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How REI Co-op’s First Chief Diversity Officer Wilma Wallace Is Making the Retailer More Inclusive

Most workdays, REI Co-op veteran Wilma Wallace starts her morning with a 2-to-4-mile hike in the Oakland Hills near her Oakland, Calif., home. On the weekends, she wakes up at 6 a.m. to do a similar trek.

This routine is nothing new for Wallace, whose love for the outdoors dates back to her childhood growing up near the woods in a small Connecticut town. But Wallace, an African American woman, recognized from a young age a racial disparity among her fellow enthusiasts.

“I spent a lot of my time in outdoor activities feeling like there weren’t as many people who looked like me who should be out there doing the same thing,” Wallace told FN.

Today, the exec is in a position to help change that picture, by tapping into her 25 years of professional experience working with retailers and her personal passion to make the outdoors a welcoming place for all. In September 2021, after serving as REI’s general counsel and corporate secretary since 2017, Wallace was named the company’s first chief diversity and social impact officer.

Since she joined the co-op five years ago, Wallace said there has been heartfelt, authentic intention and a significant amount of activity from REI to achieve its diversity and inclusion goals, which were accelerated after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the nationwide unrest that ensued.

“We turned the mirror on ourselves to realize that we needed to do more than we were doing to advance racial equity in the outdoors,” Wallace said.

REI has recently ramped up its efforts — referred to as REDI (for racial equity, diversity and inclusion) — and made them an even bigger priority. For instance, its Product Impact Standards launched in December 2020, outlining expectations for how brands address inclusive marketing and cultural designs in products. And its Path Ahead Ventures that launched in October 2021 included a $30 million investment in 300 founders of color to help start and scale their businesses. Also in October 2021, REI revealed its Cooperative Action Fund community-supported public charity that debuted with a $1 million investment split between 19 organizations promoting justice, equity and belonging in the outdoors.

In addition to its racial equity stances, REI focused on other marginalized groups throughout 2021, including issuing a statement in support of the trans community, speaking out against the violence against the Asian and Pacific Islander community and investing more than $250,000 in the National Park Foundation to support women’s fire corps crews.

“I want us to show people that it’s not just about race,” Wallace said. “It’s about inclusion and ensuring that barriers to everyone getting outdoors are removed, which is consistent with our values and our mission, and to increase our 20 million-member community to exponentially north of that.”

Perhaps one of the more atypical approaches to diversity and inclusion last year came in May 2021 with the launch of Co-op Studios, its in-house content arm that prioritizes storytelling from historically underrepresented groups. Although the retailer is adept at storytelling, with this endeavor, REI turned the microphones and cameras onto other storytellers.

“On some level, you can only become what you can see,” Wallace said. “There is a gap, a void of people of color being seen in certain places in the outdoors, and there are a lot of historical reasons for that. We all know the role media plays in setting standards and expectations, normalizing behaviors and cultural norms. To see different people being highlighted is profound.”

In her new role, Wallace is tasked with continuing to fulfill REI’s mission to become a multicultural, inclusive and anti-racist organization, and promote diversity, inclusion and a sense of belonging both in the outdoor industry and beyond.

Just four months on the job, Wallace said much of her time has been spent building the retailer’s Diversity and Social Impact Office, developing an enterprise strategy for the company (with action plans against the strategy), identifying and getting a handle on the REDI work that’s underway and figuring out the hot spots where REI could have a significant impact.

Looking ahead, Wallace aims to end 2022 with a full team — which she will soon be recruiting — with assigned roles and responsibilities, as well as subject matter expertise that could provide diverse perspectives into the rest of the organization. Also, she would like to end the year with a strategy in place for how REI approaches REDI and an established list of impact measurements that REI can measure against.

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