NATIONAL REPORT — More than a year after months of nationwide protests began and pushed individuals and businesses alike to hold serious discussions about race and justice, many convenience store industry companies are prioritizing heightened awareness and action around their diversity programs. This isn't just the right thing to do — it's a smart business move, experts agree.
Convenience Store News is partnering with exclusive underwriter Altria to launch a new industry initiative to facilitate engagement among all stakeholders in the convenience channel around diversity and inclusion (D&I). The Hershey Co. and WorkJam are also sponsoring the new platform, which is a multi-touch digital and print program guided by advisory board members Derek Gaskins of Yesway, Elisa Goria of Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc./Circle K, Treasa Bowers of 7-Eleven Inc., and Heather Schott of Kum & Go LLC.
To kick off the initiative, CSNews invited multiple D&I leaders to participate in a special June 15 webcast entitled "The Business Case for Diversity & Inclusion."
The question of what makes diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) important in the c-store industry has an easy answer, according to webcast participant Gaskins, chief marketing officer at Yesway, the retail arm of BW Gas & Convenience Holdings LLC, which operates more than 400 c-stores in nine states.
"Simply put, it is good for business, and I think all of us are in the business of being more profitable and better suppliers or retailers. It has to make business sense, and it certainly does," he said, adding that it's vital c-store businesses be intentional and overt about DEI.
Danielle Holloway, senior director of industry engagement for Altria Group Distribution Co., concurred, drawing attention to the role DEI plays in attracting and retaining quality employees, whether they are on the level of sandwich makers, store managers, vice presidents, or all other roles. "It's about talent," she said. "We are all better off if our industry is an attractive place to work."
Authenticity is key to maximizing DEI practices, according to Jayson Council, a thought-leader on diversity and an associate faculty member at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies. "Be authentic," he told the webcast audience. "As real as possible, to internal and external stakeholders."
This requires top-down buy-in from senior leadership. DEI cannot be an add-on. It must be infused and embedded in company culture; not just a strategy.
While it can seem like a paradox, maximizing the effectiveness of DEI can come from acknowledging when a person or company is not an expert on the subject. The journey forward is important, even if it takes many different roads and the specifics of the destination may be unknown at times.
"We keep moving forward," Holloway said.
Gaskins noted that it can be tempting to assume that having a variety of different points of view on a leadership team qualifies as diversity, even if no diversity exists for ethnicity, gender, orientation, or other attributes.
"I think it goes well beyond that," he said. "You want to have that diversity of experiences and backgrounds to make your organization better."
He pointed to numerous quantitative studies that consistently show that companies led by more diverse management teams outperform those that aren't.
Some may feel that diversity isn't something the industry as a whole needs. Addressing this, Council discussed the implementation of curb cuts as a metaphor — while these graded ramps were created primarily for the benefit of wheelchair users and those with other mobility aids, they are used by and useful for everyone. Investing in DEI similarly benefits society as a whole, even those who are not part of a marginalized group, he said.
Authenticity again comes into play if businesses are perceived as making performative philanthropic gestures for good press. Companies can avoid this through subtle changes, such as making sure their career pipeline is equitable and inclusive from an attracting and hiring standpoint. Additionally, companies should make sure the resources they allocate truly benefit a community. This avoids having a mismatch between a brand's statements and its actions.
Holloway recommends starting or facilitating the formation of employee resource groups (ERGs). At Altria, its ERGs started with a Women in Sales Group, and soon expanded. Today, Altria's ERGs support a variety of events and programming, and help company leadership understand what different people need. They aren't the only answer, she said, but they mark a big shift in company culture.
"Be honest and own it," Gaskins said, regarding the starting point for businesses. If someone is able to listen, recognize nuance and acknowledge that they may not be right about something, "that's the way to get started. It's acknowledging what the issue is and starting to take action, no matter how small," he advised.
An on-demand replay of this webinar, "The Business Case for Diversity & Inclusion," is available here.