Walmart’s CEO details his journey to racial awareness

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon on "Making a Difference in Racial Equality" on June 5, 2020 - Source: Walmart video
Jan 18, 2021

“Change actually starts from within each one of us,” Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon said last week at a keynote address at CES 2021. “Our biases, conscious and unconscious, need to be dealt with individually and collectively.”

Asked about advice for companies in scaling diversity and inclusion initiatives, he encouraged CEOs to start their own personal learning journey.

Such a journey, he believes, should extend beyond racial sensitivity training to learning more about U.S. history. He said, “Some things, for example, that I was not taught in school that are facts related to these various systems — financial, education, health care and criminal justice in particular — result all too often in inequity,” said Mr. McMillon.

Mr. McMillon’s own journey has involved multiple trips in small groups to Montgomery, AL, to speak with those involved in the ‘60s civil rights movement, visit museums and hold conversations with civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson and others on past and present race issues. Mr. McMillon said, “As you personally invest in that, you can’t help but be changed.”

A second step is having “open, transparent conversations” with your team that likely involves “taking a little risk that if you say the wrong thing and somebody criticizes you, you’ve built up enough goodwill to overcome it.”

Mr. McMillon added, “A lot of people are afraid to have these conversations because they’re worried about saying the wrong thing. But if you don’t have the conversations, you don’t make any progress.”

At Walmart, both those steps have led to bigger commitments to work with Black-owned advertising agencies and banks, changes to the promotions process, and more transparency around pay.

Finally, the third step is similar to any other initiative: use data to support transparency, set objectives and measure progress.

Mr. McMillon said Walmart is learning that such initiatives are “not a zero sum game” as diverse teams have proven to be more successful. He concluded, “If you grow the company and you grow the pie, everybody benefits, even if you’re a white male like myself. So I think you just have to continue to press forward to make it a priority.”

  • Walmart Keynote – CES 2021

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12 Comments on "Walmart’s CEO details his journey to racial awareness"

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Ben Ball

Mr. McMillon’s words of wisdom speak volumes about what we all have to deal with, the fact that we all have paradigms — even though we aren’t aware of them. It’s the way the brain works and studies from Harvard and others have shown that our paradigms can cause us to subconsciously overrule what we think is conscious choice to rationalize thoughts and actions every day. The hard part is that we can’t eliminate paradigms. The argument around whether or not we can really “change” our paradigms is beyond my pay grade to adjudicate. But it is certain that our best (perhaps only) defense against them is to simply acknowledge that we have them — and that we have to fight the tendencies they engender in our decisions and actions every day. FWIW, I hope the experts who argue that paradigms can eventually be changed are right. It would mean that the strongest force in shaping our world, human nature, really can evolve.

Cathy Hotka

It’s important that each of us leaves the world better than the way we entered it. Congratulations to Mr. McMillon for bringing awareness both to the problem and to the opportunities we all have to create a more equitable society.

Ananda Chakravarty

Diversity and Inclusion is such a deep field and Doug McMillon has taken the right step and usually the most important one – making it a priority. Unfortunately, few CEOs put D&I at the same level as profitability or next quarter’s revenues. It’s not a typical topic in analyst calls and tracking details and relating these to corporate success is enormously challenging. Supplier diversity, diverse leadership, plus internal employee resource groups are some of the ways that can add to the mix of success in this space and to truly bring D&I thinking back to the boardroom. Congrats to Walmart’s leadership for recognizing that selling to society means being part of society.

Evan Snively
Evan Snively
Director of Planning & Loyalty, Moosylvania
2 years 20 days ago

This article made me recall a statistic I read from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. It was that only 16 percent of C-suite positions for the Fortune 100 companies are held by non-white members.

And while creating awareness and an environment for healthy dialogue is the first step, it isn’t enough – companies need to implement tangible processes to promote inclusion and equity if we are to make real progress across the board.

For instance, Goldman Sachs made a statement that in the U.S. and Europe they were only going to take companies public if there is “at least one diverse board candidate, with a focus on women…. And we’re going to move towards 2021 requesting two.” These types of very intentional practices might seem like an overreach at first, but they are really the types of initiatives that are needed to combat the deeply systemic biases that Doug McMillon is referring to which promote inequality.

Gene Detroyer

Here is what I learned in school — in 1863 Lincoln freed the slaves and suddenly, everyone was equal. I watch Mickey Mouse Club and TV commercials and magazine ads that were lily white. This was my heritage and my culture. That was the world that was projected and propagated. While not being overtly racist, how could I be anything but unconsciously racist?

Doug McMillon is so correct. “Our biases, conscious and unconscious, need to be dealt with individually and collectively.” But it must start with each of us individually. Each of us has to seek out the reality of what exists and work very hard to attack our own ingrained biases, things we think are, but surely aren’t.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

Mr. McMillon’s keynote should help business leaders face reality. That is the only way for leaders, and society, to come to terms with the structural racial bias of the existing status quo. For those uncomfortable with normative and ethical stances, just realize that future success requires a different operational paradigm on the ground from the one that created the mega-corporations of this and the last century. The new paradigm necessitates a deeper understanding and facilitation of the human potential. It goes beyond expanding access to education, housing, and career opportunities to federal and state policies that enfranchise people, build trust, transparency, and accountability.

Ryan Mathews
You can’t solve a problem until you admit you have one. Then you need to get to the root causes of the issue. Prejudice is the belief that one race is superior or inferior. Racism is the desire to believe one race is superior or inferior. You can reduce prejudice through education, life experience, etc. It is much, much harder to eliminate racism. Like it or not, American society is institutionally racist. Students of all races are taught the same racist version of history. Black fine artists and writers are still seen as a “special class” of artists and writers. While I salute Doug McMillon’s personal journey — and I certainly hope it included several visits to The National Memorial For Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama — the move to make white America aware of the role and contribution of Black America has been active since at least the 1960s with the establishment of modern, formal Black History programs. Over 50 years later and most of white America have no clue about the men,… Read more »
Patricia Vekich Waldron

This is another important initiative that Mr. McMillon is taking — and speaking up on — to improve not just WMTs business but people, communities and our country. It’s leadership I respect.

James Tenser

The number one obstacle that afflicts people of good will is our unconscious bias. Open-minded conversations about race are the only path I know that can lead to changing this. It is ironic that increasing consciousness of race is a crucial step down the path toward eliminating racism. If we don’t define the problem in stark terms we can’t begin to talk about it.

As the American melting pot is re-imagined as a tossed salad of different groups with varying traits, advantages and obstacles, we each struggle with the tension between celebrating heritage and mistrust of others. This is not a pretty thing.

Mr. McMillon is making a welcome contribution to understanding through his actions. I applaud him for this but I also wonder why it falls to business leaders to address social issues while our elected leaders seem so feckless.

Craig Sundstrom

Candidly, I think what holds back progress is a lack of interest in the issue(s) on the part of many executives. But once one gets beyond this first step — i.e. being interested — there is the paradoxical nature of the (presumed) solution: one has to consciously think about race … in order to (eventually) not think about it.

Rachelle King
Well said and well done by Doug McMillon. He’s nailed the areas where racial inequality is felt most and most difficult to overcome. Diversity and racial equality are not easy subjects for anyone. To see him tackle it in a keynote address means that the conversations he’s been having and the work he’s been doing has brought about some change in his beliefs and perspective. He is right. It’s hard to engage in this space, sincerely, and not be changed. I commend McMillon for his commitment to learning and for sharing his journey. What has the potential to make a difference at Walmart vs other companies with DEI programs is sincerity from the CEO. For too many many companies, DEI is a superficial checking of a politically correct box with little or no intent behind it. Most programs lack sincerity. Even if the DEI leads themselves are sincere and passionate, if the CEO is not sincerely and personally engaged then there will be little or no progress. This is one thing that truly must start… Read more »
Xavier Lederer

This is definitely a step in the right direction. The current diversity situation at Walmart is not ideal. The largest “minority” with 51% of the US population (i.e. Women) represents 55% of non-management employees but only 31% of their officers, according to Walmart’s FY21 mid-year Culture, Diversity, and Inclusion report. Lack of diversity is not only about unconscious biases, it is also about adjusting hiring/evaluation/promotion methods to take into account the realities of each minority.

"Congratulations to Mr. McMillon for bringing awareness both to the problem and to the opportunities we all have to create a more equitable society."
"Well said and well done by Doug McMillon. He’s nailed the areas where racial inequality is felt most and most difficult to overcome."
"Mr. McMillon’s keynote should help business leaders face reality."

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