Opportunity

From Football to Retail: Virtual Reality Debuts in Associate Training

Inspiration can come from surprising places. Take college football, for instance.

You’d probably never guess that one of Walmart’s newest training tools got its start from an associate watching the University of Arkansas football team practice. But that’s exactly what happened.

Brock McKeel, senior director of central operations, saw how the athletes were interacting with the virtual reality (VR) technology during practice, putting them in real-life scenarios to test their skills and reactions. He talked with the team and one of the coaches – all confirmed VR had helped them improve performance on the field. After seeing the university’s success, Brock had an idea: This could easily be applied to our Walmart Academy training for store associates.

Imagine you’re a new Walmart store manager and you’ve never experienced a Black Friday. Wouldn’t it be helpful to understand the dynamics of such a busy day before you ever had to actually manage your associates and customers through it?

Using the same technology as the football team, we incorporated VR into 30 academies and we used it to train our associates to handle situations from the everyday, like managing the fresh area, to the rare, like Black Friday.

VR allows associates to experience a lifelike store environment to experiment, learn and handle difficult situations without the need to recreate disruptive incidents or disturb the customers’ shopping experience.

Ultimately, everything associates do is geared toward giving customers the best experience. Through VR, associates can see how their actions affect that. It’s helpful for associates to see mistakes in a virtual environment and know how to deal with them before they experience it in real life and don’t know what to do.

From our test, we’ve seen that associates who go through VR training retain what they’ve learned in those situations better than those who haven’t. Because of the promising results, we’ll be rolling out this training to all 200 of our Academy facilities by the end of 2017. That means, the over 140,000 associates who will graduate from academies each year will have VR as an integral part of that experience.

“When they said we were going to be using VR for training, I thought it was brilliant,” said Sean Gough, Academy facilitator at our Broken Arrow, Oklahoma store. “From cashier to lawn and garden, to electronics or fresh – there are just so many areas where I think this training would be so helpful.” As we test and learn from using this technology, we’re sure to find more and more ways to apply it.

When Sean first tried the VR training, he was able to virtually transport to another store and see how they were running things. It gave him a different perspective, which he felt would be great for store managers to experience. As a manager, you don’t usually have time to travel to other stores to see how things are done, but this technology would allow them to travel to a store across the country without even leaving their own store.

“I feel really proud that Walmart would invest so much in training, particularly at the level they have,” Sean said. And he is proud to play a part in this investment. As an Academy teacher, Sean helps others be leaders and experts in customer satisfaction. He enjoys seeing the associates he’s taught pass on that training, because this helps create futures for others.

Sean sees a great sense of pride from the people going through his Academy. As associates see all of the technology and enthusiasm we put into making them better, it encourages them, makes them feel good about their job – feel good about working for Walmart. Sean commented, “I think people leave my class thinking 'Walmart cares and they take care of me.'”

What’s so great about using VR? Well, it’s really easy to use – as easy as using a smartphone. It creates a passion about learning because we’re trying something new. And associates are better able to retain what they’ve learned.

Yeah, it’s cool. But it actually works. And it’s all thanks to a little football.

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Community

How Cocoa and Honeybees Are Helping Latin American Farmers Thrive

A simple honeybee: It provides you with deliciously sweet honey for your tea. It helps pollinate the crops of fruits and vegetables that end up on your family’s dinner plate – even the coffee beans for your morning drink. That same honeybee can also help small family farmers in places like the dense forests of Mexico thrive.

Many Latin American agricultural businesses don’t survive long term. But it isn’t because they’re fighting against Mother Nature or bad crops or not enough hard-working laborers. It usually boils down to a lack of financial training and little access to credit.

Now, here’s where that bee and your morning coffee come back into the picture.

Root Capital, with support from the Walmart Foundation, is helping provide credit and training to 24 agricultural businesses throughout Mexico. These enterprises play a critical role in linking small farmers to faraway global markets, resulting in more stable incomes. Over the next two years, we will work with honey, cocoa and coffee cooperatives that collectively reach 7,500 small farmers.

Since the project launched in December 2017, it has provided tailored training in financial management and accounting systems to eight Mexican honey and coffee cooperatives. We’ve also supported four of these businesses – that previously had no access to credit from commercial banks – with $1.1 million in new financing. To date, this credit and training has strengthened the livelihoods of more than 2,000 small farmers.

This project also gives us the opportunity to help farmers unlock the hidden potential of honey and cocoa. Despite growing U.S. demand for honey, most honey producers are extremely poor. And they’ve usually turned to beekeeping to supplement income from their primary activity – coffee farming. But honey offers economic opportunities to those able to invest in it: It doesn’t require much land, can be pursued in many different climates and tends to generate relatively high earnings per kilo. Plus, the benefits of beekeeping go beyond livelihoods. Healthy hives sustain diverse ecosystems by pollinating plants, including many of the crops we depend on for food.

Cocoa holds similar promise. Latin America produces 48% of the world’s sustainable cocoa and 85% of its certified organic cocoa. Demand for fine chocolate means there’s significant room for growth. Like honey, cocoa provides an alternative crop for small-scale coffee farmers threatened by climate change and food insecurity.

Thanks to support from the Walmart Foundation, Root Capital will build the capacity of early-stage honey, cocoa and coffee businesses to access stable financing. And that stability will, in turn, empower farming families in Mexico to invest in nutritious food and education for their children, better farm productivity and so much more.

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Opportunity

Surprise, You’re Promoted! Meet Associate Tanaka Chikerema

When Tanaka Chikerema walked into Bud Walton Arena on Friday morning, he was already anticipating the moment he would walk on stage in front of thousands of his fellow associates –he just never expected that Greg Foran, CEO of Walmart U.S., would offer him a promotion when he did.

It’s pretty unusual for a CEO to promote one of his field associates on stage in front of an international audience. But then again, so is the path that led Tanaka from the capital city of Harare, Zimbabwe all the way to a stage in Northwest Arkansas.

“I was seven when my mom moved to the U.S.,” Tanaka recalls, “and I was just starting high school in Harare when she called and said it was time for me and my brother to move to Plano, Texas.”

In Zimbabwe, Tanaka’s mother, Dorcus, supported her family as a geography teacher. But economic hardships that still affect the country today created a system of poverty and crime, and she knew that even with a college education her children wouldn’t get the opportunities they deserved if they stayed in Harare.

Over the next seven years, Dorcus earned her nursing degree overseas while supporting her family with the income from three jobs.

“We were all living in one house together, my grandparents, cousins, brother and me,” said Tanaka. “To send any of us to school, there had to be a choice about who it was going to be. My mom knew that if we stayed in Harare, there was a good chance we could end up on the streets or getting into trouble.

“She always told us, ‘I just want you to stay focused. I just want you to have goals and stay on track.’”

When Tanaka graduated from high school in Plano, his mother’s words stuck with him. A job as a part-time truck unloader at his local Walmart quickly advanced as his managers recognized his potential. Within a year, Tanaka was promoted to supervisor. The words of his first mentor, Joe Riviera, still stick with him today: “If you show up and give 110%, it will pay off. It will always pay off.”

And it did. On stage at Walmart’s Associate Meeting, in front of thousands of his colleagues, Tanaka was promoted to a store support manager and recognized for the hours of energy and focus he’s dedicated to the company.

“It humbles me to think about how good my life is now,” Tanaka said, “and how much further I have to go. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that my mom was always right: ‘Get ready for the future, because you never know what it might hold.’”

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U.S. Manufacturing

Answering the Open Call: Entrepreneurs Bring It at Walmart’s Annual Event

It was high-stakes show-and-tell yesterday at Walmart’s annual U.S. Manufacturing Open Call event.

Entrepreneurs representing more than 450 businesses roamed the halls of our Home Office in Bentonville, Arkansas, awaiting their turn to pitch everything from salsa to sportswear in front of Walmart buyers. Weaving my way through the crowd, I saw hundreds of original and inventive items and had the privilege of meeting some of the people and hearing some of the stories behind them.

A few of those people walked away with deals, a few heard maybes and others received feedback that will prepare them to try again. Here are five of my favorites.

1. Flying High. Megan Hardwick had a roller-coaster ride of a day. The business owner and mom had to pitch her Wings Cosmetics eyeliner stamps twice: once in a small room in front of a buyer, then in an auditorium filled with other hopefuls and Walmart associates. Our cosmetics buyer was sold on Megan’s invention – flexible plastic stamps that apply liquid or gel eyeliner in sharp, matching wing shapes in seconds.

Flying high after getting a deal, she was selected for a live pitch session called “Bring It,” where businesses vied for crowdsourcing to identify which products would get placement in Walmart stores. Megan’s Wings went up against Mighty Good Pizza Saver – a microwavable plastic container that keeps leftover pizza fresh – and the competition was intense, with the Pizza Saver taking the lead by one point seconds before the polls closed. Megan wasn’t out of the game though. Her Wings pulled through and the contest ended with a tie.

2. Sparking Interest. Warren Brown, a lawyer-turned-baker from the Washington, D.C., area, attended his first Open Call in 2017 and ultimately landed a deal for Don’t Forget Cake: a single-serve layer cake with frosting in a jar. This year, he presented a healthier snacking option called Spark Bites. Warren said these whole-grain snacks are gluten- and allergen-free, high in fiber, low in cane sugar and come in five different flavors. His Spark Bites were referred to another buyer in a category that better fits the product. As for Don’t Forget Cake, two flavors launched in March and will soon be available in 1,000 Walmart stores.

3. Ugly Dates Deserve Love. This story begins all the way in Israel. When David Czinn and his friend and business partner, Brian Finkel, were studying abroad in the Middle East, they both fell in love with the region’s alternative to honey: D’vash date nectar. The sweetener has been a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine for thousands of years, David said, and the duo wanted to bring it to the States – but they wanted to cut the sugar and make it environmentally friendly. Thus D’vash Organics was born. Their dates come from Coachella Valley farms in California. “We buy the ugly ones that wouldn’t otherwise be sold,” David said. The nectar is vegan, has 25% less sugar than honey and can add flavor to tea and coffee, marinades, salad dressing and much more. David, a second-time Open Call participant, said he got positive feedback and was excited for the future of this ancient delight as he prepared for more meetings later in the day.

4. Party to Go. With the summer heat just getting started, ready-to-go cocktails sound like a great idea for parties and relaxing evenings outside with friends. YUMIX has quenched the need with three flavors – Orange Mango, Margarita and Sea Breeze. Everything needed is in one bottle: Simply twist off the bottom chamber that holds the alcohol, pour into the bottle and mix. Alex Garner, founder and CEO, started the day off right when he walked out of the pitch meeting with a deal for these adult beverages.

5. The Heart of the Deal. Not everyone was at Open Call with products in tow. Businessman Ray Doustdar was back for his second year with advice and a listening ear. In 2017, Ray pitched his liquid multivitamins, Buiced – a play on “boost your veggie juice” – and didn’t immediately get a deal because the product was too big for Walmart’s shelves. Ray took the buyer’s feedback home, adjusted the size of the packaging, approached the buyer again and got his “yes.” Two flavors of Buiced, citrus and fruit punch, are now available in 3,000 stores, and the experience has been life-changing for Ray. “I knew I wanted to come back as a success story and help other people prepare for their meetings,” Ray said. “This experience has made me be better at my business,” he said, and being able to pay it forward as a mentor is important to him.

Ray said it best: “The stories coming out of Open Call are proof that the American dream is alive and well.”

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U.S. Manufacturing

Diary of a Dairy Farm: Meet the Dirksens, Who Supply Milk to Walmart

Growing up in rural Ohio, Tina Dirksen doesn’t remember picking up many things at the store. Aside from toothpaste, her family’s farm produced everything else that their 14-person household needed.

Modern life is a bit different, she explained, but it’s clear that she means that only with regard to her family’s shopping habits. A lot of her life actually remains the same: She’s still in the farming business, with multiple operations that produce pork, grain, corn and dairy. And she’s still a part of a big family, today the mother of eight children who all love animals and the land.

“I ask them what they want to do in the future and each one of them tells me they want to farm,” she said. “They know no other life. They truly enjoy it.”

While the Dirksens somehow find time to do their own gardening, canning and butchering some of their own meat, Tina says they make two trips to their local Walmart per week. So when the opportunity arose for them to sell milk to Walmart’s new dairy plant in nearby Fort Wayne, they were excited. They would be shipping their milk just a short distance, and by working directly with a retailer, they could oversee more details themselves.

“It totally made sense to me,” she said. “Farming is changing, and the dairy industry as a whole needs more outlets for their milk. This new plant offers that.”

Local farmers like the Dirksen family are critical to Walmart’s entry in to milk processing. Nearly 30 farms across Indiana and Michigan have signed up to provide milk to the 250,000-square-foot state-of-the-art plant, which began construction in 2016 on the heels of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture’s strategy to increase the volume of dairy processing locally. In opening this facility, Walmart joins a majority of other grocery retailers who run their own milk processing operations.

For the Dirksens, doing business in dairy is an investment for the future. Their 8,000-hog pork farm provides the majority of their income, while any profits the dairy farm produces are put back into improving it alone. Tina keeps up with industry innovations and implements those that are beneficial for the cows, the business and the environment.

“Sustainability is accountability,” she said. “If you don’t make a farm that is sustainable, it won’t be very profitable to you. It’s not something that we take lightly.”

The Dirksens care equally about their relationships with the people and the animals who work for them. While Tina’s responsibilities on the farm are mostly administrative, she oversees veterinary care for the cows and has been known to help out her employees by even babysitting their kids once in a while. Her family even spends time with cows on their off hours – they’ve had a pet, a Jersey cow they named Good Golly Molly, for 7 years.

“What I love most about farming is that it provides us the opportunity to do what’s best for our family,” she said. “To us, working with Walmart is an exciting adventure.”

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