WISE is a student organization with the primary purpose of promoting the field of supply chain management/logistics. As part of our “Fearless Females of Supply Chain” Blue Yonder Live series, Blue Yonder’s Chief Customer Officer Susan Beal spoke to Stephanie Powell Thomas, Associate Professor of Practice of SCM at the University of Arkansas and Executive Director of the WISE program.  You can watch their conversation here.

Susan: Can you please share more about WISE?

Stephanie: WISE stands for Women Impacting Supply Chain Excellence. The program was started about a decade ago at the University of Arkansas as a student organization to grow the number of young women studying and entering the supply chain field. The program also aims to grow allies who can raise awareness for the need to bring more gender balance into the field. The program offers lots of support and encouragement for students, as well as professional development and awareness building around the wide variety of opportunities in the field. We’re trying to educate the younger generations that there’s lots of different opportunities regardless of who you are and what you find exciting.

Four years ago, we launched an event called the WISE Future Leaders Symposium, which aims to take what we were doing at the University of Arkansas and expand it to young women and faculty at other universities across the U.S. The COVID-19 pandemic was a blessing in that we were able to take the event virtual and open it up to be a global event, hosting young women both across the U.S. and globally.

Thanks to the symposium, we’ve built a network and connections of young women on the cusp of their careers. We’ve also had new WISE chapters start at other universities. The program is growing and we’re continuing to evolve it!

Susan: I’d love to introduce the audience to you now! Tell us a little bit about how you came to be in the supply chain field.

Stephanie: Like a lot of women, I fell into the supply chain field; I didn’t grow up dreaming of it. I majored in speech communications with a business minor. I decided to continue my education and get a master’s degree in something business related as some of minor classes had caught my attention. I attended the University of Tennessee and at that time it had a well-known logistics and transportation program, so that’s what I decided to pursue for my master’s. Along the way, I really fell in love with the field. I did an internship at a distribution center for Stanley Tools in Concord, North Carolina, where I learned a lot about the operating environment. After I graduated, I started my professional career at IBM in various sourcing roles. I then worked for Lowe’s doing buying for the flooring department where you have products like grout and mortar, tile tools, saws, etc. There, I realized I loved being in logistics and merchandising type roles, as well as being on the retail side of things. That was act one of my career. I then decided to take a few years off to be a mom. During that time, my husband decided to become a university professor, so he went back to school to work on his doctorate. After he finished, it piqued my interest because I wanted to make a different impact; the impact in a traditional organization wasn’t necessarily what I was looking for anymore. I liked the idea of helping students on their journey to find what they want to be when they grow up. So, when he finished his doctorate, I went and received my PhD in logistics and supply chain. I have been in academia for the last decade.

Susan: What trends are you seeing in academia around gender participation in supply chain programs?

Stephanie: More and more students are coming in already selecting and knowing that they want to study supply chain to pursue a career in it because they are seeing it as an area of opportunity. It used to be students would stumble on it usually by taking a class and realize, “Oh, this is kind of cool and think I like it better than accounting.” We are also seeing more young women come into the program – but there is still a lot more room! I watched your recent interview with Love’s Travel Stops and Country Stores, and the two women speakers talked about creating organization out of chaos and solving problems. A lot of our female students love that piece of it. They also really like the relationship piece of it, how we work together to collaborate and connect to solve problems that we’ve never had to address before. That balance of right and left brain, the analytical and the creative aspect of it, it’s very attractive to a lot of students, especially a lot of female students.  

Susan: With more women coming in to study the supply chain field, are you seeing that translate into them going into the space from a career perspective and getting hired?

Stephanie: So yes and no. Over the years, what I have observed is the first job after graduation is extremely important, especially ensuring that it’s a good fit. What I is if it’s not a good fit, then the talent may stick around for a year or two before they leave to do something else and we’ve lost them out of the field, sometimes indefinitely. One of the things that WISE tries to offer is that connection with industry, helping them learn about the different opportunities that are available. One of the great things and also the hardest things about supply chain is you can go down a million different paths. We want to help students find a company that fits culturally and where there are opportunities for growth because we want to keep them in the field. The other challenge is if they don’t see anybody that looks like them, they tend to leave so representation is key.

Susan: What should companies know or consider when they are recruiting women, especially those that are just coming out of college?

Stephanie: As I mentioned, the whole representation matters is critical. When students are told to look at culture, that can mean different things to different people. But I’ve heard multiple female students say if they go into an interview and don’t see another woman anywhere, or if it’s someone that’s a person of color and they don’t see any diversity, a lot of times they’re going to stop, stand back and choose an organization where they see that representation because that means there’s opportunity there. From a company perspective, as you are interviewing people or sending employees to career fairs or networking events, think of it like a supplier selection process, who are we putting out there and make sure that you’re putting your organization’s best foot forward with regards to representation. It’s being very intentional and not just treating it as an afterthought because a candidate is assessing everything. You could lose out on really good talent as a result.

Susan: What advice are you giving to women, and also men, in the WISE chapters?

Stephanie: One of the things that my husband and I have noticed since being in academia, is how young women – even if they are the top students – struggle the most with confidence. My advice is to continue to push yourself, continue to put yourself in situations to build confidence. There’s a great book called “The Confidence Code” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman that looked at the reasons why women are generally less confident than men. It also has some great suggestions on how to get over it. The main idea is that you have to take action to build confidence. It’s like exercise, you’ve got to build. That’s one of the things that I try to work with students on, is giving them opportunities to build that confidence and to practice. Afterall, it’s a lot easier to do it in a lower stake situation when they’re in college than being in a situation when they’ve gotten further on in their career and have it potentially hold them back from career advancement.

Susan: What’s the best way for supply chain practitioners to get engaged with WISE?

Stephanie: One way to get engaged with the WISE Future Leaders Symposium. Last year, we had students from 25 universities gathered in one place. From a recruiting standpoint, you can find top-notch young women talent in one place. Also, at our chapter and others, especially ones just starting up, we are always looking for speakers, mentors, program ideas, and someone to buy pizza because you wouldn’t believe that’s a big thing to get people to a meeting on a college campus. I encourage organizations to reach out to me so I can figure out how they can support and what would work best for them; we can tailor something that works for their organization.

To reach Stephanie and the WISE program, click here.