NATIONAL REPORT — The way Heather Schott, diversity, equity and inclusion manager at Des Moines-based Krause Group, sees it, the convenience store industry has an amazing opportunity to drive change.
"We get to interact with customers across all diversity spectrums daily, and we also have an industry where people can join our teams and grow their careers no matter where they start in life. These customers and associates represent all genders, ages, races, abilities, socioeconomic states, neurodiversity, and so much more. We exist across rural and urban customer bases. What other industry can say that?" noted Schott, who leads DEI for the parent company of convenience store chain Kum & Go LC, operator of 400 locations across 11 states.
The real question, she says, is: How is the c-store industry utilizing this opportunity to create environments where people feel seen, valued and comfortable working and shopping as their authentic selves? In this regard, she believes the industry has work to do.
As part of a new industrywide initiative to facilitate engagement among all stakeholders in the convenience channel around diversity and inclusion, Convenience Store News recently asked members of its newly formed Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Board to rate the overall industry on DEI and weigh in on what the channel is doing right and where it needs to improve.
Schott, a member of the board, says what the industry is doing well is "showing up" for its communities, even in the face of pandemic-driven challenges. "We are safe spaces for people to warm up and use our restrooms. We are the friendly good morning as people grab their coffee in the morning, and quick lunch replacements as they rush off to life," she said.
Where the industry needs to improve is in welcoming all, according to Schott. "Do we greet nonbinary folks without gendering them? Do we have spaces easy to move through for those with different abilities? Are our leadership teams representative of the communities we operate in?" she posed. "There is absolutely work to do in all spaces, but I'm hopeful because I hear the questions being asked and I see the desire to do better. Now, we need to show up and do the work each day."
Fellow board member Derek Gaskins, chief marketing officer for convenience store chain Yesway Inc., gives the c-store industry "a solid C" rating for its current DEI performance. However, he's quick to note the industry is doing many things right, such as placing stores in underserved communities; providing all levels of employment opportunities at the corporate and store levels; and creating opportunities for immigrants, new Americans and entrepreneurs who can own and operate their own stores, creating upward paths of economic mobility.
As with most industries, Gaskins says where the convenience channel can most improve is at the senior levels of organizations. "There are far too few diverse leaders of convenience chains, suppliers and wholesalers," he observed. "Representation matters, and this is an area collectively the industry must improve."
Letty George, director of global communications and a D&I advisor to the Executive Council for Diversity & Inclusion at Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (ACT), a member of the CSNews board, believes the c-store industry as a whole is "making fundamental progress" in the DEI journey.
"Speaking on behalf of ACT, we have developed programs and taken the first steps on this journey by having open and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with our teams. Engaging with our frontline store team members is vital in our industry, and we continue to share best practices on how we can continue to improve in this area," she said.
The need to share is a common refrain among board members, including WorkJam CEO Steven Kramer, who says he is proud to be a part of the new Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Board because he views it as "a significant strategic step to help guide and support improvement in this enormous and critical need in our society."
The convenience store industry, like many other industries, recognizes the importance of DEI and knows that it needs to elevate DEI in order to compete and be seen as an attractive place to work, according to Scott Myers, president and CEO of Altria Group Distribution Co., founding underwriter of the CSNews industry initiative. "It’s great to see this momentum and how we are all learning from each other," he said.
While the U.S. c-store industry is already one of the most diverse industries, board member Rahim Budhwani, CEO of Encore Franchises LLC, points out that there's some inconsistency within the convenience retailer community when it comes to DEI progress.
"I think there is still a long way to go. I think a lot of small store operators don't even understand the complete scope of DEI and what it really means. I think there needs to be more educational components, and sharing findings and a playbook to implement," he said
Conversations like this are a great start to creating long-lasting change, notes Alicia Petross, chief diversity officer for The Hershey Co. and a CSNews board member.
"It's through empathy, vulnerability and connections that we can come together for our communities. Whether a convenience store retailer, a CPG company or any other organization that touches the lives of consumers, we all need to continue improving within our own four walls to ensure we have diverse representation in leadership, pay equity, development opportunities, and that we're doing our part in impacting our communities through supporting diverse-owned businesses," she said. "We all have more work to do. Many in the industry are focused on increasing inclusion and representation — these bookends are a great place to start."
Convenience Store News has launched an industrywide initiative to facilitate engagement among all stakeholders in the convenience channel around diversity and inclusion, with underwriting support from Altria Group Distribution Co., The Coca-Cola Co., The Hershey Co. and WorkJam. The platform is designed to be a catalyst for discussion, innovation, engagement and action.