University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 182: Integrating Business and Philanthropy at Walmart with Julie Gehrki

July 06, 2022  |  By Matt Waller

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This week Matt is joined by Julie Gehrki, Vice President of Philanthropy at Walmart. She explains how Walmart's philanthropic efforts impact billions of people everyday, starting with their own employees and expanding to communities across the globe. To finish out their conversation, Gehrki advises students seeking a career in philanthropy to gain a diverse set of skills and experiences that will lead to a higher impact.

Episode Transcript

Julie Gehrki  0:01  
Philanthropy is a tool. It's an important tool. It's one I certainly love and have created a career around. But it's not the only tool.

Matt Waller  0:11  
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, Julie Gehrki, who is Vice President of Philanthropy at Walmart. Thank you, Julie, for joining me today.

Julie Gehrki  0:39  
Thanks for having me. I'm really glad to be here.

Matt Waller  0:41  
Julie, I want to talk about your background a little bit. But I'd like to start with talking about Walmart's approach to philanthropy. And I know Walmart's been engaged in philanthropy for a long time. And certainly, the Waltons have I, I know when I got to my office here at the University of Arkansas, in the Dean's office, I found a letter from Sam Walton, in 1990, where they had just given a gift and they'd given gifts before then, they'd given some in the 70s. And of course, this is the Walton College of Business, so, and the whole university has benefited from the Walton family. I know Walmart's different, totally separate. But I think that probably some of that philanthropic thrust and culture started with with the family itself.

Julie Gehrki  1:36  
It certainly did. Sam founded the foundation in the 80s, late 70s, early 80s. And when I joined 14 years ago, that was part of what was appealing, is the culture ran deep. And a lot of companies, people in my job spend a huge portion of their time defending that a company should do this, I think we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can drive greater impact how we can be more effective. But the fact that we should use our business and philanthropy to make change in the world and positively affect the systems, we rely on, environmental and social, really is kind of a part of the company's fabric. And so that's a huge advantage to my role at a company like Walmart with that inherited culture. So our approach today is different than it was then. All of philanthropy has evolved. But it certainly builds on that culture and those values. Today, instead of thinking about philanthropy as kind of a side project, it is deeply embedded. And we actually start with "What are the social and environmental issues, we can make a difference on as a company?" Even doing philanthropy, I recognize that the power of the business model and the power of Walmart can make greater and more substantial change. And so that's what we root ourselves in is the places where the company can take a leadership role. But inevitably, there's market failures or pieces that it just doesn't make sense for the company to solve. And we use our philanthropy pretty surgically in those spaces. We think about the tools, we have to make a change, our shared value. So this idea that the business is stronger by solving environmental and social issues, collaborations with suppliers, with competitors, you know, really we collaborate with a massive range of stakeholders. Philanthropy, all of these are tools we use, and we integrate those to solve problems. So when we take that approach, it means all the issues we work on, you're kind of like, of course Walmart works on that. Economic opportunity, so how do we build economic growth for individuals so that they advance from frontline jobs to more senior jobs? Or businesses? How do they grow, particularly minority-owned, women-owned, smallholder farmers around the world, using jobs and purchase order. Walmart can lead in both areas and we can complement with philanthropy. Sustainability, we think about that as climate, nature, waste, and people. So all about supply chains and operations. Our philanthropies focused in the supply chain, but Walmart clearly thinks about both. Community, with 11,000 communities around the world we serve. How do we bring our expertise, our logistics, our people, our product, into that community to be a part of solutions? And then we a couple of years ago started the Center for Racial Equity, and really thinking about how in the US, we work on issues that affect Black and African American people specifically, but also as a whole and then we work on finance, healthcare, education, and criminal justice.

Matt Waller  4:54  
That's exciting. Yeah. ESG in general, as a topic has really just taken off. You know, it's certainly on all of the agendas of board of directors meetings for publicly traded companies these days. It's interesting how Walmart addresses it both through the regular business, and through the philanthropic arm. And your point is really interesting, I think about, you know, looking for market failures. In other words, where is it that maybe you have a public good, or an externality or something that the markets not addressing clearly, and then you address that with philanthropy, but within the key buckets that you're interested in as a firm.

Julie Gehrki  5:42  
Absolutely. And there are all kinds of examples where we might need to invest or others might need to invest short term to get the market working. So that long term, there's a sustainable solution. So for example, in our work on nature, we have a commitment to preserve, protect, or sustainably source from 50 million acres of land and 100 square miles of oceans. Well, a lot of that will be done through Walmart sourcing practices. But one of the things that our environmental NGO partners and others think really as part of the solution is place based initiatives. So working with governments and saying this whole portion of land, we're going to conserve some of it, we're going to restore other parts, we're going to sustainably manage production and the local people are going to get value out of that we've got to make the economy work here. While setting those up is hard, and takes often philanthropic or public investment, but ideally, long term, the sourcing mechanism, and sustainable production is going to sustain it and make value work for everyone. So that's a place where philanthropy be might be the catalyst and prove it out. But ideally, we're always hoping that the market can solve and scale it long term.

Matt Waller  6:58  
Seems like a great philosophy. Because in the long run, it's got to or it won't be sustainable.

Philanthropy is a limited resource, if we can get the market working, it grows and scales. You know, I feel really privileged to work at a place like Walmart, where it's almost one and a half billion dollars of cash and in-kind that we invest every year. But still, that's a limited resource when you look at the world's problems.

You know, I've known so many people over the years, including a former MBA student of ours, who really didn't have a college degree, went to work at Walmart in a store, and really worked hard. And before long was a store manager. Eventually went and got his undergraduate degree and then got an MBA. And he eventually was a Senior VP at Walmart. But you know, that kind of opportunity. That's where the market kind of dressed something very clearly, I've seen examples of that same kind of thing in the distribution centers, and in transportation and other areas as well. But you're right, philanthropy, regardless of how much money you have, it's still fixed.

Julie Gehrki  8:11  
And even in the example you're talking about, so one of the things we're most proud of at Walmart is that upward mobility of associates. Over 75% of field management started as hourly associates, but our philanthropy's thinking about, okay, how do you make that less anecdotal and more standard? And how do we make that how frontline jobs work? So for instance, we're investing in credentialing and other routes so that you can go to college. But if you're learning on the job, you're getting credit for that. If you've taken a series of short term credentials, those stack and are meaningful to employers, what's the digital infrastructure that's needed for that? How do you make that a lifelong journey that's really gives you credit for all the ways you learn, and adds up to a way that hiring managers and employers really recognize it, and it drives mobility.

Matt Waller  9:04  
I noticed back in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit US gulf, it caused all kinds of problems. But there's a lot of information about this in the media. But Walmart played a huge role in solving a lot of those problems. I know Walmart has this disaster preparedness summit to address disasters as they come up, but also to focus on areas that are prone to disasters, but maybe have minority groups in those areas or disadvantaged types of groups in those areas. Would you mind speaking to that?

Julie Gehrki  9:48  
Sure, I'd be happy to. The legacy of Walmart's role in Hurricane Katrina, I think is one of the inspirations for how we work today. It really was this recognition that our strengths and assets, as a business could uniquely meet needs in communities. We didn't have to be somebody else to help, we could really lean into who we are in the community. And that can be inspiring not just to associates, but to the community itself. We're seeing the increase of disasters with climate change, there is no, for instance, the coast of Louisiana, gets hit now almost every year, and sometimes multiple times a year. Unfortunately, these places often do coincide with where a disproportionate number of underserved populations live. Whether that is indigenous tribes, black communities, they're disproportionately feeling the impact of this work, and this evolution that climate is creating. And so we're really going into those communities and thinking not only about how we respond when a disaster happens, which may involve setting up, you know, relief stations in parking lots, and grant making and raising money from customers. We have a number of tools, mobile pharmacies, getting stores up and running as quickly as possible. Those tools are all there for when a disaster happens. And we certainly want to deploy them. But we see in communities where there's capacity, and investment and planning on the front end, the return to normalcy is much faster. And so how do we build that resiliency into communities and make sure that that is done in as equitable way as possible that the local government is prepared for it, and that we're investing so those relationships exist. And that plan exists ahead of time. Because, unfortunately, many of these communities, it's not really whether they'll be hit, it's when. And so the more resiliency we can build, the better we'll be.

Matt Waller  11:53  
Julie, I also saw that Walmart has been as part of ESG really helping with grants for smallholder farmers in India, Mexico and Central America. You've been doing this for almost five years. These grants have reached over 700,000 smallholder farmers, and 44% of them are run by women. And so the grants are supposed to help basically the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. But would you mind talking a little bit about that, as well?

Julie Gehrki  12:31  
Be happy to. This work is really inspiring. And again, based on this idea that Walmart in these countries can often source from smallholders and that the likely greatest increase in livelihoods is becoming part of a formal market and selling to the formal market, where they can get higher prices, more predictability, all of those pieces. But at the smallest size, a farmer, they often aren't ready for that, don't have access to it. And so we've been investing in farmer producing organizations. So groups of small holders that come together to get better inputs, better access to things like quality seed, good technical advice, and can sell together and aggregate their product. What we find is when these farmer producing organizations are strong, they build the capacity and capability of everyone. And then over time, they grow to a place where they do sell more to formal markets, and those livelihoods grow production, they may need to add in other crops to rotate. You know, I was in a farm in India, where a woman was growing mushrooms for the local market. And that was an addition to her kind of row crops that she'd been growing, but she was getting much higher prices from these specialty mushrooms she was selling to restaurants in nearby big cities. And that was taught through the FPO. And so you see layering in to get value and the FPO really thriving, and women often taking leadership in that. So we're really excited about that. Our Central America business has a long history of sourcing from smallholders. So we see that the growth and that access to formal markets can happen. But it often comes with maturity of these FPOs that we're able to invest in philanthropically, and then they can sell to us or to other formal businesses. It isn't really about us getting special access, it's really about growing the capacity. So that system is stronger, and then we'll all benefit.

Matt Waller  14:32  
That's a great approach. You started your career with Walmart, the Walmart Foundation, as Senior Director of Business Integration, when I see the title business integration, I'm not surprised in a business, a regular business, but in a foundation. I don't think I've ever seen that before. And you did it for almost nine years. So what did that mean?

Julie Gehrki  14:54  
Yeah, so in fairness, I started as a manager and kind of worked my way up over the years to that role. But I would say that really was about growing this model of integrating business and philanthropy together, of working with business leaders. You know, I speak to our interns often in early days of their time at Walmart. And inevitably, many of them come up to me and say, like, how do I get on your team, and I play this game with them, that's tell me where you're interning. And inevitably, I can find through their job that they're interning that isn't in kind of the global responsibility team, how they're going to make a difference on its social or environmental issues. And so I spend a lot of time doing that with business leaders, helping them see just through their day to day business, how they could not only drive higher productivity or better returns through just their day-to-day work, but then how we could partner together to change the whole system, and make it work for everybody and just have better outcomes. And so that's really what that meant over that time was at a point of inflection where we were going from doing that we probably started that work in hunger relief. Walmart's a large grocer, you can see where we have assets, not only in our everyday low price proposition, to help on issues of food security, but also food donations and those types of expertise. And then it grew to think, okay, this is so much higher impact, to build our philanthropy with our business, that we should really only work in areas where we're bringing this together. And that title really reflected a time where we were spending, we were kind of systematically going through the portfolios and building those partnerships across the business.

Matt Waller  16:44  
Julie, I'd like to hear a little bit about how you, personally became interested in philanthropy.

Julie Gehrki  16:50  
I grew up with parents who were incredibly focused on giving back and frankly, thought my career would be in the nonprofit sector. Spent a decent portion of time taking different jobs around the world, learning about impact, trying to prepare myself with the skill base to run a nonprofit. And as I was finishing graduate school, I had a conversation with the dean about where I might go, and candidly wanted him to send my resumes all to a bunch of nonprofits. And he said, I'd like to send it to Walmart. I fought him on it but he insisted, and they were the first people to call. I came up and interviewed during the week I was graduating, kind of thought it was a practice interview. And that this was going to get me prepared for the real conversations I would have about jobs I actually wanted. Ended up having a four hour conversation while I was there, where I became really interested about the role business could have in solving big problems. And very convinced that Walmart was interested in being a leading player in that. And that was exciting. The idea that I could be a part of thinking not only about the philanthropy, but partnering with the business was inspiring to me. And I'm somebody who doesn't really like to just run things, I'm kind of always wanting to think about what's next and learn and grow. And a place like Walmart has been endless opportunities for me to learn something new every day. And so that's what keeps me there.

Matt Waller  18:19  
So there may be some students listening to this that would be interested in going into philanthropy. What advice do you have for them?

Julie Gehrki  18:27  
Sure, I often tell them to think a little bit more broadly, think about driving impact. What change do you want to be a part of making in the world? Philanthropy is a tool. It's an important tool, it's one I certainly love and have created a career around. But it's not the only tool. It may be that as a buyer of beef, you are the most influential person on deforestation, or as a person in our operations you are having in real estate, the biggest impact on sustainable refrigeration. And so really thinking about what you hope to achieve, and then being really open that that may be in philanthropy, but it also could be in broader spaces, collect all the skills you can, some of them are really boring, or you think they are, but I am grateful that I know, program evaluation, and I spent time learning analytics, and those places come together to make you a more impactful leader over time. And so that's kind of the two pieces is think broadly about it. And then look for lots of experiences that build a diversity of skills. Because when you bring those together, you're much higher impact.

Matt Waller  19:45  
Well, Julie, thank you so much for sharing with us, I really didn't know much about Walmart's approach to philanthropy. It was very interesting learning about it. And thank you for your advice to students as well. And thank you for been on the show. Appreciate that.

Julie Gehrki  20:01  
Thanks for having me. It's great to spend some time with you.

Matt Waller  20:04  
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.

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Walton College of Business

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