Gretchen Bellamy JD/LLM ’05
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., operates more than 11,500 stores in 28 countries. An estimated 37 million people shop at them daily — more than the total population of Canada — and the company says that over 50 percent of Americans shop at them each week. With customers coming from every sector of society and every part of the world, the ability to serve a diverse market is critical to the bottom line.
For Gretchen Bellamy, a senior culture, diversity, and inclusion strategist in the company’s Office of Global Culture, Diversity and Inclusion, it starts with ensuring that Wal-Mart’s 2.2 million employees, including its 1.4 million U.S. associates, reflect those markets, a point she makes with a story about sweet potato pie.
It goes like this: A young African-American buyer, new to Wal-Mart’s bakery section, didn’t think the sweet potato pie the company was selling tasted sufficiently homemade. In a cookbook by Patti LaBelle, she found one similar to her family’s recipe, so she approached the singer about partnering with Wal-Mart. Patti LaBelle’s Sweet Potato Pies were born, and when a customer’s YouTube review of them went viral, they sold out.
“If that woman hadn’t by chance been working as a buyer for the bakery, we would probably be selling the same pie as before,” says Bellamy, who moved into her position in October after spending two-and-a-half years addressing diversity and inclusion in the company’s legal ranks. “How do you take chance out of it and make sure that we have the right person at the right place in the right time? In the U.S., how do we make sure we have someone who understands the African-American consumer and the Hispanic consumer? And how does that translate to consumers in China or South Africa?”
Wal-Mart’s goal, she says, is to establish it as “a given” that the different perspectives brought by people of different backgrounds, genders, orientations, and life circumstances fuel sound business decisions — and that inclusion is the key to unlocking the power of all associates. The new vision statement from her office states it succinctly: “Everyone Included.” Wal-Mart’s sheer size and reach — its nearly $500 billion in annual revenue made it the world’s largest company in 2015 — will influence how the rest of the corporate world does business.
Bellamy characterizes her role at Wal-Mart as “managing change” in a way that requires input and support from all levels of corporate leadership. It’s a continuation of the work she has done in a variety of cultures and countries for much of her adult life. She helped women transition out of homelessness as a resident shelter manager and advisor and served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon prior to entering law school. During an externship in Zimbabwe while pursuing her JD and LLM in International and Comparative Law, she investigated the country’s child protection laws and recommended changes to make them more effective. And as director of international public interest and pro bono programs at the University of Miami School of Law, Bellamy engaged students in writing wills for women and marginalized groups in Tanzania for whom even a modest inheritance could be life-changing.
Diversifying the legal pipeline
“There are not many people who have as deep an understanding of and a desire to change societal wrongs as Gretchen has,” says colleague Alan Bryan, who manages Wal-Mart’s outside counsel in the U.S. as senior associate general counsel. The two worked closely on efforts to diversify the company’s legal operations over her two years as assistant general counsel.
“She took a fresh look at how we engaged our strategic partners and developed a new grant-application system,” Bryan says. “She helped the legal department make sure that we were spending our diversity dollars in a thoughtful and productive way.”
“I feel strongly about changing the legal profession,” Bellamy says of finding ways to bring in under-represented groups, such as through supporting scholarships for Native American law students, and building partnerships with such groups as the National Association of Women Lawyers and the National Asian- Pacific Bar Association, among others. “If we can get more diverse students into the pipeline, then down the line we could talk to them about where they might go in their careers.” She hopes, for example, to see more Native American lawyers working in-house at Wal-Mart, or at some of the hundreds of law firms it retains as outside counsel. Ensuring the solidity of the pipeline rests on law firms and corporations to make their respective work environments inclusive.
While outside counsel in the U.S. are selected with an expectation of adherence to corporate guidelines regarding diversity, inclusion, and flex-time goals, those issues don’t always translate easily to international markets, Bellamy says; varying cultural norms and demographics mean there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to access and advancement within the legal profession.
In 2013, she partnered with Bryan and the general counsel for Wal-Mart’s Latin American operations in an effort to increase diversity in the professional pipeline feeding the company’s legal team in the region. After extensive conversations with lawyers, business leaders, and other stakeholders confirmed that barriers to career development in law differed from country to country, they settled on Chile as the site for a pilot program designed to provide equal opportunity for lawyers and law students underrepresented at the top law firms. In Chile, Bellamy says, these happened to be members of ethnic minority groups and individuals from low socio-economic backgrounds, whose prospects for long-term career success would be significantly improved by English-language proficiency and improved networking skills and opportunities. Enlisting the support of legal educators and practitioners, the team crafted a program through which Wal-Mart is supporting English lessons and law firm clerkships for 12 qualifying students from two top Chilean law schools for three years, garnering commitments from the firms to extend job offers to those students who successfully pass the bar.
“Eventually these lawyers might be partners working on Wal-Mart matters,” Bellamy says, calling it a long-term investment in change. “We are trying to fill the talent pipeline, effectively saying, ‘We want this changed,’ but trying to do it in a culturally sensitive way.”
Launched in October 2014 at a conference attended by almost 300 lawyers, government representatives, and corporate leaders in Chile, the project won Bellamy and her two colleagues the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Visionary Award on behalf of the legal department. Bellamy also was named Outstanding International Corporate Counsel in 2015 by the American Bar Association’s Section on International Law.
Building on international experience
Bellamy credits much of her own professional development to her long involvement with that ABA section. She joined during law school, after she contacted the chair of the section’s Africa Committee for advice on finding a job on the African continent, where she had years of experience. “She said she’d be happy to discuss that with me as long as I joined the committee,” recalls Bellamy.'
Bellamy eventually co-chaired the committee for two years and spent another two as the section’s diversity officer and as vice-chair for research for the section’s International Models Project on Women’s Rights Task Force. One of several international meetings she helped organize sparked the idea for a book on corporate social responsibility, Corporate Responsibility for Human Rights Impacts (ABA Book Publishing, 2014), which Bellamy edited along with two colleagues.
One of her section colleagues who had recently left a job as director of international public interest and pro bono programs at the University of Miami School of Law urged Bellamy to apply for the post. Bellamy got it, and in addition to helping students find internships and externships abroad, she leveraged her experience working with the Africa Committee on women’s issues in Tanzania and Rwanda to establish a student seminar focused on African probate law and policy. After intensive class work in Miami and at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania in which they studied the nuances of probate under common law, customary law, and Sharia law, Bellamy supervised the students in field clinics in which they drafted wills for marginalized women. They quickly realized, she says, that most of the women in Tanzania lacked basic understanding of property rights, let alone probate.
Bellamy created a training module “on the spot” to help students explain the concept of a will in basic terms. “I would say, ‘I have my son and even if I just owned some pots and pans, I would want my son to get them rather than have the government get them.’” But as they held more clinics, she realized that they needed to include men in their project; if a man died intestate, all property would revert to his family of origin.
“When we connected with men,” she says, “it was amazing to see the wheels turning as we explained the importance of having a will — that their wives would need to inherit property to take care of the children and to be able to direct it after her death. It was really empowering.”
Agent for community change
Bellamy, who has an 11-year-old son, has also taken an interest in local issues near Wal-Mart’s Arkansas headquarters. After a debate over expanding the local school board’s employment policies to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, veteran status, family status, pregnant women, and genetic information, she co-founded an online group called Bentonville Public School Citizens for Equality to combat discriminatory policies in the public schools. The group has since won the Arkansas Advocacy Award from the Northwest Arkansas Center for Equality. “Desmond Tutu says that if you are silent, you are one of the oppressors if you see something happening that’s wrong,” says Bellamy.
On the job, Bellamy is working to finalize a new three-year strategic plan to make Wal-Mart as diverse as its millions of consumers. “Our ultimate goal is to have diversity and inclusion embedded into the culture of Wal-Mart so that we can change the name of our office to be the office of ‘culture,’” she says. “Right now, it’s the Global Office of Culture, Diversity & Inclusion. We want to be able to drop the ‘global, the diversity, and the inclusion’ because it’s just who we are.”