NATIONAL REPORT — Now in its eighth year, the Convenience Store News Top Women in Convenience (TWIC) awards program has recognized more than 300 of the best and brightest women making a positive impact on not only the companies they work for, but also the entire convenience retail channel.
TWIC is the only program that recognizes exceptional female leaders, rising stars and mentors among retailer, supplier and distributor firms in the convenience store industry, from the C-suite to the store level to the independent entrepreneur.
In TWIC Talk, our quarterly Q&A series, we interview a past TWIC winner about what it's like to be a female leader in the convenience store industry today — the opportunities, the challenges — and get their words of wisdom for up-and-comers seeking to blaze their own trail.
This month’s TWIC Talk subject is Ina Strand, chief people officer at Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc./Circle K (ACT). Starting her career as an engineer and management consultant, Strand joined Couche-Tard when the company acquired Statoil, her former employer, in June 2012. She is currently one of two women serving on the retailer’s Executive Committee, and was instrumental in the development and introduction of the new global Circle K brand. In 2020, Strand was one of the five women celebrated by TWIC as Women of the Year.
How would you describe the current state of affairs for gender equality in the convenience store industry? How does this compare to 10 years ago?
In my nearly two decades in the industry, I've seen significant progress on gender equality. I come from Norway, and there is no doubt that Europe is well ahead of North America on gender parity. When I moved to the U.S. about four years ago, it was a big change to realize that my role as a female executive cannot be taken for granted.
As CHRO [chief human resources officer], I took on a gender diversity challenge from the CEO and board, and we have since made significant progress by establishing the ACT Women’s Council and improving our metrics on representation.
My industry observation would be that retail is better than many other industries in which I have worked, including as a management consultant and engineer. This is likely due to the diversity of the customers we serve and our employee base. At Circle K, we used to say, “Come as you are,” to our customers and many of our team members tell me they have felt welcomed that way, too. There is clearly still a journey ahead of us, but I am proud of the progress we are making at Couche-Tard/Circle K and in the industry as a whole.
What is the most positive change you have personally witnessed?
Let’s start with ACT’s Women’s Council, which I started two years ago to create winning conditions for women in the organization. With 62 percent of our workforce female, we recognized the need to create a representational group within the organization that supports the professional development of our female workforce and provides opportunities to help advance their careers and strengthen our business to better serve our customers.
Looking back not even 10, but four years ago, we had zero women in the executive leadership ranks. Today, I'm proud to say we have five, including myself, in the Executive Leadership Team — representing 35 percent of that group. This is a major achievement and recognizes our CEO’s and board of directors’ commitment to gender equality across the organization.
We did not stop with forming the Women’s Council. As the Executive Advisory Team leader for diversity and inclusion (D&I), I pledged to be an ally to push the company forward on this journey. Following the racial tensions across the globe in the summer of 2020, myself and our CEO Brian Hannasch committed to the entire organization that we would listen, learn, and take meaningful action to have our leadership better reflect our diverse customers and store team member base. Since then, we have created many diverse business resource groups, including for race, religion, disabilities and sexual orientation. We have also promoted educational opportunities for minority team members, held D&I townhalls across the network, and sponsored venues for leadership to hear directly from our diverse workforce.
Along your career path, did you personally experience gender bias or inequality? If so, how did you overcome?
Over the years, I believe most women in the workforce have experienced some type of bias. Since I became the first women in the leadership of Statoil Retail Norway at age 28, I have countless stories of being mistaken for being others’ administrative assistant or reporting to one of the men in the room. Yet, I have been so fortunate to be surrounded by good men — one of them once saying when asked if I was his admin: “No, she is not my admin, she is my deputy CEO and you should be careful, she will be part of the Corporate Executive Team one day, and make you and me seem very insignificant.” I don’t know if I could have made it without such support, and that is my goal today; to be that ally for others faced with bias or inequality.
What barriers to advancement do you see still existing in the c-store industry?
When I accepted the award last year as Woman of the Year, I said in my speech that I hope this award is made from a piece of the glass ceiling — that invisible barrier to advancement that women continue to face. I feel strongly about seeing that glass ceiling coming down.
It is up to me and other female leaders in our industry to sponsor other women, share our knowledge, and foster diverse perspectives. We need to encourage each other to speak up and find our confidence.
We have also seen women struggle during the pandemic: unemployment is on the rise, and more women than men are leaving their jobs to care for family members. It is important that as a women leader, I don’t let the scourge of COVID-19 distract me from the need to support our female workforce, and continually push for ways to make it easier for women to do their job and have avenues for success and fulfillment.
What is your advice for other industry women looking to rise to higher ranks?
My No. 1 career advice, regardless of gender, is: Pick your boss carefully!