Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Gerald Walden


He pushed. Not that diversity had been unimportant during the decade and a half he’d already been at The Fresh Market, becoming a senior company lawyer. But in 2020, when police officers killed George Floyd, Gerald Walden ramped up his efforts at the Greeensboro-based grocer.

It’s time, he told corporate leadership, for us to take a stand. Walden soon became the company’s face of diversity. 

“So much was going on around the country regarding social acceptance, police brutality and the unfortunate deaths of Black men that Fresh Market needed to make a statement about our desire to be a more diverse, equitable and inclusive company,” he says. “We wanted to improve our culture and provide more diversity of products and people, to create a more welcoming atmosphere for people who are different from each other, whether in our stores or internally.”

At Walden’s urging, the 11,000-employee Fresh Market chain became one of the first major corporations to risk backlash from an angry, divided public. Soon it had created a diversity action board and begun highly visible recognition of Black and other ethnic holidays.

The company, founded in 1982, had never shied away from mixing it up with competitors, whether through placement of its stores in nearly two-dozen states or its basic format. It has been voted in a number of polls as the nation’s favorite supermarket. It had about $1.8 billion in sales in 2021. 

What it lacked, says Walden, was substantial diversity in its C-level offices in Greensboro. It is now majority owned by Cencosud, a Chilean retail company.

“I’d been with the company for 18 years,” he says. “Diversity was always important, but we didn’t have a companywide diversity program.” 

In those years, Walden ran internship and other programs for minority students, while steadily growing his profile as head of the N.C. Bar Association’s Minorities in the Profession Committee, president of the Guilford County Association of Black Lawyers and board member of the National Employment Law Council.

He’s a strong advocate for historically Black universities, serving on the boards of visitors for his alma maters. He’s a 1996 mechanical engineering graduate of N.C. A&T State University, and he earned a law degree at N.C. Central University in 2001.

By 2021, he was named head of diversity. Though Fresh Market’s first Black senior executive,  persuading the company to publicly push for diversity, equity and inclusion wasn’t easy. Its senior executives could rightfully argue that its record wasn’t that bad.

“We had great diversity at the entry and team levels and maybe even up through department managers,” he says. “Unfortunately, higher up, we didn’t.” Walden, 48, says it’s difficult to gauge how well his efforts are succeeding, considering COVID-19 implications.  

“We’re still looking at the numbers, and we’re doing a number of things we believe will move the needle,” he says. One example is focusing job postings in previously untapped minority-oriented publications. 

The married father of two is president-elect of the Greensboro Bar Association and a recipient of its Centennial Award for community service. It cited his efforts to attract young Black students to the legal profession.

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