When she became Target’s chief diversity officer four years ago, Caroline Wanga tested the waters by coming to work in dreadlocks, something she had always been told was a no-no in corporate America.

To her surprise, no one seemed to care.

Next she threw out her “work closet” full of blazers and cardigans and started dressing the way she prefers.

These days, she keeps employees at Target’s headquarters guessing and smiling at her get-ups. One day, her outfit might include a giant red cape and baggy red pants, spurring jokes that she’s been sent from Wakanda, the fictional high-tech African nation from “Black Panther.”

The next, she might wear head-to-toe sequins. Some days her hair is orange, some days it’s red.

One recent day, she described her apparel: “Sister, I’m at work in a black tutu with gold things on it!” she exclaimed in her say-it-like-it-is, not-going-to-dance-around-it way that has made her a prominent voice in corporate diversity as she prods Target to be a more multicultural and inclusive workplace and retailer. “I think it sends the message that you can be yourself because Caroline is crazy and is herself,” she said. “It’s important for me to model what I’m asking people to do because there is real fear in bringing your authenticity to work, whatever that means for you.”

In her role, Wanga has brought that same direct approach to helping Target establish eight companywide diversity goals, from increasing its assortment of multicultural dolls, beauty products and foods to improving hiring and retention of a diverse workforce. To encourage accountability, those goals have been tied into the compensation of the company’s top 300 leaders.

Training, from the top

She’s challenged Target employees to think about what conscious or unconscious biases they may bring to the table in new training sessions that began last year and are similar to the ones recently held by Starbucks, which found itself in the hot seat after two black men were arrested for sitting in one of its coffee shops without ordering anything.

About 7,000 of Target’s corporate employees have gone through the three-hour workshops, including CEO Brian Cornell and his senior leadership team. In the coming months, Target will roll out chunks of the training to stores and distribution centers.

While its training was not sparked by a particular incident, Wanga said that as a national retailer that interacts with 30 million customers a week, Target needs to make sure it’s treating customers equitably.

“I don’t want you to say nobody serviced me because I’m a white woman in the ethnic hair-care aisle because they didn’t think I needed it,” she said. “Or you don’t come talk to me when I am in the junior section because you don’t think I can fit that size so you don’t offer me any service.”

Target hasn’t always hit the mark. It faced a firestorm of complaints in 2010 after the company gave money to a pro-business group that supported a gubernatorial candidate who opposed same-sex marriage. The CEO at the time ended up apologizing and Wanga’s predecessor spent a lot of her time repairing Target’s external reputation as a result.

In 2016, Target received a different kind of backlash when it publicly announced transgender people visiting their stores can use the bathroom of their choice.

Diversity and inclusion offices have been a part of corporate America for 15 to 20 years. Wanga said progress has been made, but not enough. One of the reasons is that some companies put everything diversity-related under an umbrella diversity office.

Instead, Wanga said diversity goals need to be embedded throughout the organization. Every portion of the business has to step up to the plate — marketing has to own multicultural marketing and merchandising owns multicultural merchandising. Target’s diversity office, which has only about 10 employees, is there to provide everyone else with tools, support and expertise.

“I talk a lot about my job is to work myself out of a job,” she said.

Making diversity a priority

Part of why Target has been making strides in this space, Wanga said, is because Cornell has been a good partner and has made diversity a priority.

When Cornell became CEO in 2014, the top leadership team included only one person of color. Today, it has four on its 11-person team. The company’s board of directors has also become more diverse; a third are women and half come from racially or ethnically diverse backgrounds. Target has also pledged to achieve pay equity and recently audited the entire organization to confirm it has reached that goal.

“We’ve made some great strides and we’re really proud of it, but we know we can do more,” said Cornell.

Earlier this year, Cornell also became chairman of the Retail Industry Leaders Association and has made one of his objectives a push for more female CEOs.

Target has been exceeding its diversity-hiring goals this year — more than 40 percent of new corporate hires in Minnesota have been racially or ethnically diverse. The bigger challenge, Wanga said, is retaining those employees once they arrive. Many people blame Minnesota’s winters and its more modest racial diversity compared to some other parts of the country. Wanga said that’s a cop-out.

“I think we hide behind things like the weather and demographics but at the end of the day, none of that is a surprise when they show up on the first day,” she said. “There’s something else, and it’s the job.”

When people leave, she said it’s more likely they didn’t find something about the job satisfying or didn’t get promotions on the pace they expected.

Business case for diversity

When Wanga speaks in public, she often shares her personal story with a mixture of deadpan humor and colorful asides. She’s from Kenya, but “not the marathon running kind,” she often quips. “My track coaches were very disappointed.”

The daughter of parents with doctoral degrees, her family moved to Minnesota when she was a girl. She earned a track scholarship to go to Hamline, but dropped out her first semester when she became pregnant.

She later finished college, landing an internship at Target’s distribution center in Tyler, Texas. She had no interest in supply chain, but it paid well and led to a full-time job.

She moved up the ranks and, with the push of mentors, eventually landed in human resources, where Target’s office of diversity and inclusion is housed.

Integrating diversity and inclusion into an organization is not just a feel-good exercise, she said. It’s what gives companies a competitive advantage.

“It’s not United Colors of Benetton, I want to teach the world to sing, let’s hold hands,” she told NFL players at Target’s headquarters the week of the Super Bowl. “It’s a business imperative.”

For example, while Target has been expanding its assortment of multicultural beauty products for more than a decade, Christina Hennington, a senior executive in that space, still saw a gap in the offerings. So she recently brought on eight new mostly online-only brands aimed at women of color. The efforts have been paying off with growth of those products outpacing the rest of the category.

As Target opens more small-format stores in urban markets, it’s serving an even more diverse group of customers.

“So getting the assortment right and being credible in those stores is even more important,” said Hennington.

Target is making strides to be more inclusive in other ways, too. You can see it in the plus sizes it now offers with its limited-time design partnerships.

And Cat & Jack, the kids clothing brand, has some sensory-friendly items aimed at children with autism with features such as having no inside labels. But that initiative didn’t come from Wanga’s office, it originated from an employee who has a child with autism.
“There’s so much happening that I don’t know about and that’s exactly how it should be,” she said.