Debra Shankle is a supply chain veteran, building her career of more than three decades at the intersections where products come together and then make their way to consumers. A Dallas native, she began her career on factory and warehouse floors, working her way through various management roles at United Technologies, Frito Lay, Sara Lee, and now Coca-Cola, where she has led supply chain efforts for six years.

Shankle oversees manufacturing, transportation, planning, engineering, commercialization, procurement operations, productivity along with environmental, safety and quality as vice president of product supply systems for Coca-Cola North America. That includes bringing brands including Smartwater, Powerade, and MinuteMaid to markets across the U.S. and Canada. It also means making sure Coca-Cola’s commitment to diversity extends across its suppliers.

Here, Shankle gives her perspective on diversity throughout Coke’s ecosystem.

Let’s start with the idea of diversity. Why is it important, and what does it really mean?

We have an incredible, broad array of products, and they are produced and sold in very diverse markets. The associates that bring those products to life are very diverse as welll. When you begin to think about the diversity of the consumers along with the diversity of the associates, to me it really means diversity of thought—the best thinking in getting those products out into the marketplace. It can be diversity in the form of gender as well as race. When you take the best of all of the thoughts that come from that diverse and inclusive culture, it allows us to really serve our rich markets, whether it's in our workplace, the marketplace, or the communities where we operate and live.

How does your group decide what to focus on first in terms of supplier diversity?

As we look at bids going in to suppliers, there's always the lens of ensuring or locating diverse suppliers that can participate in those bids. At Coca-Cola, the red can or bottle is always front and center, but our portfolio really consists of a broader variety of products that our consumers love. When you think about the breadth and depth of those products and the supplies that are necessary, we're learning that, quite honestly, there are a lot of suppliers out there that work within categories where we may need goods and services. We work very closely between the groups to understand who could potentially be a fit and then include them in the process, helping to develop those suppliers as we continue to evolve our business.

What steps has your group at Coca-Cola taken to try to increase diversity? What are you seeing progress on, and what would you like to do more of?

Within our operations, we have a very diverse workforce of over 3,000 associates. Internally as we hire, we re trying to ensure, especially for some of our leadership roles, that we have a diverse slate of candidates we're including in the interview process within Coca-Cola.

There are affinity groups [business resource groups, or BRGs] that also play a very strong role in enhancing the experience of our associates. Whether it's African American, LGBT, or Hispanic, there's a number of ways our associates can get plugged in and feel like they're a part of a broader community that's really focused on diversity.

Anything to highlight in terms of efforts to expand or do better with?

There's always a focus on continuous improvement, especally being within a supply chain organization—that's one of the things we pride ourselves on. There are always areas of opportunity in terms of increasing engagement, increasing involvement. While we have a very good base of associates that participate in business resource groups and hiring programs, there's always a desire to do more.

Recently you appeared on a panel at the Womens Business Enterprise National Council’s national conference to discuss diversity in general and also, specifically, a new collaboration with Walmart and other corporations to support women-owned businesses. Can you say more about that?

We have a great partnership with WBENC to help certify and engage with more women entrepreneurs with major corporations. It's very inspiring to go to a conference of that magnitude and see the women entrepeneurs and the number of companies supporting the development of women-owned businesses.

At the recent conference, it was announced that WBENC would work with Walmart and a number of other major corporations including Coca-Cola to improve business with women entrepreneurs. Our CEO [via the 5by20 initiative] has made a commitment that by the year 2020, we will empower 5 million women entrepreneurs across our global value chain. That's a very broad value chain, because everyone within those businesses touches over 200 countries around the world, from mango farmers in Africa to construction firms in the U.S. to shopkeepers in India. So far, as of the end of 2016, Coca-Cola has enabled 1.7 million women in 65 countries.

 

We're definitely on a journey, and there's really so much more that can be done. Corporations don't have unlimited resources, but through these collaborative partnerships, we believe this will help motivate other companies to support the empowerment of women in a way that really works for businesses.

In all your experience, what have you learned that’s especially important in advancing inclusivity and diversity?

For me, the greatest thing I've learned is just really seeking to understand: Undertand the various perspectives and views of different individuals by listening. In really working to get better clarity and understanding [from people], it allows us to take the best thinking and apply it to deliver results that are really phenomenal.

Quite honestly, when I entered into the working world, this wasn't necessarily at the forefront for me. But quickly I began to learn that when you have people reporting to you that are different [in some of these settings, the majority of the employees that reported to me were male], listening to all of the differing perspectives is the key. Really listening and trying to work toward the best solutions has allowed me to be effective in my career.

Starting out on a factory floor, or in a warehousing operation, it's a totally different setting than coming into a corporate office. There are deliverables—hourly, daily deliverables—in those settings. So if you're going to be successful, embracing the thoughts and ideas of the diverse teams that are working with you—[that enabled me] to get people to be as effective as they could be.

Any examples of ways that diversity is driving change at corporations?

I really believe that the emergence of the BRGs has played a role in helping people to think differently about diversity. I saw it when I was at Frito Lay, at Sara Lee, and then the same here at Coke. It helps in terms of gaining understanding and creating a venue or space where you can actually share your thoughts and perspectives or training. The beauty of those BRGs is that you begin to engage nontraditional members of those groups. There's diversity that's embedded within the BRGs.

What do you see in the future for efforts on diversity at Coke?

We talk here about our secret ingredient, and that secret ingredient is our people. Diversity at Coke in the future will be just as important as it is today. When you look at the communities where we live, work, and operate, the requirement will continue to be there. Understanding the needs of consumers and ensuring that we have the best thoughts, the best people on board to fulfill those consumer needs, will allow us to continue to grow and flourish.