Head of Walmart's diversity efforts says a little grace goes a long way

Ben Hasan, leader of diversity and inclusion efforts at Walmart. Photo contributed by Walmart

The leader of diversity and inclusion efforts for the world's largest employer finds one group too often left out of the conversation, largely because they fear they'll do or say the wrong thing.

"White men want to help, but they don't know how," Ben Hasan told the crowd at the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga's Equal Opportunity Day breakfast on Friday morning. "Grant them the grace to help. Let them make the mistake."

As voices at the extreme ends of the political spectrum become the loudest, the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing gets in the way of progress, Hasan said.

"I think most human beings want to be decent to each other," he said. "We hear so much from the extreme right and the extreme left. Most Americans sit in the middle and want to work together."

During the gathering, the Urban League recognized the work of community leaders including Ted and Kelly Alling, who founded Chattanooga Preparatory School, and members of the Sankofa Fund, who have provided $130,000 to support efforts that improve Chattanooga's communities of color.

Urban League CEO and President Warren Logan Jr. also addressed the impact the organization has on people and families. "We are serving 14,000 people in Hamilton County and Chattanooga a year," he said.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke called inclusion and diversity essential to economic and social progress for the entire community.

"This is an economic imperative, but it's also about our values," he said. "Who are we as a community, and who do we want to be?"

Urban League of Greater Chattanooga awards:

The 2019 Community Impact Award: Ted and Kelly Alling, the founders of Chattanooga Preparatory School, an all-boys public charter school to provide educational opportunity for young men in urban communities.The Inclusion By Design Award: The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, recognizing 50 years since the University of Chattanooga merged with the Tennessee system.Whitney M. Young Jr. Award: Greater Chattanooga Sankofa Fund for Civic Engagement, whose members have provided $130,000 to support efforts that improve Chattanooga’s communities of color.

Hasan, the keynote speaker at the event, said that while the work of diversity and inclusion is essential, he came reluctantly to his role. He had joined Walmart in 2008 as senior vice president of strategic services in Walmart technology. In 2015, his boss told him he was a finalist for the role he has now.

"I said, 'But I didn't apply for it,'" Hasan said. "I literally tried to get out of it. I'm a technology guy. Why do you want a technologist?"

But he had also traveled all over the world in his career, and worked with teams of employees and partners all over the country. "In the course of my career, I developed a unique view of people," he said.

Since taking on the role, Hasan has led a host of unconventional and direct approaches to creating conversation around race and inclusion. After the CEO of Walmart saw the movie "The Hate U Give," he asked Hasan to make sure every leader saw the powerful film. So they rented out a local movie theater in Bentonville. Arkansas, and ran several showings over several days for employees.

"We let people take off work to go to the movie theater," Hasan said. "We provided popcorn and everything."

The leadership team also went together to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, which displays the history of slavery and racism in America and commemorates thousands of lynchings of African Americans.

"There's a dark past that existed in this country," Hasan said. "We have to do some truth-telling to have repair and reconciliation. We have to talk about our dark history."

After a series of high-profile shootings of black men across the country, Hasan scheduled a town hall for employees to talk through what they were experiencing.

"We don't have to have an answer to every question, but we should give people the opportunity to talk about how they feel," he said. "People don't check this stuff at the front door when they come to work each day."

The work of diversity and inclusion requires courage and persistence, but it's essential for any business - or any community - that expects to thrive, he said.

"We're not a diversity and inclusion company. We're a retailer," he said. "But we believe this work, if we get it right, is a lever for us to be a better business."

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.