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Katrina Devastated, But Courage and Compassion Survived

The line at the Slidell, Louisiana, Sam’s Club gas station stretched as far as Mike Turner’s eyes could see. As he walked around the corner of the cashier’s post, a state trooper’s patrol vehicle emerged from the dusty procession.

Demand for fuel  – on top of food, water and other necessities – was high in those days after Hurricane Katrina, and any time Mike, then a regional general manager at Sam’s Club, and his colleagues saw a public official, they made a point to ask how they could help.

“In his car, he had water, diapers, formula, socks. I stopped and talked to him,” Mike recalled. “‘Hey, you’ve been working hard,’ I said. He replied, ‘You’re about to see a state trooper cry.’"

The officer had been on duty for two days straight, he said, and he’d just gotten approved for a two-hour break from his post. He’d headed to Sam’s Club for essentials to take to his wife and infant child, who didn’t evacuate before the storm because his job required him to stay in the area. With electricity out and hurricane damage all around, the officer said he was grateful for any glimpse of normalcy.

Mike was just doing his job that day, working a six-week stint overseeing Sam’s Clubs in Katrina-affected areas of the Gulf. While he and his colleagues did many things they’d never had to before – sleeping on Sam’s Club floors and figuring out how to serve customers without cash registers, refrigeration and lighting –  10 years later, it’s moments like those with the trooper that stick in his mind.

He also remembers the time as one where he and many other associates had to make quick but important decisions based more on gut and conscience than normal policy and procedures.

“We created a sense of calm for members and associates. … We didn’t open up every club the day after the storm, but when we did get them open, we opened for everyone. There was no membership fee. We just did whatever we had to do, whether it was FEMA needing a pallet of water or a church with 700 people.”

‘I Hope I Don’t Get Fired’

Once a police officer and firefighter, in 2005, Jason Jackson put those skills to work as director of emergency management at Walmart, where he led the company’s Emergency Operations Center: a hub at the corporate office where leadership coordinates efforts to help affected associates; restore store, club and DC operations; and support communities.

While Jason’s role put him formally in charge of Walmart’s response to one of the country’s biggest disasters, he insists that the real heroes during Katrina were the thousands of associates who acted with courage and compassion. Some of those stories are lesser known – such as a cashier contributing a few dollars to the baskets of families who needed it, or Walmart emergency responders giving their own food away to families who were hungry – and others, such as truck drivers who drove through difficult conditions and waited for hours on the highway to bring relief supplies into devastated communities, are ingrained in company culture.

“Our associates were empowered to help,” he said, but recalled one former co-manager in Waveland, Mississippi specifically who became a “poster child” because of her inspiring actions. After riding out the storm with her family at home, she traveled to her store that was heavily damaged. Upon seeing so many people in the community in need, she drove a front end loader through the building to seek out salvageable merchandise and later gave away what she could, such as food, water, shoes and clothes.

About a day and a half after Katrina’s landfall, Dale Snowden, director of disaster response and recovery, arrived in Waveland to assess the damage. He had a satellite phone, and called the Emergency Operations Center to report back.

“’Hey, the co-manager is here, she wants to talk to you,’” Jason recalls Dale saying. “She was happy and crying at the same time. ‘I hope I don’t get fired’ were the first words out of her mouth. After reassuring her, she was quick to let us know what her community needed. In fact, it became the location for our first tent store.”

Dale, who worked as a builder and insurance adjustor earlier in his career, worked on the ground in the Gulf for an entire month that year coordinating repairs and reporting back on the status of Walmart locations. Since then he’s done the same during the aftermath of many other natural and mand-made disasters, from fires and tornados in the U.S. to an earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

While philanthropy is a big part of Walmart’s response to any disaster, he said, he believes getting local stores back up and running is equally important, and not just for the obvious – restoring access to the things that people need.

“It’s not just about donating water or ringing the registers,” Dale said, “it’s about returning to people a sense of normalcy and that things are going to be OK. People think, ‘Hey, that’s my Walmart.’ I didn’t set out to be a recovery expert, but it’s very rewarding being able to fulfill people’s needs and help them when they need it most.”

Rebuilding in Biloxi

Beth Harrell, a department manager at a Walmart supercenter in Biloxi, Mississippi, remembers a similar response from the community when her store opened three weeks after Katrina.

“We constantly heard, ‘We’re so glad to see you all are still here!’” she recalled.

Beth, too, was glad to return to work after her family made it through the storm safely. When the storm was at its strongest, she’d evacuated to McComb, Mississippi, with her oldest son and his girlfriend, while her husband stayed home to guard the house. Even in McComb, about 130 miles northwest of Biloxi, Beth lost power and heard trees snapping, leaving her thinking the worst for her husband, who was at their house a block from the beach.

Phone service was out, too, so she didn’t hear from him for more than a week. When she finally did, he had quite the harrowing story.

“He saw it coming up under the door and thought to go get towels, but when he stepped away, the force of the water bent the door up like it was rubber. The water rushed in, and everything floated out.”

The couple had two dogs, a Labrador and a terrier. With the inside of the house now flooded with more than 4 feet of water, her husband swam out of the house with the smaller dog but had to go back and rescue the Lab.

Later, Beth and her husband would spend a year living in a FEMA trailer in their front yard, rebuilding their home in their spare time. While her husband passed away a few years ago, she still works at the same Walmart store as a department manager in apparel, and can recall more than a few blessings that came out of such a horrific storm.

“Our community became stronger. Everybody just jumped in and started helping each other,” Beth said. “We didn’t just sit back and go, ‘Oh, woe is me.’ I got to know a lot of my neighbors a lot better. Thank God nobody I knew lost their lives.”

From Red Cross to Retail

Lee Siler didn’t work for Walmart in 2005, but as then-director of the Northwest Arkansas chapter of the American Red Cross, he’d built relationships with the Walmart emergency management team and worked in the Emergency Operations Center when Katrina hit. It was an arrangement that allowed the two entities to communicate faster and get relief to affected areas much more quickly, he said.

Among all the memories he has of that intense period, joining one particular meeting following the storm’s landfall is one that left an impression on him.

“There was a long table, and Lee Scott [former Walmart CEO] was there. They spent an hour and 15 minutes talking about how they were going to take care of their people, get checks to them, make sure they had jobs, how to get them safe and sound,” he said. “Not once during that whole time did they talk about stores being destroyed or impact to operations, until the very last 15 minutes. That told me right then and there that Walmart was serious when they say that our associates come first. In that meeting I saw that come to life. Senior leadership got out of the way and gave people the power to take care of what needed to be done.”

The next year, when Walmart called and offered him a job leading community grant programs and disaster relief and resiliency, he knew it was a good fit. Now, he provides guidance to store and facility managers on disaster response and works with nonprofit organizations through the Walmart Foundation to distribute grant money that helps continue community recovery efforts.

Disaster recovery became Lee’s career field indirectly after working at a small town chamber of commerce where he uncovered a passion for working with volunteers, which led him a later position with the Red Cross.

Lee said. “These people are doing it because they want to, not because they get paid for it. You get the right volunteer in the right spot, and they can move mountains.”

Lee has seen that happen time and time again, he said, especially at the Walmart Associate Support Call Center, which is manned by volunteers.

“This isn’t their job, and it’s open until 9 or 10 at night. They’re signing up to help associates who are having the worst day of their entire life. Their homes may be destroyed, yet the associates want to step up and help.”

Today, Lee gets to work with volunteers on a global scale at Walmart, where he works to use the lessons learned from Katrina to continually improve the company’s disaster response moving forward.

“The positive impact that we can have on our customers, associates and communities around the globe is what keeps me here,” he said. “Nowhere else would I have the opportunity to do what I do.” 

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Opportunity

Blue Star Families Helps Unsung Heroes: Military Spouses

When I said, “I do” under a bower of roses to my husband, resplendent in his Marine Corps dress blues, I had no idea that the years ahead would bring the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the long war, many combat deployments and many moves.

I love my husband and found extraordinary meaning in helping to serve my country. Along the way, I also found that the costs can be very high.

Like many military spouses, I moved. I moved and moved again. I’ve lost careers that I cared about – and was good at. These jobs helped support my family while resettling my children and maintaining a home for my husband as he retrained and left again. It’s a lonely place to be. But I wasn’t alone.

Many military spouses deal with additional obstacles like putting the needs of the military above their own career goals. These obstacles can make full-time employment nearly impossible. That’s one of the reasons why a group of military spouses (including myself) got together in 2009 to create Blue Star Families, a national nonprofit dedicated to empowering military families. We want our families to thrive by providing them resources, support and connections to their civilian communities.

According to Blue Star Families’ annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey, most military spouses are not working. More than 75% of military spouses surveyed say that being a military spouse has hurt their career, and more than half of those not employed are actively seeking work. Of the minority of spouses who do work consistently, most earn less than $20,000 a year.

This kind of financial instability hurts military families. We know that dual income military families are able to better participate in their local communities and thrive while they serve. But, unlike their civilian counterparts, most military families face more hardships and uncertainties, because they volunteered to serve.

This is why Blue Star Families applauds Walmart for their new initiative to tackle this challenge affecting our military and their families. Walmart is rolling out their Military Spouse Career Connection. Beginning November 12, 2018, military spouses who apply for a job with Walmart or Sam’s Club will be given preferential hiring status.

Military spouses move so frequently that delays in hiring can mean they are not able to work at all during a duty station. Walmart and Sam’s Club can be a particularly good career path for military spouses, because there’s almost certainly a Walmart store anywhere the military sends families in the United States.

Blue Star Families is also working to solve the problem of military spouse unemployment. One of our major initiatives in this area is Spouseforce, an interactive platform for career-minded military spouses. It works in some ways like a dating app--both employer and employee can identify a possibly compatible match before making any contact.

It’s my hope that our combined efforts will help military families become more financially independent, and that spouses will have greater access to fulfilling, meaningful careers they can take with them wherever the military sends them.

I invite you to learn more about Blue Star Families and join us as a Blue Star Neighbor to show you’re a supporter of military families. When you stand with us, you help us create more opportunities for military families in your neighborhood, across the country and around the world.

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Community

In the ‘Nick’ of Time, Walmart Driver Helps Hurricane Baby

The week that Hurricane Michael hit Panama City, Florida, Nick Davis, like many other Walmart drivers, chose to forgo his regular trucking route.

With a shower trailer hitched to the back of his truck, he left his home in LaGrange, Georgia, to meet associates and their families at a local motel where they took shelter from damaged homes in the wake of the storm. That’s where he met Lorrainda, her husband, Wilmer, and their newborn son, Luke – a family in search of shelter after being discharged from the hospital and without a home only three days after Luke was born.

“If that was me and my family, I would want help.” Nick said, remembering the moment he saw Luke and his parents. So that’s what he did, along with several other Walmart truck drivers helping on the ground. “I was there at the right time and I wasn’t going to let them go.”

Nick and the team at the Walmart supercenter on Front Beach Road in Panama City Beach gathered last week to give Luke’s parents the baby shower they deserve, complete with one year of free Parent’s Choice diapers. You can see more of their story in the video above.

Editor’s note: Disaster relief remains one of the top priorities for charitable giving from Walmart, the Walmart Foundation and Sam’s Club, with a combined total of over $12 million contributed to hurricane response and relief just this year.

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Opportunity

Army Principles Helped This Walmart Manager Move Up the Ranks

Elise Hackstall no longer wears an Army uniform. But to this day, the military values she learned in her years of service still inform her identity.

Take, for example, the honor code she learned as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy: She’s been known to quote it when talking to her 10-year-old daughter about the importance of honesty.

Then there’s a skill she honed as an Army personnel officer: Be direct and constructive, even when the message you’re conveying might be tough to hear.

For Hackstall, commitment, accountability and leadership weren’t abstract principles but essential traits that propelled her through a military career at Fort Knox.

When she joined Walmart, she quickly noticed a cultural overlap. The company's four basic beliefs had plenty in common with the seven Army values she already knew, sharing an emphasis on respect and integrity.

"A lot of it aligned with who I was," Hackstall says, "so that made Walmart a great fit for me."

That was over 10 years ago. Since then, Hackstall has been promoted multiple times. She started as a shift manager in Columbus, Georgia and became store manager at the biggest Walmart Supercenter in her market. That led her to an opportunity to move into human resources management.

Putting in the (Team) Work

Most recently, she moved back to operations as a developmental market manager, training to supervise teams across multiple stores. This position will give her the skills to apply for market manager positions that open up after her training is complete.

The training, along with her previous position as a market human resources manager across stores in four states, has introduced Hackstall to Walmart employees from a variety of backgrounds.

"It's really helped me to have a bigger appreciation of what kind of people make up our business—people from all over the country who help our stores to be successful," she says.

Hackstall's longstanding interest in human resources work extends back to her Army service at Fort Knox, Kentucky, where she was stationed after graduating from West Point. Hackstall served as a personnel officer and continued in human resources positions after transitioning to the Army Reserve in 2008.

She continued to serve as a reserve officer until this past spring, when she left the military to focus on her career with Walmart.

Hiring Heroes

Walmart is committed to recruiting former military members and matching them with jobs that fit their skills. Hackstall points out three skills that veterans often carry into civilian life: communication, commitment and accountability.

Military people know how to come up with a plan, articulate that plan and carry it out. When a store manager needs someone to run point on Black Friday, the biggest retail day of the year, she says, "If there's a veteran in the store, many times that's the person."

Hackstall adds that Walmart helps to create a network for the veterans it recruits. Recently, she talked with someone who was leaving the military and considering coming to Walmart. What advice did she offer?

"Anybody who joins Walmart will quickly realize whether the company is a fit for them or not," she says. "It's fast-paced, you have to be extremely adaptable, and you can't be rigid in your thought process."

"Limitless" Job Opportunities

Hackstall notes that Walmart offers a broad range of roles that might not be obvious to candidates who think mainly of the day-to-day tasks at a store. From medical services to real estate to information systems, Walmart's size creates all kinds of job types.

"There are limitless opportunities with this company," she says. "Whatever you want to do—short of being a brain surgeon or an astronaut—you can do for Walmart."

For Hackstall, spending time in her new role as developmental market manager fits with her long-term plan to gain experience in multiple facets of Walmart's business. When asked about the future, she doesn't hesitate.

"My end goal is to be the head of HR for the company," she says. "Every single position that I've taken has been to make sure that I am putting myself in a place where I can be competitive for that role."

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Opportunity

Meet the Designer of 4.co, Our Microsoft x Walmart Office in ATX

Innovation is a bit of an obsession at Walmart, and Katey Barron is here for it.

Years ago, Katey helped to bring time-saving technologies, like the Auto-S shelf scanner, to Walmart. Today she’s also behind the unfolding of many spaces where teams work to make innovation happen. Officially a director who’s helping manage Walmart’s migration of its thousands of enterprise applications to the cloud, Katey recently helped with a transformation of a very different kind: acting as designer for her team’s new tech headquarters in Austin, Texas, which is now in the running as Austin Business Journal’s “Coolest Building in Austin.”

Flashback to the year 2012, when Katey was just hired as a temporary worker in Walmart’s then-new Innovation Lab (which today has evolved into an incubator called Store No. 8). Her job at that time was to give company leadership tours of the futuristic technologies that could help empower associates and make different areas of the business more efficient, like machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Over time, Katey realized she had an interest in serving the startups that were presenting their technologies to Walmart.

“I was spending a lot of time with startup founders, and I fell in love with their passion for ideas,” she said. “These people are proud and excited to come into work every day and collaborate. That self-starter energy is something I wanted to expand on.”

While working at Walmart headquarters in Northwest Arkansas, Katey helped with the renovation of the David Glass Technology Center, and designed Exchange in Bentonville, a venue that offers free workspace to startups in the area and connects them with other enterprises so they can innovate together. When it came time to start designing the space for Walmart Tech ATX, a home-base for the company’s highly-skilled tech professionals, it was clear that her experience could be valuable.

“My passion for design comes from wanting to serve startups and give them what they need – and really, I’ve just always loved furniture. At Walmart Tech, these associates genuinely enjoy being around each other and diving into the work they do,” Katey said. “We wanted to make it a space they could be comfortable in, proud of and enjoy coming to work every day.”

The headquarters in downtown Austin, which opened in February, carries the sleek, industrial feel of its former warehouse, which at one point was the original location of the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater chain. Katey’s favorite part of the space – a mural by local artist Mike “Truth” Johnston – blends the heritage of both Walmart and the city of Austin, with iconic images like Sam Walton’s red pickup truck, the Austin skyline and the Alamo Drafthouse.

“We did an open floor plan designed around flexible spaces, where different teams can rotate and work.”

Katey outfitted the office with an eclectic color palette and furniture from Hayneedle, Jet.com and Walmart.com. With no single style dominating the office and pockets of seating space for different teams, the office comes together as a space where associates say they feel comfortable and enjoy spending time with one another.

"My whole team here in Austin feels really connected — with each other and with the local area.” said Jason Norris, senior director of engineering for Walmart Technology. “We partner with local startups and other interest groups to host meet-ups in our office, and it’s really building that sense of community. I think my favorite part of the design is the flexibility that allows us to host these kinds of after-hours events, while also providing our team a productive working environment during business hours."

These experiences have paved the way for Katey to work on an even bigger collaborative project: leading a team called 4.co, in which Walmart and Microsoft engineers will work side-by-side for the first time ever to accelerate Walmart’s transformation to the Microsoft cloud. And of course, Katey is helping design the space within Walmart Tech ATX where 4.co will operate.

“The power of the project is that we’re co-locating top engineers from both companies,” she explained, “and the result will be a more connected, seamless experience for our associates and our suppliers.”

Whatever Katey’s project, it’s clear that collaboration and innovation are at the heart of both Walmart Tech, and her career.

“I’ve always taken the attitude that you may have to teach me some new things, but I’ll jump right in, I’ll learn, and I won’t say no to a new opportunity,” she said. “I’m glad I have, because it’s allowed me to follow my passions and build a career I really love.”

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