“’What Would Thurmond Do?’ – Those words take me back to my days at Dell and the man – Thurmond Woodard – who became my greatest mentor,” Ben said. “It’s so important to never forget where you come from or the people who helped you along the way. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of influential people in my life – from my mother and father, to my wife of 20 years – and Thurmond.”
Thurmond Woodard, who was Dell’s Chief Diversity Officer when Ben was at Dell in the late 1990s and early 2000s, served as a constant source of inspiration and guidance for him.
“He helped me through some really tough times early in my career,” Ben said. “Thurmond had an uncanny ability to stay calm in any situation – something I still had a lot to learn about. I realized so much about your ability to lead has to do with how you react when things don’t go your way. “I’ll never forget him telling me, ‘One day, you're going to be in the same position to do exactly what I just did for you,’” Ben recalled. “And you better be ready.”
That lit a fire that’s never been extinguished. At Dell, Ben spent 11 years in information technology, leading teams in Texas, Shanghai, Taipei and Singapore, and served as general manager of Dell’s IT development centers in Brazil and India. He joined Walmart in 2008, most recently serving as Senior Vice President of Strategic Services in Walmart Technology, where he led strategy, communication and innovation, in addition to creating global partnerships in India and Mexico.
That brings him to his latest challenge: to further embed Walmart’s long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion into the culture that drives its 2.2 million associates at nearly 12,000 stores and clubs in 28 countries around the world. It all makes for an impressive resume, but his path to becoming Chief Culture, Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the world’s largest retailer was anything but smooth, particularly early on.
One of six children raised in the inner city of Philadelphia by a father with an eighth-grade education and a mother with a high school diploma, life was difficult for Ben. In high school, he excelled in academics and sports, but that didn't translate into instant success at the next level. Ben actually dropped out of college not once, but twice, and worked several odd jobs before finally returning to earn a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Computer Science from Temple University in 1983.
“I wouldn’t recommend the path I took to anyone, but I did end up with an oil and gas company in Dallas, where I held 11 positions in 14 years and experienced everything from IT and human resources to customer service, rates and regulatory affairs,” he said. “It gave me a taste of the real world. It gave me a chance to cut my teeth and begin to discover what I loved.”
And, while for Ben, all roads typically led back to IT, it was his passion for people that swelled.
“I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel the world [for work] and I’ve never been one to just work and go back to the hotel,” he said. “I’ve purposely immersed myself in the cultures. I’ve stayed with the families and experienced life through their eyes and it's had a profound impact on me.
“I walked away from a lot when I took this job, but it was for good reason,” Ben said. “Thurmond (Woodard) told me that some day I’d be in the position to do for others what he did for me. I think I’ve been doing that all along, but this is a whole new opportunity."
Remembering where he came from and the people who helped him along the way makes it that much more worthwhile.
“In the end, I’ve learned that people all over the world – regardless of geography and borders – want a lot of the same things,” Ben said. “They want a decent place to live, friends and to take care of their families. Human beings are similar in so many more ways than they are different. But it's important to remember to celebrate our similarities and the differences.”