Episode 51: Stephanie Thomas
Stephanie Thomas is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Supply Chain Management in the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Stephanie also serves as the faculty advisor for Women Impacting Supply Chain Excellence. Stephanie received her BSBA and MBA from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and PhD from Georgia Southern University.
00:08 Matt Waller: Hi. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. And what those values mean in business, education and your life today.
00:27 Matt Waller: I have with me today, Professor Stephanie Thomas in the Department of Supply Chain Management, here in the Walton College. Stephanie came to us, a little over two years ago, and she had experience at IBM, and Lowe's, and she had been a assistant professor at Texas Tech when we hired her. Within the area of supply chain management, the whole discipline has a paucity of women. I would like to talk with you a little bit about... Maybe why there's opportunities for women in supply chain management and then how you present it? Because we've seen the number of students, the number of women majoring in supply chain management increasing quite dramatically recently. And employers like that because they keep asking us for that. So, would you mind talking a little bit about that?
01:28 Stephanie Thomas: Absolutely. And many students that walk in the door just aren't familiar with what supply chain is. There's an opportunity just to create an awareness about a field that they didn't really know a whole lot about or had given much thought to. But when you can relate it to every time you go to the store, you're participating in something in the supply chain that starts to resonate with a lot of them. And I think even if the ones that do know when they walk in, a lot of times they feel like it's only about truck drivers, or warehouse workers. And although I have spent some time in a distribution center and you can learn a lot in that area of the supply chain, there's a lot of exciting things going on, but for a lot of women, that's not something that is very exciting. And so, I think part of what the introductory class does is show how broad and how diverse the career paths are for anybody interested in supply chain. But a lot of those roles that are very relationship-based, tend to appeal to a lot of the female students. And I think that's where it has started and opened the door.
02:35 Stephanie Thomas: I think another thing is because I had previous work experience in logistics roles, and merchandise buying roles, other sourcing roles, I'm able to share my work experience in class, which regardless of gender, students tend to appreciate but for a lot of females that aren't used to seeing maybe a female professor, especially in a more male-dominated field, it opens the door for them to think, "What if I could do that?" Or, "Is that a possibility for me?" And then the more they learn, the more they can hear about it. And then I just encourage everyone that the opportunities are there. Supply chain is just growing like crazy, recruiters are coming. The job opportunities are fantastic. And so, I think that growth, the excitement, the complexity, you don't have to sit behind a desk all day every day, the interaction and collaborative nature of a lot of supply chain is very appealing to both male and female students. Just for many women, it's the first time they've really thought about it.
03:40 Matt Waller: Introduction to Supply Chain Management is a course that everybody in the Walton College has to take. We have in the first two years, the freshman year and the sophomore year, students take a variety of classes from all disciplines in business. And they don't have to choose their major 'til their juniors, which is really good because they... At that age, they really don't know what they're interested in.
04:03 Stephanie Thomas: Absolutely.
04:03 Matt Waller: But somehow you tend to make supply chain interesting. The students tell me you're very organized in how you teach, as well. How do you go about doing that?
04:16 Stephanie Thomas: I think, and this comes with the collaborative nature of the faculty within the department, is several of us that have taught the introduction class will sit down and say, "Okay, what's a way of presenting information that makes sense?" And so, at this point we've tried to start with a high level what is supply chain? What is logistics? And then talk about three things that I think are important regardless of where you are in supply chain. And that being the importance of processes, the importance of measuring performance and the importance of relationships. And then we just break the supply chain down into parts. And so, one week it's about sourcing and then maybe we do videos on inventory management and forecasting, and then we talk about distribution, and transportation and just piece by piece build what the whole supply chain is. And then at the end, we come back and talk about strategy, and technology and how those two tie it altogether. And I think they like the broad overview at the beginning, the taste of breaking down the different parts, and then putting it all back together and seeing how it all links.
05:25 Stephanie Thomas: And I tell every one of my classes the first day of class, that I wanna ruin their shopping experiences because the next time they go to the store, I want them to wonder why their favorite brand of chips isn't available, or why the size or color of shirt that they wanna purchase isn't available, but another color, there's plenty of the same size. And it's funny, at the end of the semester I'll get feedback like, "Wow, you really did start to change the way that I think about shopping." And so, even if those kids don't specifically go into a "supply chain role," they're thinking about the world differently. And I think that's all I can ever hope for as an educator, is to challenge people in the way that they think.
06:12 Matt Waller: We have an organization here in the Walton College called WISE. Would you mind talking just a little bit about that?
06:19 Stephanie Thomas: Absolutely. WISE stands for Women Impacting Supply Chain Excellence. It's a student organization. I believe it's been around seven or eight years. It has had many student organizations, a high periods and low periods depending on who was around to take ownership and sponsor it. And I had the privilege about a little over two years ago, of taking over the advisory role for the group. And it has grown from a handful of young women coming together to talk about things that they're maybe concerned about, to a thriving student organization of... I think we're running 60-70 members this semester. We've probably got 10-15% male, members, which is fantastic and several males are taking on leadership roles. We're really starting to have conversations that are important...
07:17 Stephanie Thomas: An environment that... Where you can be authentic and you don't have to worry about being judged. One of the things when I first started teaching, was I had a young lady tell me that going to her supply chain classes was like going to a fraternity party. She was either hit on or ignored. And I thought, "That's awful. [chuckle] I wanna change that." And so, I can't guarantee every classroom experience for everyone is always going to be perfect but when you have an organization where you know that you can go with people that are gonna be supportive, and it's focused purely on professional development, guest speakers coming in to talk, give advice or to just share their story amongst the members that's creating a network so that you stay connected after you go out to school, or you know who to reach out to for an internship, or questions about a job. That's the whole purpose behind it. And we found that it's just really resonating with students and they like the initiative. There's basically four pillars focused on making connections, which is the networking piece, leadership skills, professional development and industry knowledge.
08:27 Matt Waller: Well, those four initiatives regardless, even if you weren't going in to supply chain, those would be pretty valuable.
08:32 Stephanie Thomas: Absolutely. I think so.
08:35 Matt Waller: [chuckle] Two months ago, you led a symposium called WISE Future Leaders Symposium 2019. And I know there were universities from all over the country that came and there were students from all over the country that came. Would you talk a little bit about that?
08:55 Stephanie Thomas: Absolutely. I've been fortunate to be part of an organization called AWESOME, which stands for Achieving Women's Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management and Education. One of the world's longest acronyms but...
09:07 Stephanie Thomas: It's a great organization, and it focuses on creating and building a network of women at director, VP, executive level roles. And I've been to their symposiums several times, and always came back just really rejuvenated, and inspired and motivated. And one night, when I woke up in the middle of the night, I thought, "What if we could do that for students?" Because there are organizations, and communities, and stuff, and even within companies, they're creating organization focusing on women, but outside of maybe individual universities, there's not anything really that connects young ladies across those university borders. The event was absolutely fabulous. We had 12 universities that supported us and attended the first year. Each university could send anywhere between 2-4 students, and at least one faculty member, as well. We had 50 students and 15 faculty and/or administrators from the different universities and had multiple companies engaged with us. And I actually just got a message right before I came to meet you, Matt, and it was from one of the symposium attendees from the University of South Florida. And she and the other girl that attended with her happened to, on their way home stopped by a Kate Spade store, and I believe it was Orlando, and they were wearing some of their shirts that they've gotten from the symposium, and it happened to be a shirt that they've gotten from JB Hunt that had their grow information on it.
10:47 Stephanie Thomas: And a lady that was working, started talking to him and said, "Well, JB Hunt. I'm familiar with JB Hunt." Well, it turns out that this young lady was a recent University of Arkansas grad, and so they told her about coming to University of Arkansas, and meeting all these women, and being so inspired about supply chain, and so they made a really cool connection, and there's just countless stories that I've heard of girls from different universities that are now being recruited at different companies. And they're meeting back up at these headquarters or their offices for interviews, and they're touching base again. And so, you're starting to build a network. And this starting to build a network is something that over time could really have a huge impact on the field.
11:33 Matt Waller: An alumna of the Walton College is Shelley Simpson, and she is Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer of JB Hunt Transport, Inc. She's also President of Highway Services for them. She's been really involved in the Walton College for a number of years, and really has helped us in a number of ways, but she was key in this event, right?
12:00 Stephanie Thomas: Absolutely. Shelley's been... For a lot of, especially the symposium attendees, she has been so successful but she's so down to earth and she has such a great story of... Hey, I just started. I was a marketing major that took a job that I didn't see a 20, 30, 40 year career here. And then look where she is now, and she was able to talk about work-life balance and a lot of things that really are important for... Especially as you're looking at the edge of your career but also trying to figure out what you want in your personal life. A lot of the feedback afterwards we had just... They could say nothing about but just that how phenomenal that she was, and how they all hope that they could be like her one day.
12:42 Matt Waller: Wow. That's awesome. Now, Shelley's also given us some substantial gifts recently. Would you mind talking about that?
12:51 Stephanie Thomas: Absolutely. After the symposium and some other stuff, Shelley has made a donation to be able to sponsor the symposium for the next five years. It will be the Shelley Simpson WISE Future Leaders Symposium moving forward, which I'm super excited about because I think that that's just gonna help us showcase and highlight how awesome she is, to have her name attached to this event, so I'm happy about that. And then she's also made a donation to endow the Y student group as well, which will continue to help with funding and opportunities to attend special events, and conferences and bring in speakers. And when you have a budget that you can count on each year, it's very nice. We're super just excited to know that we have the support of somebody like Shelley.
13:47 Matt Waller: We know... She really has turned around businesses within JB Hunt and brought them to profitability. She's like anyone else, a normal person, but on the other hand, [chuckle] she is a very motivated leader.
14:05 Stephanie Thomas: Oh, absolutely.
14:06 Matt Waller: And I was really pleased to see at the conference, you were talking about things like the future of supply chains, and what kind of talent needs there are, and sustainability in supply chains, as well as leadership topics. And you know, leadership is one of those things that you can read about it, but you actually have to practice it...
14:31 Stephanie Thomas: Sure.
14:31 Matt Waller: To some degree. You get better over time. And clearly, Shelley is one of those people that... She really jumped in and practiced it, especially...
14:41 Stephanie Thomas: Absolutely.
14:41 Matt Waller: Servant leadership, which is what she talks about quite a bit.
14:45 Stephanie Thomas: She's very inspiring. We're very fortunate to have her here and engaged with the college.
14:51 Matt Waller: Well, Stephanie, thank you so much for... Not only for helping our female students and our male students but you're really helping students from many other universities. And other universities to grow in their ability to get women involved in supply chain. So, thank you for doing that, as well.
15:10 Stephanie Thomas: Thank you. I consider it a part of my calling when I came into academia. This was one of the reasons that I came was I felt that that was part of what I was supposed to do, is to help all students but with a special focus on female students because with some... A little bit of investment you can help raise confidence, and confidence can take people a long way.
15:38 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be Epic podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching Be Epic podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.