of Denver alumna (BA ’81), who now is global chief diversity officer and a senior vice president for Wal-Mart.

So when she was 5, her parents decided to move to Colorado “to stop the cycle of stereotype and generalization.” When she was 12, Orlopp’s parents — supporters of the civil rights and women’s rights movements — moved the family to a Colorado Springs neighborhood that was predominantly African-American and Hispanic.

“We actually were not welcome when we first moved there. We had our lawn set on fire; our family business was vandalized,” she recalls.

“But I was never afraid; I just wanted to make friends and fit in. Our family lived there for about 30 years — it helped me become a champion of diversity. Now, I have this internal radar that goes off when I feel people are being excluded.”

After stints in management at Foot Locker and Gart Sports, Orlopp in 2003 became the head of human resources for Sam’s Club, the membership warehouse division of Wal-Mart. “I kept thinking about, ‘How can I help build diversity?’ I kept thinking about my childhood: How can I immerse adults in experiences [that expose them to different cultures]?” she says.

Orlopp began taking managers on what she calls “diversity immersion trips,” beginning with a two-day excursion to Montgomery, Ala., where participants toured a number of educational sites, including the Rosa Parks Library and Museum and the Martin Luther King Jr. Birth Home.

The program was a huge success, and the CEO asked Orlopp to expand it. She initiated similar programs to immerse employees in issues affecting Hispanics, women and people with disabilities.

Given Wal-Mart’s status as the world’s largest employer — 2.1 million people in 28 countries work for the Arkansas-based corporation — it might seem redundant to focus so much energy on diversity. But Orlopp says it’s a critical mission.

“A diverse and inclusive employee base … leads to innovation. And innovation is a competitive advantage. In order to attract the best talent, we have to have an environment that accepts everybody,” she says.

By 2013, an additional 90 million women will be in the global workforce, Orlopp says. Based on talent needs, Wal-Mart has established retail training centers in India and Brazil.

“They’re not just for our employees,” Orlopp says. Any person can attend — and they can go work for any retailer.

“When women are lifted, they lift their families and their communities,” Orlopp says. And making that kind of difference, she says, “is what gets me jazzed every morning about coming to work.”


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