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UA Symposium Helps With WISE Decisions

3 min read

Stephanie Thomas wanted to make an impact in the supply chain world when she joined the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 2017.

Luckily, the perfect vehicle was just waiting for her to take the keys and jam the accelerator. Thomas, an associate professor in the Walton College of Business, is the executive director of the university’s Women Impacting Supply Chain Excellence student organization, which is holding a star-studded virtual symposium Oct. 23.

The WISE group existed before Thomas’ arrival from Texas Tech but had dwindled to just a handful of participants. Thomas put her energies into the group, which now has more than 120 members and will host the Future Leaders Symposium.

Shelley Simpson, the star chief commercial officer at J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. in Lowell, is the keynote speaker. Simpson spoke at the inaugural event last year and was so impressed that she ponied up sponsorship money to fund the symposium for the next five years and endowed the WISE group.

J.B. Hunt’s Growing & Retaining Outstanding Women initiative was involved last year, which gave Simpson a better view of the program. “She saw that we were onto something,” Thomas said.

Other speakers include Dana Stiffler, a vice president with Gartner Research, and CEO Beth Morgan of boom!, which seeks to develop female talent in the supply chain field. Gartner recently ranked the university’s undergraduate supply chain management program as the country’s best.

Thomas said that during breaks between main speakers, the symposium will run three- to five-minute videos from a handful of supply chain professionals, including CEO Michelle Dilley of AWESOME — which stands for Achieving Women’s Excellence in Supply Chain Operations Management & Education. It was Thomas’ involvement with AWESOME, a group of business executives, that led her to start the WISE symposium, aimed at undergraduates.

“A year and a half ago I had one of those middle-of-the-night aha! moments,” Thomas said. “I really like getting them engaged and excited about supply chain. What if we could do something like [AWESOME] for students?”

Simpson and Thomas were discussing the symposium a few months ago when it became apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic would prevent an in-person event, and Thomas said Simpson challenged her to take advantage of the situation. As a virtual event, with fewer travel and lodging expenses, the symposium now has commitments from about 40 U.S. and international universities; the international students who will watch and listen virtually would have been unlikely to have traveled for the one-day event.

A year ago, the symposium had attendees from 12 universities.

“We have also targeted early supply chain career professionals,” Thomas said. “It will be relevant whether you are in your junior year in college or second or third year into your career. The theme for this year’s event is ‘What is your vision?’”

The path of women in the supply chain world has a perfect role model in Simpson. Simpson joined J.B. Hunt as an hourly worker in 1994 because it paid $2 more an hour than the child care job she was working.

Her career took off, but she almost left the company when she had children. J.B. Hunt, wisely, knew what it had in Simpson and worked out a part-time arrangement with her; she is now an executive vice president and president of the company’s Highway Services segment.

“I really didn’t know if I could blend all the competing priorities in my life,” Simpson told the podcast “What the Truck” recently.

Thomas faced a similar dilemma. She left the corporate world when she had children, earned a doctorate and entered academia.

Simpson is also on the board of directors of Work Matters, a group that seeks to help people balance work and faith. Simpson mentors a handful of women each year as part of the group, and she obviously takes mentorship seriously.

“It is about leadership, period, whether you are a female or a male,” Simpson said on the podcast. “How do we lead each other? What is really great about all of us is we tend to have very important men in our life and very important women in our life.”

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