Wal-Mart aims to train and do more work with women

CHICAGO Wed Sep 14, 2011 2:09pm EDT

Shopping carts are seen outside a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Coolidge, Arizona December 6, 2010. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

Shopping carts are seen outside a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Coolidge, Arizona December 6, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Joshua Lott

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc will double the money it spends with women-owned businesses, train women around the world and push major suppliers to use more women and minorities on work they do for the retailer, its latest steps to promote a brighter corporate image.

The moves unveiled by Chief Executive Mike Duke and others on Wednesday come after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out women's massive class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit against the world's largest retailer in June.

That ruling was a major victory for Wal-Mart, which may still be hit with individual lawsuits from women. Now, the company aims to make a major mark on women's economic empowerment by setting five goals it hopes to meet by 2016. Wal-Mart, around the world, employs 2.1 million people, more than half of whom are women.

"This is not something that they're doing in response to anything else," said Alyse Nelson, the co-founder, president and CEO of Vital Voices, an organization that helps women in 127 countries with mentoring and training.

"It is the game changer, in my opinion. I've worked in this space for 16 years and I've never seen anything this big," Nelson said on Wednesday as she headed to the Wal-Mart event in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Graphic on women at Wal-Mart: r.reuters.com/neh73s

One goal with the potential for major economic impact is to increase sourcing from women-owned businesses including construction firms, farms and manufacturers.

In the United States, Wal-Mart spent about $2.5 billion with women's businesses last year. It now plans to spend $5 billion annually by 2016 in the United States, and double sourcing from international suppliers run by women.

CEO Duke, speaking to a packed room at Wal-Mart's headquarters, noted that about 70 percent of the 1 billion people living in poverty around the world are women. Also, less than 7 percent of venture capital goes to companies started by women.

The presentation was also broadcast over the Internet.

The U.S. State Department, among others, is backing its new women's initiatives.

"I don't know of any other company that's making that kind of commitment and my hope is that it encourages others to step up," said Nell Merlino, founder and president of Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, a nonprofit that helps women grow their small businesses that has collaborated with Wal-Mart since 2008.

Wal-Mart also plans to help train and educate 400,000 women, including 200,000 U.S. women from low-income homes, in job and financial-related skills. The company is funding its plans with $100 million in grants from the Walmart Foundation and its international businesses.

Wal-Mart often comes under fire with groups claiming, among other issues, that its stores put smaller shops out of business and that it does not pay its workers enough. Its attempts to open stores in certain locations, most notably New York City, have been met with opposition from community groups.

The company has been working to promote a more caring image through various initiatives, such as working with U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama to expand access to healthy food and pushing companies to sell more environmentally friendly products.

Some of the efforts are building on work that Wal-Mart has already done. In 2005, it pushed law firms to increase the gender and ethnic diversity among the staff that did business for the retailer. Now it is asking other firms, such as advertising agencies and suppliers who sell more than $1 billion of products to the chain each year, to do the same.

(Reporting by Jessica Wohl; editing by Gunna Dickson)

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