It’s early morning and already the room is buzzing with excitement. On the way to their tables, guests are greeted by occasional hugs, friendly conversation and celebratory laughter. Some are recalling their experience at last year’s event. Others – first-time attendees – are excited by what’s to come. No, it isn’t a family reunion (though at times it resembles one). It’s Lowe’s annual Women’s Leadership Summit, which brings together women from across the company to personally and professionally develop.
Research shows that while women drive 70-80 percent of consumer spending, they make up only 3 percent of CEOs at retail companies in the S&P 500. The summit, now in its sixth year, is one of many events Lowe’s hosts to empower women in retail and embrace diverse thinking – key components for driving innovation and meeting the needs of the evolving customer.
This year, the event drew nearly 200 women to listen and learn from host Jennifer Weber, Lowe’s chief human resources officer, former CEO Robert Niblock, and an array of women guest speakers ranging from renowned social business expert Sandy Carter to mountain climber Allison Levine to former Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chavez.
Bringing inspiration and ideas back to Canada
One of the attendees is Montréal-based Claire Bara, a 20-year retail industry veteran.
Bara’s journey, which includes commercial operations and marketing, hasn’t always been easy. “Retail is tough work. It’s fast-paced, it’s really competitive, and there are a lot of great challenges,” she said. “But if you fight for it, never give up on your dream and put all the passion into what you do, you get rewarded out of that.”
This May, Bara began yet another chapter in her retail career when Lowe’s announced its acquisition of Canadian home improvement retailer RONA. This move created one of the largest home improvement retailers in Canada, with 539 store locations. It also led Bara, who was serving as vice president of marketing for RONA at the time, to her current role as vice president, strategy and insights for Lowe’s Canada.
Not long after this transition, the CEO of Lowe’s Canada, Sylvain Prud’homme, reached out to Bara and her peers to encourage them to attend the Women’s Leadership Summit near Lowe’s U.S. headquarters in Mooresville, North Carolina. Bara saw it as the perfect opportunity to get to know Lowe’s and her peers better.
Several months and one flight later, Bara found herself at a table with a dozen or so women at the summit, enthusiastically absorbing each attendee’s unique journey and background.
“As a new employee at Lowe’s, the connections I make will be really important for future professional initiatives,” Bara said during the height of the summit. “More personally, they will give me inspiration and ideas that I can use throughout the course of my life.”
The constant murmur of conversation at surrounding tables only hushed when speakers walked onstage. During these moments, Bara leaned in and listened closely. “I was impressed by the introduction from Robert (Niblock),” she said. “It was the first time I saw him, and it was very authentic. Just the fact that he stays with us all day says a lot about his commitment to and his engagement with women’s leadership.”
Sharing new perspectives with Midwest stores
Listening intently on the other side of the room is another woman who has been in the retail industry for more than 20 years.
Priscilla Woodrum began her career with Lowe’s 23 years ago as a part-time cashier in a West Virginia store. Today, she’s responsible for the performance and profitability of 139 Lowe’s stores in the St. Louis region as vice president of store operations.
The secret to her success, she said, is the company she keeps.
“I didn’t get here because of who I am. I got here because of the people I’ve surrounded myself with,” Woodrum said. “I’ve had a lot of mentors over the years, both men and women, and their support and diverse perspectives have been so important for my development.”
The value of connections and the opportunity to learn about different parts of the organization is also the reason that Woodrum signed up for the Lowe’s Women’s Leadership Summit four years ago – and continues to participate every year.
“I always say, ‘Iron sharpens iron.’ The more you can speak with someone that sees or manages things differently than what you see every day, the more you can learn and, in turn, grow as a leader.”— Priscilla Woodrum, vice president of store operations
“My favorite part about this year’s event has just been the collaboration of the room,” she said. “I always say, ‘Iron sharpens iron.’ The more you can speak with someone that sees or manages things differently than what you see every day, the more you can learn and, in turn, grow as a leader.”
Woodrum, now a “summit expert,” spent her day reigniting old connections, making new ones and asking as many questions as possible to learn about different sides of the business. The perspective she gains, she said, is not only valuable for her role but for sharing with her team, so she can strengthen the bridge between stores and other parts of the organization, and, ultimately, strengthen their connection with customers and their communities.
As morning light gives way to dusk, summit attendees are treated to one last presentation by Amy Cuddy, a body language expert who has the second-most viewed TED talk in history. Shortly after, attendees begin departing one by one, in the same way they entered that morning. As they do, some women are exchanging contact information to keep in touch. Others are already sharing their excitement for next year’s summit.
Weeks later, Bara and Woodrum still feel the lasting impacts of the event.
The stories Bara heard about making a difference for others inspired her to get involved in an organization called Operation Santa Clause in Canada, which matches unprivileged children with anonymous gift givers. Woodrum’s experience led her to self-reflect and share the new perspectives she learned with her entire team. For her, it’s one way to expand Lowe’s ongoing support of women leaders in her region. And she believes customers will notice.
“By empowering women leaders, we’re really writing different chapters on what people will see and feel about Lowe’s in the future,” Woodrum said.