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Twenty-two years ago, the movie “Clerks” was released. Filmed on the cheap in the convenience store where first-time director Kevin Smith worked, the movie compared a slow-witted clerk’s day at work to Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell. It spawned a sequel, television show, animated series and comic book.
“Clerks” wasn’t the first or last time convenience store employees were portrayed as dim, male slackers. But the movie powerfully personified a stereotype the industry has long fought: that it hires any warm body and doesn’t reward (or have) talented, committed employees.
We know a different industry. One where dedicated store employees can advance to positions of leadership, overseeing teams that run multimillion-dollar locations. Where young leaders are offered meaningful assignments and given real opportunities. Where companies are involved in their communities. An industry with a diverse and innovative workforce, where one person’s idea or insight can turn things around.
But what we see is not what much of the public sees. Most c-store operators are struggling to be an employer of choice. This is especially true among women, who see few role models at the top.
Despite the acknowledged benefits of women’s leadership — and the industry’s pressing need for women’s insights — the c-store industry still mirrors the rest of the retail industry, where few women advance to the highest levels.
Meet Shanita Brown
To advance women’s leadership, we should look at our most promising talent. Who are they? What do they need to advance? What barriers do they face?
Smart c-store operators are asking these questions and offering talented and ambitious women a path to success. These operators — like Network of Executive Women partner 7-Eleven Inc. — are not only making our industry more diverse, but they’re also making it more inclusive. They are remaking their image as an employer and the industry’s image as a destination for talent.
Take Shanita Brown. She started her retail career 17 years ago as a sales clerk at Dominick’s Finer Foods. Since then, she has taken every opportunity to gain new skills and seize new opportunities, which has led to jobs of increasing responsibility in the big-box and convenience channels. Today, she’s a business systems manager for 7-Eleven, overseeing 15 commissaries that service nearly 7,000 stores across the country each day.
Her responsibilities include managing P&Ls, collaborating with IT, developing training materials, contingency planning for emergencies, and more — much more.
Shanita serves as a role model for the many women, and women of color, who want to succeed in the c-store industry. Her story illustrates the opportunities possible in retailing.
“Retailing requires a sense of urgency, attention to detail and ability to consistently execute at a high level,” Shanita says. “But it also provides exposure to business operations, marketing, finance and manufacturing, which has helped me accelerate my personal and career growth in an aggressive environment.”
Her career strategy has included volunteering for, and positioning herself for, ever-challenging roles that require critical thinking and hard work; roles that have defined her as a talented person, who happens to be a woman.
“My path has demonstrated that a mother, wife, student, minority or colleague can effect change across all lines of an organization,” Shanita says.
Shanita’s story demonstrates how companies like 7-Eleven are working to level the playing field. 7-Eleven’s Young Professionals Network, for example, helped Shanita familiarize herself with the goals and workings of many departments and allowed her to collaborate with peers in a noncompetitive environment. “By interacting in this diverse group, we all gain — and empower — new insights,” she says.
Her belief in the power of diversity and inclusion has compelled Shanita to tackle gender bias head-on. She frequently encourages young women to pursue degrees and careers that require strong math, technology and analytical skills — skills that lead to senior-level roles. And she is not afraid to talk about the common workplace biases that hold women back from assignments that would lead to senior roles.
“I’m committed to identifying ways to break through barriers,” she says. “I’m committed to advocating for other women roles and aligning key stakeholders to effect change.”
If more c-store leaders followed the lead of their peers at 7-Eleven, the industry would shed its “Clerks” image and become a real destination for the nation’s talent.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.