AWESOME Leaders join forces on Symposium for future supply chain leaders

July 17, 20205 minute read

One of AWESOME’s expressed goals is to bring together senior women supply chain leaders for collaborations. Two AWESOME leaders, Stephanie Powell Thomas, PhD, and Shelley Simpson, are living proof of how that can work in real life – and what kind of results can be achieved.

During her first three years as Clinical Assistant Professor of Supply Chain Management at the University of Arkansas – which recently was named by Gartner Research as #1 on the list of top supply chain programs in the U.S. – Stephanie took on responsibility for an organization started in 2012-2013 by industry women who were looking for ways to help female supply chain students. It’s named WISE – “Women Impacting Supply Chain Excellence.” Perhaps AWESOME (Achieving Women’s Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management and Education) and WISE are kindred spirits in this way – both highlighting “excellence” as the path toward success.

“Since I made the switch from industry to academia, I have felt that it was part of my calling to really invest in and mentor young women preparing for a career in supply chain management,” says Stephanie. “When I came to the University of Arkansas, WISE had lost previous faculty sponsors, so it was the perfect opportunity for me to find some enthusiastic young leaders and jump in and reboot the organization. The results have been amazing.”

Under Stephanie’s guidance and the involvement of some outstanding student leaders (three of which have been AWESOME Scholars), WISE grew to be a group with meetings and programs running throughout the year.

Stephanie soon had another idea, inspired by attending the AWESOME Symposium. She explains, “When I took part in AWESOME events and saw leaders at the senior level connecting, supporting each other, and learning from each other, I realized that our students could benefit from those same kinds of connections.”

As a graduate of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Stephanie was aware that her alma mater also has an organization – known as NeXxus – for women studying supply chain, but she wasn’t sure how many other universities with supply chain programs had such a group. Her brainstorm was to bring students and faculty from schools all across the country to the University of Arkansas campus and provide opportunities to get to know each other and to hear from industry leaders. Stephanie and WISE members went to work, and in October of 2019, they hosted the first WISE Future Leaders Symposium, involving 50 students and 15 educators from 12 university supply chain programs.

At the 2019 WISE event, Shelley Simpson, EVP, Chief Commercial Officer and President Highway Services at J.B. Hunt Transport, and an AWESOME leader, was featured as a keynote speaker. Shelley graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in Marketing and Marketing Management and has held a series of leadership positions in supply chain and marketing at JB Hunt for more than 26 years. Other J.B. Hunt executives, along with representatives from companies such as Walmart, Sam’s Club, Tyson, Transplace, C.H. Robinson, Kellogg, Reckitt-Benckiser, and Nestle also participated.

Shelley was so impressed with the event and its potential to have a positive impact on the next generation of supply chain leaders, that she offered to become more involved. Stephanie and Shelley are now collaborating on the second WISE Symposium which will take place this fall (tentatively on October 23) – only this time, in a virtual format.  This one will be known as the “WISE Future Leaders Symposium sponsored by Shelley Simpson of J.B. Hunt.”

As Shelley explains, “When I was in college, it was hard to imagine what my job would be like when I graduated. The Supply Chain Symposium gives young women an inside view of different areas and companies where they can put their skill to work. Stephanie is a fantastic leader and has the know how to bring together academia and business.   Finally, I have a huge passion for bringing more women into supply chain allowing them to reach their potential in a rewarding career.”

Stephanie says, “One of the great things about Shelley’s involvement with the WISE Symposium is that she is a successful woman in a very traditionally male organization, but she’s so relatable and has a great story. I have had a number of my students tell me that they ‘want to be Shelley Simpson when they grow up.’ She is so inspiring. Students at the University of Arkansas have been aware of Shelley and her success. Now, through the Future Leaders Symposium, she’s inspiring young women across the country. I am so happy to partner with her.”

Some of the other programs held by WISE this year have included a panel discussion by members of NEW (Network of Executive Women); a fireside chat with Leslie Keating, former SVP of Supply Chain for PepsiCo; interaction J.B. Hunt’s employee resource group named GROW (Growing and Retaining Outstanding Women); and the opportunity to tour a Glad trash bag and clingwrap plant and also hear from the Clorox marketing and supply chain team about the COVID effect on Clorox wipes.

The membership of WISE has grown in some unexpected – but welcome — directions and now includes a number of male supply chain students, some of whom serve as officers. At first, Stephanie admits, she may have offered a little extra credit for students to attend WISE programs, but now the sessions are successful all on their own.

Before entering the field of supply chain education, Stephanie was a practitioner and worked for Lowe’s and IBM. While studying for her MBA at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, she says she fell in love with logistics and supply chain management. She earned a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from the University of Tennessee and a PhD in logistics and supply chain management from Georgia Southern University.

Whatever different career journeys brought Stephanie and Shelley together at this place and at this point in time, they’re equally determined to make a difference in the future of supply chain leadership.

AWESOME leaders who would like to get involved in WISE in some way may contact Stephanie