U.S. Manufacturing

A Conversation with SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet

As the 24th Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, Maria Contreras-Sweet leads the agency’s efforts to aid, counsel and protect the interests of small businesses. Recently, she spoke at Walmart’s second U.S. Manufacturing Summit, and afterward, she talked with us about Walmart’s commitment as well as her own work to help business owners thrive and strengthen the national economy.

WMT: Before the SBA, you had several roles focused on helping people gain access to opportunity, such as serving on the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. It seems that you have a passion for this type of work - why?

C-S: As a young person watching television, what I saw shaped my views about many things, including what I wanted to do in the future. At the time I didn’t see a young Hispanic woman on television, so I didn’t know what I could truly be. We have people from all over the world who’ve come to America, so we need to embrace that diversity. [At the SBA] I want to make sure that I’m helping to build an America that’s strong and not leaving anyone behind. That’s how to create social mobility: expanding the middle class.

WMT: Tell us about your role at Walmart’s summit. Why was it important for you to attend and speak?

C-S: I wanted to be here for three reasons. One is getting the word out about our programs that I think are so rich and changing people’s lives across the country. The second is that Walmart is such an incredible player in the small business community. It was a great opportunity to be able to talk to folks here, one to thank them for the support that they’ve provided us in our V-WISE program for veteran women business owners, and also to explore ways we can work more closely together in the future. The third reason is that I wanted to hear firsthand from small businesses about what they think their challenges are, so I can ensure that the SBA continues to evolve and respond through smart, bold and accessible initiatives.


WMT: On that note, you’re leading a focus group today with a few businesses attending the summit. What’s your goal for that conversation?

C-S: I’ll give you a story. During the Los Angeles riots in 1992, many corporate and political leaders came together with the goal of building grocery stores and other businesses to help get the economy going again. I thought that made a lot of sense. But because I also think it’s important to call on the customer to see what they need, I went out into the community to ask them. They said, all of those things are fine, but what we need before any of that is a laundromat. We need to be able to wash our clothes so we can feel good about ourselves, go in and interview for jobs, and just exist every day. It’s very important to stay closely connected to our customers to gain these sincere insights and experiences. That way we can be a more responsive and effective SBA.

WMT: That makes a lot of sense. A lot of the work behind Walmart’s U.S. manufacturing initiative is about connecting with suppliers and manufacturers – coming together one-on-one to explore areas of cooperation.  As our company continues along this path, we’re interested in your perspective on Walmart’s commitment and its potential impact on the American economy.

C-S: Clearly, as the largest corporation in the world, this commitment plays a critical role in spurring economic activity. Manufacturing jobs are quality jobs. They have a great multiplier effect, and the fact that you’re having this conference here to spur more growth and connection with that sector – I think will take us a long way.

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Life

From Lanterns to Lions, Ringing in Chinese New Year

Feb. 8 marks the start of Chinese New Year, China’s most important celebration for families. Also known as the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year is a weeklong public holiday during which families celebrate a year of hard work and wish for good luck in the coming year.

Those shopping in our stores in China see lots of Chinese New Year decorations and traditional foods stocked for this busy time. For readers who aren’t in China, here’s some background on the celebrations.

Traditional Family Meals

Before the first day of the first month in the lunar calendar, people all over China travel to their hometowns to unite with their families and decorate their homes in red — a color that symbolizes good luck and joy — and prepare for Chinese New Year celebrations. The night before the Chinese New Year, we prepare a feast made up of symbolic foods:

  • In Chinese culture, a fish course represents wealth in the future, while peanuts signify longevity and good health.
  • Some food symbolism in Chinese New Year dishes is more visual, such as hot pot, which involves simmering meat and vegetables in a round pot at the center of the table. The shape of the pot represents perfection and satisfaction.
  • Dumplings are an example of a food with a more historical tie because they resemble the gold currency — Yuanbao — used in ancient China. Today, dumplings are still thought to signify wealth in the coming year and are a delicious treat stuffed with different fillings.

Celebrations

Like with New Year’s Eve in the U.S. and other western countries, Chinese New Year involves staying up late. We light firecrackers at midnight, a tradition that dates back to ancient folklore. Though the New Year is a cause for celebration now, legend has it that Chinese villagers used to stoke their fires with bamboo to keep away a terrifying, sharp-toothed monster that arose from the sea at the end of the lunar year to prey on people and livestock. Now, we use firecrackers to celebrate the new year and also scare off any bad luck that might be on the horizon.

Celebrations culminate in the Lantern Festival, where people gather to admire the illuminated lanterns (some floating, some carried by children, some fixed as decorations) and guess riddles written on them. On New Year’s Day, people also watch lion dances, in which participants don elaborate, mythical lion costumes that seem larger than life — and eat rice dumplings.

One of our family traditions is for children and grandchildren to wish elders in the family good wishes for the new year and, in turn, the elders will give children a red envelope of money for good luck and to buy toys and books.  Children often sleep with the red envelope under the pillow to bring good luck throughout the year.

The Year of the Monkey

This year is the year of the monkey, the ninth of 12 animals in the recurring 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle. People born in the year of the monkey are believed to be energetic, witty and mischievous. I look forward to greeting the year of the monkey surrounded by my family and enjoying the snacks and festivities that come with the celebrations. No matter your Chinese zodiac, may the New Year bring good fortune to you and your family!

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U.S. Manufacturing

The Science of Making Old Clothes New Again

Typically, people associate recycling with materials like paper, plastic, glass and aluminum.

 But did you know the average person discards 80 pounds of clothes and textile accessories per year? Even more eye opening to us at the Fiber Science & Apparel Design department at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology was the stat that only 15% of those discarded textiles are being recycled.

We saw a huge opportunity and, backed by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2014, set out to develop an effective production process for utilizing post-consumer textile waste. We conducted considerable research, working side by side with a factory in Haiti that deconstructs used textiles in order to create new garments. We began refining their processes and finding ways to recycle a higher percentage of the textiles they received. But, as promising as our progress in this area was, we hit a snag. Our funding ran out – until now.

Last week, our work was jump-started when we were among five leading research and academic institutions awarded a combined $2.84 million in grants to create new processes, ideas and jobs to further America’s growing U.S. manufacturing footprint. The grant is part of Walmart’s U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund and represents the latest milestone in the retailer’s $250 billion commitment to domestic manufacturing.

So the push to not only begin to close the loop in the textile supply chain, but to find ways to significantly reduce energy and water consumption in the process, is again under way. We’ve already helped develop ways for post-consumer textiles to be turned into such items as bow ties, purses and even polyester hang tags. But we see opportunities to utilize more material in the production of pillows, various stuffings and more.

One of the biggest hurdles to closing the loop is lack of process for separating blended fabrics. Cotton-polyester blends, for example, are great for creating wrinkle-free shirts but, in order to recycle the material, the fibers need to be separated back out. Our designers and fiber scientists are committed to developing a process that can accommodate these blended fabrics, along with ways to turn materials into such items as decorative vases and bowls, particle board and other sustainable composites.

Due, in part, to this grant, we’re able to focus our attention on developing the equipment and the processes to make these kinds of things happen. There’s huge opportunity out there. The real game changer will be figuring out how to bring something like this to scale. And we’re getting there, one step at a time.

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Sustainability

Hold the Salt: A Story of Reformulating Food

Big change is coming to the grocery aisles.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has mandated that partially hydrogenated oils – most commonly found in industrially produced fats and oils – be eliminated as a food ingredient by June 2018. Research clearly shows a link between trans fats and cardiovascular disease. So a timetable has been set to take action.

A big reason why I work for Walmart is that we’re constantly looking for ways we can help people live better – oftentimes, before federal mandates like these are handed down. In fact, by the end of this month, we anticipate having successfully removed all partially hydrogenated oils from Walmart private brand food – such as Great Value – sold in our U.S. stores, a goal we’ve been working toward since 2011. But we’re not stopping there.

Simultaneously, we’ve been working to reduce sodium in Walmart’s private brand foods and national brand food products by 25% and added sugars by 10% by the end of December 2015. We’ve long since surpassed our sugar-related reformulation goal. And, while we’re tracking about 5% behind our sodium reduction goal – results through December 2015 are being vetted and will be announced publicly this spring – we continue to work toward completion and are proud of the precedent we're setting across the grocery industry.

There have been some big wins along the way to help us move the needle. One example was when we set out to reduce sodium in all varieties of Great Value Potato Chips and Great Value Kettle Cooked Chips. We successfully removed a combined 30 tons of sodium from 36 million bags of chips annually. And, according to test data, we did so without compromising taste. To put that into perspective, 30 tons is equivalent to an entire Walmart truck (cab and trailer) or about 70 Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

In the end, every slice of progress in the reformulation of the thousands of private and national brand food items Walmart sells contributes to a healthier tomorrow for our customers. But the reality is, you can’t simply go out and turn the dial down on sodium, sugar and trans fats and say, ‘We’re there. We did it.’ Our palates are accustomed to certain tastes, so the key is taking small, incremental steps toward long-term change. You're basically giving consumers’ palates a chance to adjust rather than shocking them all at once.

Every step forward involves extensive time, testing, evaluation and more. Many of the wins we’re realizing today are several years in the making – and, in most cases, there was no road map for how to get there. As senior director of private brand food initiatives, I’ve been deeply entrenched in helping develop a road map. We recognized, for example, that the majority of sodium in the diet of the average American comes from processed foods. So we’ve focused our efforts on the 47 most popular processed food categories, which include such examples as cheeses, cereal, crackers, canned tomatoes and more.

One interesting discovery along the way was that the sodium within the recipes of our own Great Value breads varied from one production facility to another. So by working with each facility to understand needs and challenges, we were able to develop a standardized process that, in turn, helped produce long-term results in sodium reduction. There are a variety of hurdles and challenges to reformulation work within private brands, and there is the potential for even more with national brands. But we’ve already proven that, with a relentless work ethic, real progress can be made in the areas of sodium, sugar and trans fat reformulation. We continue to identify and zero in on additional opportunities.

There was a day when all of this seemed so overwhelming. But we’re creating a road map. We’re building best practices. We’re growing relationships, learning from our experiences and helping to influence a healthier tomorrow. 

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Opportunity

Path from Army to NASA Leads to Walmart

I can still remember how the walls shook each time one of the space shuttles launched. Even though the launch pad was seven miles away, everything around me shook like an earthquake.

As a satellite engineer, I got to be close to the action. I had a lot of great experiences during my 13 years with NASA. I worked as a satellite controller – including the Hubble – and even built and tested rocket launching systems. It’s something I will never forget!

When my shuttle site was deactivated in 2012, that left me needing to find another job. I ended up moving from Florida to Wyoming to work as an engineer for a satellite TV company for a year. After experiencing a harsh winter and a nearly fatal car accident, I was ready to move back. 

I was excited to be coming back to what I considered my home state. I wasn’t born there, but Florida felt like home from the instant I arrived. It’s also where I wanted to start life with my soon-to-be husband. It was easy to make the decision to move back, but what I didn’t expect was how hard it would be to start a brand-new career there. 

I was very fortunate to have had a solid work history and had even spent eight years in the Army supporting communications for the Pentagon and the White House. I thought I had a great background that would help me easily find a new career, but I was trying to find a new job right when unemployment was high. It was hard for everyone to find work. I went on interview after interview, a lot of them hourly jobs, each one telling me that I was overqualified. What none of them understood was how badly I wanted to work and contribute to something bigger. It was hard being without a job and to be continually told no.

I applied at Walmart, but expected the same answer. It was an hourly job in a store – there was no way they’d tell me yes when so many others had said no. I’m so glad they proved me wrong.

Because Walmart gave me a chance, I can make Florida my permanent home and build a life here. They knew that the leadership and problem-solving skills I’d learned in the Army and at NASA would help me be a great associate. My experiences taught me how to manage people well and get them focused on the task at hand. And being in the Army taught me how to take the resources I had, analyze the situation and create quick and efficient solutions. All of these things really help you when working in a store.

I was hired as an electronics associate at store 1172 in Jacksonville, Florida. It was challenging and fast-paced. I loved helping people and I brought that attitude to work with me every day. After only a year, I was promoted to Homelines department manager. I’ve been with Walmart for just over two years now. I tell every associate that if you work hard, are conscientious, use initiative and quickly take care of the problems you see – you’ll be recognized. I only see opportunity here – there’s no limit to where you can go. What’s my next step? I love people and leading teams, so I hope to work my way up to be an assistant store manager soon.

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