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Sanford Alum Helps Improve Economic Mobility of Front-line Retail Workers

January 26, 2016

By Adam Beyer

Walmart’s 1.4 million U.S. employees account for 1 percent of the United States’ working population. Thus, it was big news when the CEO announced last year that the company would raise its entry-level wage to $10 an hour, enhance career pathways, and improve its scheduling policies. Many in the media focused on the wage hike. Few took note of other changes, including the company’s commitment to improve the economic mobility of front-line retail workers across the entire industry – not just at Walmart.

Luis MaesThat’s where Luis Maes MPP’14 comes in. As Senior Manager for Global Responsibility at Walmart, Maes is tasked with leading a five-year, $100 million initiative that seeks to address a fundamental challenge in the retail employment landscape – how to better train and advance entry-level workers.

“Retail, for better or for worse, had a reputation.” Maes said. “But as the world’s largest retailer, Walmart can play an important role in changing the narrative so retail is an engine for economic mobility, not an anchor.”  He contends that the skills acquired in front-line retail employment like problem solving, adaptability and teamwork are extremely valuable and transferable to other sectors. 

Part of that effort is a new web-based platform that, when complete, will allow retail employees to compare the skills they have to those they need to move forward in the sector or into other sectors. The work he has supported is being piloted in places like CVS and Kroger to ensure the skills employees gain are transferrable.

Given the complexity of the challenge, no one institution or entity has the resources necessary to solve the economic mobility problem for front-line retail workers. As such, Maes and his team invest a lot of time in relationship and consensus building.

“By working with multiple and diverse stakeholders such as governments, NGOs and universities, we can hopefully move the needle a little bit on this issue,” Maes said. “We get everybody around the table to talk about what the challenges are to come up with a shared language and agenda about what every actor can do to address this.”

His work also has a substantial international component: a $9 million effort by the company to promote socially responsible practices at its locations abroad. In China, he leads an effort to train business owners how to market their products and ensure their safety. The initiative aims to help create stable opportunities for the country’s budding entrepreneurs and promote economic growth. 

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  • Luis Maes MPP'14 (third from the left) met with government, NGO and business partners on a recent trip to Beijing at the Walmart China office.

    Working Around the World

    Luis Maes MPP'14 (third from the left) met with government, NGO and business partners on a recent trip to Beijing at the Walmart China office.

After receiving his undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Virginia, he joined the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. Maes then returned to graduate school, receiving a master’s degree in education from Harvard University before taking positions with the National Democratic Institute and USAID. Those jobs sent him to Bogota, Colombia; Lima, Peru; and Mexico City.

He explained he has always seen his work in social impact as a journey and deliberately charted a career path to get on-the-job experience in the government, NGO and private sectors.

With the end of his tour of duty in Mexico, Maes came to Duke because he wanted to gain an academic understanding of the intersections between these sectors. His internship with the Nike Foundation gave him more insight into public-private partnerships. 

Maes urges graduates to take be humble. While at Sanford, he served as a teaching assistant for Professor of the Practice Tony Brown. He appreciated the way Brown taught students to be authentic and empathetic, two characteristics he says are imperative for leadership.

Authenticity is essential when trying to develop strategies to improve the lives of workers, but it is even important at Walmart headquarters, he said.

“One of the things that strikes you when you walk into the home office [Walmart’s Bentonville, Ark., headquarters], which is a renovated warehouse from the 60s, is that it is not perfect like an Apple or Google headquarters,” he explained. “Most of the furniture is dated. You have to throw away your own trash. There are no windows. It’s a level of humility that shocks a lot of people.”

It was a level of humility Maes said he did not have immediately after receiving his first graduate degree.

“I thought I was a hotshot who knew what I was talking about. I had a bad performance evaluation after my first year and had never really gotten that type of constructive feedback before,” he said of his wake-up moment at his first job.

As he has progressed in his career in the social impact field, Maes has learned to listen, taking lessons from people along the way, whether it’s an Ambassador, Chief Sustainability Officer, Sanford Professor, program beneficiary, or even his almost four-year old son. What has he discovered?

“Being a great listener is not easy to do as it requires a genuine interest in the person conveying the message as well as a sense of humility that they might be able to enhance your understanding or perspective in some way. I’ve found that the better listener you are, the more you will learn and better positioned you will be to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves in both your career and personal life.”