University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 170: Building a Vibrant and Inclusive Community in Northwest Arkansas with Robert Burns

April 13, 2022  |  By Matt Waller

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In this episode of the Be Epic podcast, Matt talks with Robert Burns, Director of the Home Region for the Walton Family Foundation. Robert provided an overview of the Walton Family Foundation, which was founded by Sam and Helen Walton and is currently led by their children and grandchildren here in Northwest Arkansas. He explained what the three pillars of the foundation are (K-12 education, environment and home region) and discusses the work that the home region focuses on in Northwest Arkansas. Matt and Robert further discuss how the foundation is focused on continuing to build our vibrant, inclusive community here in Northwest Arkansas.

Learn more about the Walton Family Foundation.

Episode Transcript

Robert Burns  0:01  
The belief really of Sam and Helen Walton that people can accomplish anything when they have opportunity and encouragement. I really believe that too and we get to help create that opportunity every day with the foundation.

Matt Waller  0:18  
Excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business, and the lives of people we meet every day, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College and welcome to the be epic podcast. I have with me today, Robert Burns, Director, home region at Walton Family Foundation in Bentonville, Arkansas. And he has a tremendous background in many different areas that we probably will touch on. But I think he's got one of the most interesting jobs that I've heard of. But maybe to start off with Robert first of all, welcome, and thank you for joining me.

Robert Burns  1:07  
Thank you, Matt, really looking forward to it.

Matt Waller  1:10  
So So Robert, you know, a lot of the people listening to this won't know, you know, they may have heard about the Walton Family Foundation, and they certainly benefited from it. I mean, if they're students in the Walton College, they benefited from it big time. But would you mind talking a little bit about the Walton Family Foundation, and what that is.

Robert Burns  1:35  
Absolutely happy to do it and thank you for giving me the opportunity to be on today. The fantastic thing to me about the Walton Family Foundation is at its core, it's a family lead foundation. And when I say that, I think it deserves some explanation. And the children and grandchildren of our founders, Sam and Helen Walton, lead the foundation and work to advance opportunities for people and community. And by doing that they're very actively involved. Northwest Arkansas is our home, it's where we honor our roots by supporting local opportunity, really working very hard to make this region as vibrant and inclusive as possible. And offer opportunities to everyone that calls this region home, whether they're from here and have lived here for multiple generations, or they may have just moved here a week ago. But a place that can be inclusive and vibrant for everybody. It's really an asset to have multiple generations of the Walton family engaged, to hear their views, to garner their knowledge, and to just sense the real humbleness, humility that we approach the work through. And while we play an important role in the foundation, it's it's really our family's commitment and how they work together and collaborate together that allows us to do the work that they do. And I'll just cover we work in three areas, K through 12 education, the environment, which is really focused on rivers and oceans and protecting those throughout the communities we work in. And then the other is the home region and the Arkansas Mississippi Delta. And that's the area that I and my team are focused on as part of the effort. We tackle social and issues with a real sense of urgency and real approach to long term success. And we very much uphold the idea that we need to be community led. So when we're looking for solutions, we're looking to the voices in the community to help shape those. We also have shared values across the areas that we work, whether that be education, environment, home region, one is the community driven change, that the voices that matter are those in the communities and that's who we need to be listening to. The second is a prioritization on inclusion, and making sure that our grant making and the voices that we engage truly represent a diverse and inclusive nature. And then really looking to collaborate with partners not going solo. How do we best do that? How do we even set up grant opportunities to help collaboration come about to help fuel that to set the stage for active collaboration. And we work in two areas, building this vibrant, inclusive economy here in Northwest Arkansas, and promoting equity through education, community development and economic mobility in the Delta. And while they're unique, it really is about the collaboration and partnership that makes this come alive. And that's what's exciting is where you see the synergy or we get the opportunity to make a connection between groups that may be working in different areas, but that we think have synergy. And you're able to make that connection, and then naturally it starts to happen. But that's, that's a little bit of a summary of what we do. And the reason this job is just incredibly exciting.

Matt Waller  5:27  
We're happy to have you here. I moved here from Michigan in 1994. And I was in Pennsylvania before that. But one thing I just loved about the area, other than the fact that people are very welcoming. I mean, they're very welcoming here. And you can still see that, you know, but you know I notice even like on the momentary up in Bentonville, and some of you may not have seen it yet. If you haven't, I recommend it. It's one of the museums and Bentonville, really cool. I think most everyone listening probably has been to Crystal Bridges. But momentary has, it's right next to the eighth street market, and it has a big sign. And the big sign on it says, you belong here. And I really think what's what's neat about that, I mean, anyone could put that on a building. 

Robert Burns  6:27  

Matt Waller  6:28  
I think it's part of the culture here to a large degree and but but the other thing I noticed when I moved here, yeah, there wasn't a lot of amenities in terms of like, shopping and restaurants. There is now for sure. But I mean, there's great restaurants in Northwest Arkansas, so just terrific, some of the best, but but you know, but still, there was the Buffalo River, which is so beautiful. It is one of the most beautiful rivers to canoe between the Appalachians and the Rockies. And then there's Beaver Lake, there's lots of lakes and Arkansas but Beaver Lake for people that like to ski and wakeboard, and just play in the water. It's such a nice lake. And it's huge. It's huge. And it's not heavily utilized compared to a lot of other lakes I've been to. So, you know, but but when I say that, I think about, I know the Walton Family Foundation, and the home region in particular has been key, and a lot of advancing the economic opportunity, which has then drawn in a lot of businesses and restaurants. It's kind of caused a virtuous cycle here. But you know, you've got a lot of experience with this. I mean you were Senior VP of Community Relations for Citi. And you were executive director at Citi First Enterprises. And you have just a long history. And one of these is called, you were with Neighborhood Works America for 15 years. So you've had a lot of community development types of experiences, how have those experiences helped shape you and prepare you for what you're doing today?

Robert Burns  8:31  
Yeah, I appreciate the question. And having just moved here now five months ago, my partner and myself, I, I echo your sentiment that the variety of restaurants, opportunities, sites, you cited, the momentary, which is yeah, I would encourage if no one has had the opportunity to be there to definitely check it out, as well as other amenities across Northwest Arkansas. And when you see the number of things going on during the week, or on the weekends, through lots of different organizations, it's an impressive variety. I don't think there's a shortage of things to do. And to me, what's exciting about that is it means there's a robust group of organizations that are doing that. And one of the hallmarks of the foundation is we've had the privilege of being able to support a number of those groups, which is, which is great and to watch groups grow, to figure out like, what their plans are in the years ahead and how do they respond to the growth in the region? What are the new needs, what are folks moving in even from a generational standpoint, needing but for me, the the great thing about this role was when I looked at the description for it, and read the things that it engaged from a community development standpoint, working with nonprofits, the nature of community led, the the belief really of Sam and Helen Walton, that people can accomplish anything when they have opportunity and encouragement. And I didn't say that that that definitely is from the perspective of the Waltons, I really believe that too. And we get to help create that opportunity every day within the foundation. One of the benefits for me is, having worked in a number of places across the country, this was a wonderful opportunity to come back to the heartland, an area that I think fundamentally, really is an area where people can come together and and look for solutions, sometimes in the middle, an area that I don't think you find as much on the east or west coast sometimes. And that, to me is a real, appealing prospect. And I think there there is this welcoming nature to the area that I definitely appreciate. And the experience that I've had in working communities across the country it's a real belief that for me, and I've been doing this a lot is is listening, just hearing what's on people's minds? What are the things that are important? How do we respond? We operate under a five year strategy. And I always figure a strategy and a plan is a living thing. And we need to be able to respond to the community as things change, being true to our core values and being true to our goals. But being responsive and being respectful in that response, which is, to me the essence of the community. But I I'm very fortunate that I've had tri sector experience, I worked in government, I've worked in the nonprofit and in the private sector, and that tri sector experience was something that started my career, I couldn't have really imagined that since I had that opportunity, you find a lot of similarity. But you also find that they each build on each other and they give you a range of new experience and knowledge. But I also think in no matter what I have done this nature, you know, I don't, I don't do anything alone. It's really in partnership with other people, other organizations, and I'm blessed to have a great team, a wonderful family with the Waltons to, to work with together on crafting solutions.

Matt Waller  12:35  
Well you know, when I think about the Walton Family Foundation, and home region in particular, of course, I've been around it for many years, but they think big 

Robert Burns  12:48  

Matt Waller  12:48  
They're not going for small incremental improvements, they're going for order of magnitude changes. And, and yet, you know, right now we're in a time of some people would say that we're in a historical discontinuity. Because, you know, the rate of change right now is just terrific. It's just off the charts. And, you know, of course, with COVID, and COVID sped up a lot of things like people having more options and how they work. You know, we've we've been working in the office, that's really a relatively new phenomenon in man's history, and then working from home and working from anywhere in any linear combination of those three. You know, there's just more variety in terms of how people are, are working, and playing. And so now, you know, it used to be that people would say, well, I live in downtown, whatever city and this company is over here, it's close by, and I could get a job there and they work there. But now people have more of the perspective, I can work anywhere. And so having a place that's welcoming, that's vibrant, that's full of art and music and, and creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, good restaurants, great things to do outside to enjoy life. These are becoming the things that attract people. 

Robert Burns  14:32  

Matt Waller  14:34  
And from my experience, that's been a big focus of the Walton Family Foundation. Do you think that will continue into the future?

Robert Burns  14:43  
I do. I I absolutely agree. It's what sets the region apart. And it is about, you know, how do you make the community the place, still that vibrant and inclusive place? How do you keep the amenities responsive to the needs? And how do you how do you keep the pace of making sure that things that are available to those that live in the area are the things that are responsive to the needs? And and I've seen that, but I the commitment is there on multiple levels. And if you if you're bringing together this fundamental idea of bringing different perspectives to bear, and how do you craft a solution, you know, again, that's our core, it's the community lead aspect. And one of the things that excites me is how do we increasingly become creative about that going into, you mentioned the nature of work, but how do we, rather than relying on the kind of idea of you always have to come to a meeting to be a participant. Now, this era of being able to have things live over other forms, video conferencing, or virtual or social media is to make the most use of that. And I think it's really critical to, you know, how do you engage communities that maybe felt in the past, not, not because of something here in Northwest Arkansas, but some of that history, where communities may have been not able to participate. I think a classic example is, you know, someone who is a shift worker, and maybe is working a shift that takes them into the evening hours overnight. And that could be medical, it could be at a plant, it could be transportation, but those voices often get left out. So how do you take these creative tools to have that community lead aspect come out so that, you know those things intrigued me. One of the things that I'm also impressed by is just generally how accessible things are. You talk about art in the region, amazing accessibility to art, whether you're strolling downtown, that you have the opportunity to go to one of the numerous performing arts venues or you take in the the amazing nature of Crystal Bridges or the momentary, take in a production at TheatreSquared, or Walton Art Center, or Trike Theater, and the variety, but the fact that many of those venues are just incredibly accessible.

Matt Waller  17:29  
They really are now more than ever, of course, and I know that there's so many things, though, that the home region has done to make things accessible. You know, you were talking about working with community. And, you know, obviously, the the grants have gone to things like Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers, which is making cycling accessible to

Robert Burns  17:56  

Matt Waller  17:57  

Robert Burns  17:57  

Matt Waller  17:58  
I remember when when when we put in the Razorback Greenway

Robert Burns  18:02  

Matt Waller  18:03  
It was a long time ago, when they first started talking. I don't remember how long ago, it seems like 10 years ago, but I remember thinking people around here don't really ride bikes a lot. There's not, you know, I don't know how it's gonna work. Well, now, if you go on the Greenway, which I love. You know, it's full of people. 

Robert Burns  18:21  

Matt Waller  18:23  
You know, and some of the other grants I'm familiar with, like some of the grants to even like Crystal Bridges, to especially support for the momentary, for multicultural display space for visual and performing arts. Again, I think that starts because, you know, the University has a lot of international students and a lot of diverse students recognize things like that make it easier for me to recruit. So I know, seriously when I, when I first became a department chair of the supply chain department in 2011. One of my biggest challenges was getting people to move here. And now, you know, 11 years later as dean, it's not that hard anymore. This is not a big problem. And you know, when I look about at all of the home region has made grants to Arkansas Public School Resource Center in the Downtown Springdale Alliance, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Bentonville Public School Districts for the Ignite program, which we don't have time to get into that. But the Ignite program is really pretty cool. Right? Endeavor. You know, Endeavor is involved in a bunch of things in Northwest Arkansas, that really helps entrepreneurs in the region. But there's so many things and I even think about even like The Walton Arts Center. I like rock and roll, you know, used to be if I wanted to hear a concert, I had to go to Kansas City or Tulsa, but not anymore. At the Amp, you know, I've seen Steely Dan, Steve Miller. Yes. You name it, 

Robert Burns  20:21  

Matt Waller  20:21  
All these, Boston. It's just now it but they but they also have every kind of music you can imagine, rap, country, just a wide variety of types of entertainment. But you know, to make a place that people want to live and work and, and I, I noticed we've had a record number of people moving to the area from cities you wouldn't expect. You know, San Francisco, for example. I met a guy that he's actually the CO he was the co founder of Evernote, one of the most successful software companies in history. Sold it, but he elected to move here. 

Robert Burns  21:12  
Right. Right. 

Matt Waller  21:13  
Pretty remarkable.

Robert Burns  21:14  
Yeah, that's fantastic, too.

Matt Waller  21:18  
So Robert, in closing, I want to ask you two questions. One, should students consider a career like yours? And to what advice do you have for students?

Robert Burns  21:36  
Yeah, no, thank you, Matt. The first is an unequivocal yes. The field that I am privileged to be in right now of philanthropy is growing. You're seeing interest not only at traditional foundation level, but corporations adopting more of an ESG framework. And often the philanthropic work takes place in all three of those quadrants, but particularly the s. And as groups, look at how they give back to communities. And I think the consumer looks for ways that companies are doing more work in communities and supporting cities and localities and nonprofits, it's going to play a bigger role. And I would think students coming through the Sam Walton College of Business would have an incredible amount of experience that could be advantageous for this field. But I'd also add, I'd be happy to talk to students who expressed interest and I suspect I have colleagues who would feel the same, but I think it's really ripe for opportunity and to your second question. One of the things that, that I would always advise that I see a need for is, I'm particularly intrigued and desire to see generational involvement in communities. And what do I mean by that is, if there are boards of organizations that you feel a passion for, find a way you can get involved, volunteer your time, you may not be on the board, maybe it's a committee, maybe it's an advisory level, instead of that at an organization, it's a great learning opportunity, you can also exercise some incredible local leadership skills and develop those. But more importantly, it gives you a real sense of what's going on, like what's happening locally. That's apart from some things you might experience. And I think the other part of that is, if you just want some essence of that look for partners that might be volunteers where the campus involvement is absolutely key. And I love the fact that in a college community like Fayetteville, and throughout northwest Arkansas, at other institutions, you see involvement, but find ways to get involved if it's not at a board or a committee level. There's other opportunities in there. But I'd like to say thank you and really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today.

Matt Waller  24:06  
Yeah, thank you, Robert. Really enjoyed it. I look forward to seeing again. You're coming to campus soon and so looking forward to that.

Robert Burns  24:14  
Absolutely. Thank you, Matt.

Matt Waller  24:17  
On behalf of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching. Be epic B E E P I C.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

Be Epic Podcast

We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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