Vice President, Diversity and Inclusion
VeLois Bowers is an expert on diversity in the CPG industry and a proud member of the Network of Executive Women. Bowers serves as Vice President, Diversity and Inclusion, for the Kellogg Company, which she joined in late 2004.
Prior to her latest position, Bowers spent five years at the Whirlpool Corporation, where she served as Vice President, Global Diversity, developing and implementing a range of diversity initiatives for company employees and the community of Benton Harbor, Mich.
Before joining Whirlpool, Bowers held a variety of human resources roles within Kellogg, concluding with the post of director for staffing, employee relations and diversity. She previously served Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, for seven years in varying HR leadership roles.
Bowers reports to the President of Kellogg North America, Jeff Montie, and has a functional reporting relation to the firm’s Human Resources department. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and has participated in numerous leadership development courses throughout her career, including the Aspen Institute for Young Executives.
In addition to NEW, VeLois Bowers is a member of the National Association of African Americans in Human Resources, Diversity and Inclusion Food Group Industry Council, the NAACP, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and other groups. She is a founding member of the Council for World Class Communities, and chair of the Conference Board’s Diversity and Inclusion Council. She has led industry workshops, taught courses at several institutions, and has addressed numerous groups, including students at Notre Dame University, Andrews University and Lake Michigan College.
Bowers has a son and daughter, both in college, and is married to Sergeant Bennie Bowers of the Michigan State Police. She’s active in her community, where she serves on several boards, and is an active mentor to young professional women.
Q. You’ve been working in human resources your whole career and have held two top-level industry jobs in the field of diversity and inclusion. How is the CPG industry doing when it comes to diversity and inclusion?
A. I’ve had the privilege to work in two great organizations with strong commitments to diversity and inclusion. As you know, when top leadership is committed to creating change, a diversity and inclusion effort is much more likely to be successful. Whirlpool’s former CEO, Dave Whitwam, was very committed to creating a diverse and inclusive environment, both in the company and in the community. In my current role as V.P. of Diversity and Inclusion at Kellogg, I have the pleasure of working with a diverse leadership team and board of directors. They are strongly committed to making Kellogg a great place to work for all people. The commitment is the first step, but that doesn’t mean the work is done. The workforce in CPG industry ranges from plants and factories, through sales and marketing, to global enterprises. There will always be opportunities for growth and development.
Q. Do you find differences in the progress being made between women of color, white women and men of color?
A. Yes, different groups typically have different experiences of progressing and advancing in the corporate workplace. It depends on the industry, the representation, even the area of the country. It also depends a great deal on how much attention the company pays to recruiting, developing and promoting all groups fairly.
Q. What needs to be done to get more women into upper management?
A. An organization needs to first look to see if there are any barriers to women being successful and advancing into upper management and work to remove those barriers. Great places to work have visible opportunities for women, women who are already in the highest reaches of the organization. Coaching and mentoring, both formal and informal programs, are as important for women as they are for men, but often don’t happen with the same frequency. An organization that truly values differences will not ask women to become more like men in their leadership styles or approach to the work, but will value those differences and see them as an asset.
Q. Are the action items the same regarding women of color, or are there special issues that need to addressed?
A. In one way, yes, all of these things need to be attended to for women of color to advance in organizations as well. And it is important to recognize that women of color are faced with different issues and barriers. These differences need to be surfaced, discussed and attended to in order to create an inclusive workplace for women of color.
Q. What can women do as individuals to help themselves advance?
A. Identify mentors, both inside the organization and out. Network with other women as well as with men. Share experiences and solutions with others. Understand the root causes of some of the barriers they face and partner with others to remove those barriers. Find allies and work the issues of disadvantage through partnerships and collaboration.
Q. How should women network? Should they play golf with “the boys,” build up their own networks, or a combination of both?
A. Both and then some. Perhaps playing golf is the only way a particular group is familiar with networking. You may have to join in and introduce the group to new ways of getting together. Offer to be on the planning team for the next off-site event and suggest a new activity that will get people together and talking. In addition, create your own networking opportunities with women and men. Belonging to industry or specific networks is always a positive career step. And the value of networking with women, via groups like NEW, can never be underestimated. Sharing with women who may be having a similar experience or challenges will help you widen your repertoire of responses.
Q. You’ve been a mentor and a protégé. Can you describe the role mentoring has played in your career and life?
A. I have been very lucky to have some of the best mentors during my career. Most of the mentoring relationships were informal, either a manager or someone in the organization who, observing my performance and seeing my potential, singled me out for development. My mentors helped me to understand the business and offered me opportunities to learn and grow. I had one manager, who was not my direct boss but who saw my potential, and he asked me to get involved in a national organization. I had never done something like that before, and it gave me wonderful experience and exposure. I was more willing to reach out to accept other opportunities. I became comfortable working in national groups and eventually began speaking and serving on boards as a result. Most of my mentors have been white men, because that is who has been in leadership roles in the companies I was with at the time. They didn’t always know how to mentor across our differences, but they stuck with me and we worked it out together.
Q. What are some of the other lessons you have learned that have helped you advance in your career?
A. Connecting with mentors is a big one. Also, working hard to build positive relationships. That includes working through conflicts and coming out better on the other side. I work hard to exceed expectations, to deliver more and at a higher level than is expected of me. I strive to reach my own standards, which are pretty high. I have also learned about keeping a confidence. A wise mentor once told me, “The person you tell always has someone they trust to keep your secret.”
Q. Let’s talk about Kellogg’s. What programs have you created that the rest of the industry would like to hear about?
A. The EMC (Executive Management Committee) has created a comprehensive and simple strategy for diversity and inclusion at Kellogg’s: Create Accountability; Recruit, Retain and Develop; Drive Understanding, Awareness and Education; and Create the Environment. This strategy has led us to increase and develop employee resource groups, educate two thousand managers in creating a diverse and inclusive workplace, recruit from non- traditional sources, and assess and address barriers to all people being included and developed.
Q. Kellogg’s is a Title Sponsor of the Network of Executive Women. Why does Kellogg’s feel this support is important?
A. NEW is one of the premier organizations for women working in CPG organizations. Your mission to positively promote the role of women in the top levels of organizations is in keeping with Kellogg’s mission to create an inclusive workplace for all. NEW creates networking opportunities, mentoring relationships and conferencing events that are instrumental in the development and advancement of women. The sensitivity to how issues for white women and women of color are different, as evidenced by your opening questions, demonstrates that you understand the issues facing all women in the workplace.
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