Second in a series of stories from the Spring 2019 Inclusion Magazine.
WATERLOO — Sailu Timbo’s original goal was to be a computer programmer in Silicon Valley.
But opportunity, and a helpful smile, led him to Hy-Vee Stores Inc.
Twenty years and 11 stores later, he’s made his way to Hy-Vee’s corporate offices in Des Moines, where he works as the company’s director of diversity and recruiting.
“With a more diverse workforce we can find different ways to speak to our community,” Timbo said. “We have customers who are diverse, and we want to make sure our stores serve the community in the best ways possible.”
In 2017, Hy-Vee corporate officials tapped him to lead the charge in making Hy-Vee a model of diversity. Timbo was a natural choice. In 2008, he became the first African-American to be named a Hy-Vee store director, and in 2011 took the highest post at the Logan Avenue store in Waterloo — the first African-American to lead a Hy-Vee in the Cedar Valley.
Timbo began working at Hy-Vee in 1998 as a part-time produce clerk in Waterloo. He remained with the company through his studies at the University of Iowa. Timbo majored in African-American studies and business as a full-time student while working full time as a manager at a Hy-Vee in Iowa City.
“It took a lot of drive, a lot of juggling,” he said in a 2011 Courier story. “Not a lot of sleep.”
He’d been the director of four stores before taking his post at Hy-Vee headquarters to work on building diversity.
Timbo said studying African-American history gave him a good perspective of how African-Americans have shaped the world and how people reach conclusions about people from other backgrounds.
“I grew up in the Cedar Valley, one of the most culturally diverse areas in Iowa. My educational background allowed me to understand what has shaped people’s beliefs and in doing so help develop strategies to barriers for employers,” he said.
Some of those strategies start with young people, he said. Timbo visits junior high and high schools to educate students on the foundation of good business practices.
“Hello, please and thank you — the three most important words in any language. We need to have an emphasis on soft skills. For a 16-year-old kid, they need to be communicating in ways that make them successful. The outcome for them is better, and also for the business community. These are our future employees.”
That skill building leads to recruitment, Timbo said, which is part of his job. Recently, Timbo has been working on a recruitment effort in Puerto Rico. Through his efforts, the number of Hy-Vee employees recruited from the U.S. territory now stands at 10.
“If someone fits, we’ll help them get housing. Hy-Vee will pay for the flight for them to come and work in Iowa,” Timbo said. “It’s so competitive finding good people to work for you, so we need to spend time to develop understanding of different cultures for prospective employees to come from.
“Every individual should have an opportunity to be in a leadership role, and that comes with connecting, training and developing cultural competency. The world is changing. By 2024, minorities will be a majority. That’s a significant change. So we have to say what does leadership look like in our company, in corporate America, the world. When everyone gets an opportunity to evolve, business and community will be stronger in the long run.”