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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.”

A call from DU

Orlopp didn’t immediately gravitate toward a career in that field. In fact, she says, “I wouldn’t be in my role today if it wasn’t for one person at DU.”

Ever since she was in junior high school, Orlopp had wanted to be an attorney. But after completing an internship with a criminal judge, she realized it wasn’t her career path at all, and she began searching for her true calling. She took a battery of tests at DU’s placement center, only to be told — to her great dismay — that she should be in retail or public speaking.

“I’m a poli sci major!” Orlopp protested.

So after graduating, she took a job with the Denver Custody Mediation Project. About six months into it, the director of DU’s career placement program called Orlopp to let her know about a free upcoming seminar with retailers. Though she doesn’t know the director’s name, his phone call, she says, “changed the course of my life.”

Into the World

After the seminar, Orlopp began interviewing with retailers and landed a part-time job with Foot Locker.

“After three weeks I knew I wanted to go into management training,” she says.

It was the right move; she worked with Foot Locker for the next 17 years. Eventually, though, she moved on to Gart Sports.

In 2003, she became the head of human resources for Sam’s Club, the membership warehouse division of Walmart.

“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, the Voting Rights Interpretive Center and the Martin Luther King Jr. Birth Home.

“My goal was to illustrate historical events and then talk about current events,” Orlopp says.

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. She created robust training programs around them.

Reaping the Rewards

Given Walmart’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.

It’s that attitude that made it possible for a first-year executive, originally from Lebanon, to come up with the groundbreaking — and now widely replicated — concept of selling generic prescription drugs for $4 in U.S. stores.

A diverse work force also helps assure customer relevance, she says, both in terms of shared backgrounds and enabling stores to carry the products customers want.

“Right now in the U.S., one in eight citizens is from a different country,” she says.

By 2013, an additional 90 million women will be in the global workforce, Orlopp says. Based on talent needs, Walmart 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.

In addition, Wal-Mart announced in September that it will source $20 billion over the next five years from women-owned businesses. Walmart will empower women on farms and factories through training, market access and career opportunities.

“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.”

“What I hope my legacy is, is being a bridge builder,” Orlopp says. “I want to help others succeed and achieve their dreams.”

While Orlopp undoubtedly achieves that through these kinds of large-scale initiatives, she also does it on a very personal level.

“I really try hard to connect people to each other,” she says. “I have these large mentoring circles every year, with 25 or 30 people from different countries and different parts of the organization, so they establish relationships with each other.”

And every year, she asks them to reach out and lift up another.

“I do have a big pay-it-forward expectation of everyone — so it has this huge ripple effect,” she says. “I want to help them understand what their dreams and aspirations are, and help them on that path.”

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