A Visit with … Angie Cooper
Senior Director, Global Public Policy
Your story is really remarkable. You have worked for the same company your entire career and have risen from a fairly modest position with Walmart and are now in charge of global public policy. It’s a great American story.
I was born in Oklahoma and grew up in politics. My dad spent most of his career in external affairs for AT&T but was also mayor of Enid, Okla. I went to Oklahoma State, and in the summers I had internships with Senators Nickles and Inhofe and with a lobbying firm, Van Scoyoc Associates. I was always interested in politics and government relations, and I figured I would go back to Washington after I graduated. But for personal reasons, I ended up in Arkansas, and since I was right out of school, I was focused on just getting a job, so I started on the ground floor at the Walmart Home Office in Bentonville, Arkansas.
I was an assistant to a buyer in the merchandising department. The buyer was in charge of the deli department, selecting lunch meats and cheeses for all the stores across the U.S. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t very good at my first job. It involved a lot of numbers and spreadsheets, and while I studied marketing, my passion was government relations. But my first job taught me a lot; it was a great experience because it enabled me to really learn the business.
I had a mentor at Walmart — mentors are important — who told me what a great company Walmart is and how it offered great opportunities. He arranged for me to meet leaders in our Corporate Affairs Division around 2003-2004. Thanks to this mentor, I was able to not only meet other leaders managing government relations work but was eventually hired on to the team. At that time, it was a small team that started growing quickly. For a while, I was responsible for Oklahoma and Kansas as we sited, expanded and improved our stores there. I again had a great mentor who gave me the opportunity to move to California and eventually back to Arkansas, where I led a team of extremely smart, professional, policy experts, and those individuals now make up our global public policy team.
For big box stores, that can be a challenge.
It can be because sometimes there is resistance. There are still people who don’t know our story or don’t believe it. But I know that story from my own experience, growing up in Oklahoma, where Walmart really was the place of community gathering. I can tell you that 75 percent of our store management teams started out as store associates. Doug McMillon, our CEO who started his career loading trucks in Oklahoma, eventually running Sam’s Club and Walmart International, until he became CEO. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding not just about our company but about retail itself, the whole industry. People don’t realize how much of our employment is not just on the floor at a store but in e-commerce and other areas — and that those are also areas for opportunity to grow a career or learn new skills to advance further.
Now that you are on the global policy team, what issues are you working on?
We’re focused now on transforming the future of retail. We’re all consumers so we know that retail is changing and we want to create a transparent environment for the customer experience, whether it will be brick-and-mortar or online, or some combination, so there is a seamless experience. We’re trying to figure out how to prepare for the changes that the future will bring, we want to gain a deeper understanding of what skills and education will be needed. But most important, we want to adapt to the way people want to work today and ensure we are set up for our associates to gain the skills and training they need to either grow their career at Walmart or to grow their career with someone else.
A lot of people find these changes kind of intimidating.
There are a lot of unknowns, definitely. That’s why it is important for employers to come together to communicate about these issues. Employers also need to be talking with policymakers, educators and community leaders at all levels to get them to develop the right curriculum and put the right policies in place as the world changes and as we train the workforce for this modernization. We’re coming to a new understanding of the employer/employee relationship, which will require a different mindset on the part of people toward their work. There’s something people need to remember, which is encouraging: A lot of these changes, as many of them are unknown, are a response to the desire people have for flexibility. In other words, these things aren’t just being imposed on people from somewhere else. They are to some degree a response to what people want.
We’ve heard you are a skydiver. Is that true?
I’ve done that, yes, and a couple of years ago I went to New Zealand where I went bungee jumping. Both are scary, especially when you are stepping out on a ledge to jump, but once you jump out of a plane, it’s actually very calming and relaxing and a beautiful experience. But with bungee jumping, the “oh, my goodness” factor lasts a lot longer because you are getting a massive ground rush and just praying that the cord holds. If you are not a screamer, I guarantee that the rush will make you scream.
Does tackling challenges like this make the day-to-day challenges of work easier to handle?
Both skydiving and bungee jumping are similar to the risks we take in our lives. Sometimes you have to take that jump to move forward on a life-changing event or a big deal at work. Sometimes the jump can be scary at the beginning and then feel like the perfect decision immediately. In other cases, the decision remains frightening until the end. I’d also say I didn’t do either of these jumps without friends with me, including ones I met just before the jump. I also did the skydiving in tandem with someone else, so I was truly trusting him for everything that happened once I stepped out on the ledge of the plane. In work and in life, you have to have people you trust.
Whether it’s one person or a team of people, you have to remember to gain support and have them there to help you when you take the leap. And when they are ready to take a similar jump, you need to be there cheering them on and letting them know they can trust you.