Photo credit: Walmart
Apr 29
April 29, 2014

Penny Abeywardena

Former Director of Girls & Women Integration, Clinton Global Initiative

How Walmart Is Reimagining Its Investments to Empower Girls and Women


Last month, CGI announced the expansion of its focus on empowering girls and women, an undertaking inspired and reinforced by the work of the CGI community. Many of the CGI members addressing this issue head-on through their Commitments to Action hail from the private sector – and over the next several weeks, you'll hear from four of them about their strategic investments in women’s economic empowerment. As the world contemplates the way forward for women in the global economy, these leaders will discuss their views on the opportunities, and the imperative, for business executives to reimagine their approach to gender inclusion.

This week, I interviewed Sarah F. Thorn, senior director of Federal Government Relations at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. The company has leveraged the CGI platform to empower girls and women over the past several years – including in 2013, when the company rolled out a dedicated space on that gives shoppers the opportunity to buy unique products while supporting small women-owned businesses around the world.

Walmart has looked to not only e-commerce but also supply chains in its efforts to boost women's economic prospects. Last year, it joined a major campaign featuring more than 20 companies, nonprofits, and other organizations – such as WEConnect International, Vital Voices, Accenture, Ernst & Young, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, and the U.S. Department of State – to more efficiently identify, develop, and scale high-potential women entrepreneurs who can become strong corporate suppliers.

PENNY ABEYWARDENA: Give us a quick snapshot of your company’s efforts to empower girls and women, both internally and externally.

THORN: In September 2011, Walmart launched our global Women’s Economic Empowerment initiative which aims to harness our company’s unique size and scale to help empower women across our supply chain. Through the initiative, we are helping to provide training, market access and economic opportunities to nearly one million women  ultimately allowing them access to the economic opportunity they deserve.

By the end of 2016, Walmart aims to source $20 billion from women-owned businesses for the U.S. and double sourcing in our international markets, and empower nearly one million women through training programs. We’ll also work with major suppliers across our supply chain to increase gender diversity among major suppliers.

We’re integrating these goals in our business and supporting them with more than $100 million in grants from the Walmart Foundation and corporate donations, making economic opportunity for women one of the largest areas of focus for Walmart’s philanthropic giving.

ABEYWARDENA: Why has this focus on girls and women been important to Walmart?

THORN: For Walmart, empowering women isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also smart business. The majority of our 248 million customers are women, and women control well over $20 trillion of annual consumer spending globally. We also know that when we work with women, we have greater impact. Women business owners are more likely to hire and promote women inside their organizations.  And women in emerging markets invest 90 percent of their income back into their families and communities.

Women business owners are more likely to hire and promote women inside their organizations.  And women in emerging markets invest 90 percent of their income back into their families and communities.


In the end, empowering women economically will make Walmart a more successful retailer, helping us better understand and serve our customers. We’ll also be helping to build stronger communities in the countries we operate around the world.

Over the last two and a half years, we’ve heard powerful stories from women in our supply chain about how these efforts have not only helped them, but have helped Walmart become a better business.  Watch the story of Maggie Cook, who emigrated from Mexico and was raised in an orphanage before starting her own business in the United States. Today, Maggie owns Maggie's Salsa, and her products are sold at Walmart. Maggie worked hard to become an entrepreneur and encourages other women to follow their dreams, be courageous, and never give up. 

ABEYWARDENA: What are some of the challenges Walmart has faced in your efforts to empower girls and women? Are there any examples of where you’ve had to change course? 

THORN: We set very ambitious goals for the company and, as such, have had to challenge assumptions and course correct as we have implemented the WEE initiative.  One of the biggest challenges we have faced has been identifying women-owned businesses internationally.  Because there are limited certification systems for women-owned businesses internationally, we have had to rely on a combination of survey questions and internal audits to arrive at our baseline of women-owned businesses.  The process has taken nearly a year longer than we had envisioned.

In addition, we have had to adjust our original assumptions with regard to our online site Empowering Women Together.  At the outset, we believed that an online platform would help to lower transaction costs for suppliers from emerging economies by providing more consistent access to customers. We learned however, that there are still significant capacity challenges to exporting products from emerging markets.  Audit protocols, in particular, are difficult to meet, since they are not tailored to smaller producers.  For example, retailers may require electronic record keeping for wages, something a micro-producer would have no need for. Similarly, smaller producers may not be equipped to take on board the costs associated with exports, such as liability insurance, freight costs, and packaging requirements. Through our NGO aggregator partners we have worked to overcome some of these challenges, however, they remain a persistent obstacle to developing a sustainable business model.

ABEYWARDENA: What are some of the mistakes or pitfalls you’ve seen in the way that the private sector invests in the issues pertaining to girls and women?

THORNI actually think the private sector is ahead of many development institutions in their efforts related to the economic empowerment of women and girls.  The private sector has worked not only to support women through philanthropic investment, but has amended business practices to create sustainable strategies to empower women economically.

I actually think the private sector is ahead of many development institutions in their efforts related to the economic empowerment of women and girls.  The private sector has worked not only to support women through philanthropic investment, but has amended business practices to create sustainable strategies to empower women economically.


One area the private sector could improve, however, is in working together to leverage best practices and to integrate better training and sourcing programs.  The CGI mega commitment on sourcing from and training women-owned businesses is a good first step towards better coordination.

ABEYWARDENA: How and where do you think the private sector can better measure the outcome---the successes and the shortcomings---of their girls and women initiatives?

THORN: Many private sector initiatives are new, and therefore, we don’t have a lot of history from which to evaluate the relative success or failures of these programs.  At Walmart, we have developed partnerships with universities, such as Oxford and Northwestern, to institute independent analysis of our online sourcing and factory training programs. We want to ensure through these evaluations that we are achieving the right outcomes for the women in our programs.

ABEYWARDENA: Why has Walmart chosen to participate in  CGI’s Girls & Women efforts, and what do you hope to get out of our focus in the year ahead?

THORN: CGI provides an ideal forum to share best practices and lessons learned from our initiatives related to women’s economic empowerment.  By bringing together businesses, NGOs and academia, CGI provides a rich environment for learning as well as networking so that we can identify new partners to advance our work.  We look forward to 2015, the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Women’s Conference, as a year of action to celebrate the progress we have made on women’s empowerment and to look for new avenues to collaborate to address outstanding economic and social issues.  

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's Remarks to the Fourth Women's Conference in Beijing, China

(Watch: Secretary Clinton delivers remarks at the Fourth Women's Conference in Beijing)

ABEYWARDENA: What emerging or future opportunities do you anticipate within your sector for engaging girls and women as both consumers and producers of your goods?

THORN: We would anticipate that in the future we will address women’s empowerment as an integrated, cross functional issue as opposed to a separate work stream.  For example, as we look at resilient food sourcing we would take into consideration the best ways to engage women farmers as well as food suppliers to develop sustainable, responsible and affordable food systems.

This was the first in the CGI series Reimagining Girls' and Women's Empowerment Through Private-Sector Investment. Check back next week for our interview with a leader from ANN INC.

About Sarah F. Thorn

Sarah F. Thorn, senior director, federal government relations, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. is primarily responsible for managing international policy issues at the company. In this capacity, she advocates for Walmart priorities in legislation and trade negotiations that impact the company’s worldwide sourcing and retail distribution rights.  She also leads a team that manages food and nutrition policy, transportation and supply chain issues.

In 2011, Thorn led the strategy team that developed Walmart’s Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, which is focused on empowering women throughout Walmart’s global supply chain. 

Before joining Walmart, Thorn worked for seven years at the Grocery Manufacturers Association where she led the food, beverage and consumer products industry advocacy on international trade issues. Thorn has also worked as a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and served as an international relations representative with AMP Incorporated. Thorn began her career in Washington as a Presidential Management Fellow at the U.S. Information Agency.

She holds a Master of Arts in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a Bachelor of Arts in comparative area studies and comparative literature cum laude from Duke University.