It's About the Journey

The NACS IDEA Conference brought honest discussion around inclusion, diversity, equity and awareness.

It's About the Journey

December 2021   minute read

By: Sara Counihan

A journey is defined as traveling from one place to the next, usually for a rather long time, and those who participated in the NACS IDEA Conference in October agreed that the journey to an inclusive, diverse, equitable and aware (IDEA) culture is not an overnight trip.

“Everyone has used the word journey,” remarked Treasa Bowers, vice president and chief diversity officer at 7-Eleven, during her presentation. “Why do we say ‘journey’ versus ‘trip’? Well, a trip is fun. It’s something you look forward to, but we say ‘journey’ because it’s hard. It’s a reflection of experiences that are not easy.”

The NACS IDEA Conference, which took place on October 4 before the 2021 NACS Show, brought together convenience store industry members who are in some way responsible for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within their companies. The conference was sponsored by NACS Hunter Club members Altria Group Distribution Company, Mondelēz International, The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo Inc.

Facilitated by Michelle Duguid, Ph.D., associate dean of diversity, inclusion and belonging at Cornell University, the conference was comprised of six quick-fire 30-minute presentations and a panel discussion of four additional convenience retailers who shared their perspectives, experiences and plans on how they are leading the charge in diversity and inclusion in their companies.

Top: Polly Finn, president of GetGo and EVP of Giant Eagle, Bottom: Paul Shore, chief people officer, Pilot Company


“More than a year ago several of our leading members came to me to ask if NACS could help them address [DEI] issues,” said Henry Armour, NACS president and CEO, as he opened the conference. “Everyone expressed a different need, but there was one commonality. These retailers all wanted to find out what others had done and were perfectly willing to share their experiences.”

Before retailers began sharing, Duguid kicked off the conference with a keynote on defining, understanding and leveraging different types of diversity and how to foster an inclusive climate. In explaining the differences between diversity and inclusivity, Duguid said that diversity refers to the traits and characteristics that make people unique, while inclusion refers to the behaviors and social norms that ensure people feel welcome. “Diversity management is counting numbers, and inclusion is making those numbers count,” she said.

For companies, working toward DEI isn’t just about kindness of the heart, though many companies do have good intentions. There also is a business case for diversity. Diversity makes employees more creative, diligent and harder working, and it makes them smarter, according to Duguid. “We want diversity because we have customers that are diverse,” she explained. “We want to open up the talent pool by seeking diverse workers.”

Bringing different people into a company impacts the creativity of the work environment, and the organization becomes more open to innovation, she explained. But it’s not only diverse people who bring in different ideas, it’s the entire group. Studies have shown that hiring diverse coworkers allows the entire company, including current employees, to bring new ideas to the organization.

Some companies have been on the journey toward a DEI workplace in recent years, but the idea of DEI is a relatively new concept. According to GRC Insights, workplace diversity training first emerged in the mid-1960s following the introduction of equal employment laws and affirmative action. Though that was six decades ago, there are many older Americans who remember workplaces that didn’t consider racial discrimination and other types of inclusivity. After the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement and attacks on Asian Americans, companies across the country woke up and realized that DEI must become a priority.

Duguid asked the participants to speak in small groups about how their pasts have influenced having tough conversations about racism, sexism, ageism and other sensitive topics with their coworkers and employees. Many participants acknowledged that having these conversations was difficult.

Top: Michelle Duguid, associate dean of diversity, inclusion and belonging, Cornell University, Middle: Henry Armour, NACS president and CEO, Bottom: James Colino, senior talent acquisition manager, Sheetz

“Yes, these conversations are difficult,” agreed Duguid, “but we cannot avoid them. Not anymore. It’s not good enough to say ‘oh, we all know our values.’ … It may be difficult, but if we don’t address it, it may be worse.”

According to Duguid, these four leader behaviors are essential for shaping inclusive climates:

  • Assessing or being perceptive of the inclusiveness of a workgroup’s climate
  • Articulating expectations about behaviors expected to promote inclusion
  • Role modeling inclusive behaviors
  • Reinforcing desired inclusive behaviors

Duguid says that people need to go from being a believer in DEI to a builder, but this is challenging, she admits.

Implicit bias, or unconscious bias, is defined as an unaware attitude or thought toward certain people or associating stereotypes with them without conscious knowledge, according to the Perception Institute. Duguid says that we all have implicit biases, and they distort our view of certain people automatically.

Duguid used the example of how people unconsciously associate height with leadership. Taller men are judged to be more mature, capable, confident and outgoing. Duguid said that 14.5% of the U.S. population consists of men over six feet tall, yet 58% of male CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are taller than six feet.

Duguid shared case studies of conscious and unconscious biases in the labor market. Researchers submitted the same resumes to job postings, except they were randomly assigned a white-sounding name or a Black-sounding name. The white names received 50% more callbacks for interviews.

Another case study asked people to evaluate two successful and self-promoting people based on competence, style, likeability and whether they would want to hire them. The two successful people were the same person, just two different names—Heidi and Howard. While Howard was seen as more genuine and kinder, Heidi was viewed as more power hungry. The evaluators also found Howard to be more likeable, and he was more likely to be hired than Heidi.

Duguid said that to overcome our implicit biases we must not allow the fear of making a mistake get in the way, and we must have a growth mindset.

“People with a growth mindset, their brain actually lights up. You don’t have to be born with it. You can develop a growth mindset, and part of that is admitting ‘I’m not there yet,’” said Duguid. She added that saying sorry is important, but saying sorry correctly is critical. Instead of saying, “I’m sorry if you were offended,” one should say, “I am sorry. I have done harm. I have messed up. I am going to do better. I am committed to learning.”

Duguid pointed out that the rise of video interviews due to the pandemic intervened as a bias interrupter because companies can’t judge height over video.

Duguid said that for companies to avoid bias in recruitment and hiring they should:

  • Where possible, remove identifiers from resumes
  • Be very specific and avoid vagueness in postings
  • Use predetermined criteria and reiterate these criteria at hiring team meetings
  • Use uniform, standardized questions
  • Try not to discuss your feedback prior to a hiring team meeting

7-Eleven, Casey’s, EG America, GetGo Café+Market, Sheetz and Pilot each shared where their companies are on their DEI journey, why the retailers chose to begin the journey and what they’ve learned along the way. Some organizations are in the infancy stages of their development. Some have been focusing on this topic and implementing measures for years. But everyone agreed that the journey to a diverse and inclusive culture is not about the destination.

Sheetz’s Journey

L to R: Shelly Gibson of Thorntons, Merlix Reynolds of RaceTrac, Heather Schott of Kum & Go and Colette Matthews of Circle K

Sheetz, based in Altoona, Pennsylvania, has an organic base of inclusivity through its “DNA” and family culture. The Sheetz DNA consists of seven characteristics that make up Sheetz’s values. They are pioneering, driven to win, dependable, connected, real, high energy and respect.

“Respect is at the core of our DNA because we view respect as the biggest, most important cultural value that we have,” said James Colino, senior talent acquisition manager, Sheetz.

Though Sheetz has its core values, it did not have a formal action plan for DEI until last year. Sheetz began its formal DEI work by forming a team, which included four vice-president-level executives. The group began by reading “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man” by Emmanuel Acho.

“We realized how woven [DEI] was in every function of our work,” said Daillard Paris, director, petroleum supply, and IDEA initiative lead for Sheetz. “For us at Sheetz, this work [on DEI] is not a choice. It’s a business imperative for us.”

Initially the group was enthusiastic about DEI in the organization, and each department came up with myriad ideas for inclusion, such as the store ops team wanting pronoun pins for employees and the sales team wanting to work with minority-owned businesses. But reality quickly set in, said Paris.

“IDEA [inclusion, diversity, equity and awareness] is big,” he said. “We can’t do everything, and we can’t start everywhere.” The company has partnered with a consultant to assess its current state with DEI to better build a foundation to grow future initiatives.

For now, Sheetz has built from a base that its employees are already familiar with, which was inclusion. This built on the company’s past successes and increased the likelihood of adoption, according to Paris. Examples of inclusion that Sheetz has adopted are 12 weeks paid maternity leave, store team helper roles for neurodiverse applicants, tattoo and piercing policy revisions
and transportation assistance via Uber and Lyft.

“Every day we are one step closer, but there is not an end date. We are never done learning. We are never done being better than we were yesterday,” said Colino.

Casey’s Evolution

Casey’s, headquartered in Ankeny, Iowa, also admitted to being at the beginning stages of its DEI journey. “We didn’t have values up until 2021. Our service principles were the closest thing we had,” said Nan Thomae, vice president of human resources for the retailer.

Casey’s has been and continues to evolve its business both inside the company and outward. In 2019, the company brought on a new president and CEO, Darren Rebelez, who wanted to modernize processes. In 2020, Casey’s went through a total rebrand, and in 2021, it released its first ESG (environmental social governance) report.

Casey’s has identified key elements of its DEI framework, which include a vision statement, areas of focus and outcomes. Focus areas include diverse talent acquisition, talent development and retention, and culture and engagement. “We are evolving our culture from one that is commanding and controlling to one based on commitment,” said Thomae.

Though Casey’s is just getting started on its journey, it’s already learned a few lessons. With a new CEO at the helm, the company had the unique opportunity to restructure its leadership team, bringing on board more diverse talent. Embracing the belief that diverse leadership recruits diverse talent, Rebelez, who is Latino, hired a female chief operations officer and a Black chief information officer, among others. According to 50/50 Women on Boards, women directors hold 50% of the company’s corporate board seats, making the retailer one of only 6% of Russell 3000 companies with a gender-balanced board. Casey’s has also broadened its pool of job candidates by softening its policy of exclusively hiring from within and expanding job searches beyond the borders of Iowa.

These efforts are a powerful example of change at the highest level and a strong corporate commitment to reach equity.

7-Eleven’s Momentum

According to Bowers, 7-Eleven’s vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer, 7-Eleven believes DEI is not only the right thing to do, it’s a business imperative in today’s world.

“As a recognized industry leader, we believe we have an obligation to lead the way in our DE&I strategy,” said Bowers.

7-Eleven’s DEI framework is focused on three pillars: fostering an inclusive workplace culture, cultivating diverse talent, and positively impacting the marketplace. The framework coincides with 7-Eleven’s guiding principles, which serve as qualities to which the company adheres. The principles are aspirational goals, authentic programs and accountable communication.

Bowers listed a few accomplishments of 7-Eleven’s DEI journey, including the development of its DEI framework, the creation of its equality and diversity roundtable and talent representation assessment, a formalized associate-business resource group and launching of 7-Network of Black Professionals, as well as being able to collect insights from employees and customer focus groups on its DEI strategy.

EG America Begins

EG America is a subsidiary of United Kingdom-based EG Group and has over 1,700 stores comprised of nine store brands in the U.S. The challenge for EG America was to create a unified DEI strategy.

“We needed to harmonize and harmonize a lot quickly,” said Sandra Tierney, senior vice president and chief human resources officer.

EG America is just starting out on its DEI journey. It recently presented its case on why DEI is needed in the company to EG leaders in the U.K., and it was met with enthusiasm and buy-in. After the presentation, EG America built an inclusion and diversity council and mapped out what’s next for the company.

EG America’s five-year vision includes visible increases in diversity in key leadership positions, employee affinity and resource groups and store teams that reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

GetGo Café+Market Takes a Stand

Giant Eagle, which owns GetGo Café+Market, has been focused on DEI for a long time, according to Polly Flinn, president of GetGo and executive vice president of Giant Eagle. But the murder of George Floyd was “a wake-up call” for the company. Anti-racism became its primary focus.

According to Flinn, the Pittsburgh Gazette ran biased coverage of the Black Lives Matter protest, and two Black reporters were suspended, and one white reporter was not, so Giant Eagle took a stand by not selling the paper in its stores, among other moves.

“Not all customers were happy with this stance. Advantage cards were thrown at employees. People refused to shop there ever again, and they didn’t,” said Flinn. “If you make a statement and you live the ideals, internally and externally, you’d be amazed at the people who step out and want to join your team. […] We didn’t miss the haters. We gained younger customers as a result. And life goes on, and we continue to thrive.”

Giant Eagle gives back to its community generously, said Flinn, but “we just couldn’t speak with money anymore.”

Pilot Lifts Off

Pilot Company is in an infancy stage with inclusion and diversity, according to Paul Shore, chief people officer, Pilot. Right now, the company has an aggressive diversified growth and performance agenda, occupies a tough labor market and has changing customer and client preferences. It also has limited underrepresented minority and woman representation at manager levels and above.

“Inclusion and diversity are a competitive advantage that will enable our growth and performance goals,” said Shore.

Pilot has begun to shape the roadmap for its DEI journey. Its vision is to connect people and places in a culture where all team members are included, empowered and encouraged to bring the best version of themselves to work every day. Pilot’s long-term goals are to advance an inclusive culture and workplace, improve and sustain its internal and external brand and integrate IDEA across the business through all people programs, policies and practices.

The conference wrapped up with a panel discussion among four diversity leaders: Colette Matthews, vice president of global marketing, customer experience at Circle K; Heather Schott, diversity, equity and inclusion manager at Kum & Go; Merlix Reynolds, accounting executive director and founding member/executive sponsor of the business recourse group for people of color at RaceTrac; and Shelly Gibson, chief legal and people officer at Thorntons.

With some conference attendees not yet on the DEI journey, Matthews of Circle K offered this advice: “Start with a coalition of the willing. That’s where you’re going to get a lot of your momentum and energy. That’s where you can grow from.”

When asked how to get started on the journey, Schott said, “You just do. You can’t afford not to get started. Start with a committee or how you handle things that happen on your social media accounts. The key is to get started.”

Industry Leader Takeaways

Letty George and Daillard Paris

Meet Letty George and Daillard Paris—two attendees at the NACS IDEA Conference. George is the director of global communications at Alimentation Couche-Tard, and Paris is director, petroleum supply, and IDEA initiative lead at Sheetz.

Here’s what they thought about the conference.

Q: What is the biggest takeaway you got from the NACS IDEA Conference?

George: No matter which company was represented, we came together as leaders in our industry on this journey together. When you bring together individuals from different walks of life, various backgrounds and experiences, each bring broader ideas and new perspectives to the conversation.

Paris: The biggest takeaway from the IDEA Conference is not only how bold and deliberate many companies are being with the work they are doing around their IDEA efforts but also how they acknowledge that the work is never done.

Q: Did any of the presenters or presentations stand out to you?

Paris: GetGo Café+Market has taken real action to meet their verbal commitments around IDEA. They commit to act against racism with many inspiring goals. They are an amazing example of how this work can be done well.

George: Each presenter stood out, and I walked away learning something from each one. It takes a lot of courage to have these conversations. I appreciated the transparency they each shared, especially some of the struggles. Engaging with our front-line store team members is vital in our business, and we shared some best practices on how to do that. I’ve already connected with two organizations and shared some digital platforms that have helped us engage with our stores.

Q: Anything you learned at the conference that you plan to implement or have further discussion around?

George: Absolutely! I have a whole deck of takeaways that I’m excited to share with my leadership, and even more so, I’m excited to implement! We have had great success in the D&I space because of the support of our leadership team and our executive sponsors. They really have paved the way to turn courageous conversations into action to drive change and build a more inclusive workplace.

Paris: I learned that this work cannot be done alone. Sheetz can learn from other companies, and they can learn from Sheetz. Collaboration and the sharing of information between companies will be crucial in this journey.

Thank you to these NACS Hunter Club members who committed support to the NACS IDEA Conference and have shown support for IDEA efforts in their own companies and communities.

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