Jessica Waller: From KPS to Kellogg (and back)

CIS Think Summer! is underway and Jessica Waller helped Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS) kick off programming—virtual this summer, due to COVID-19—by offering a fun, informative, and interactive presentation for our secondary students. CIS Think Summer! is organized by various career themes, the first of which is focused on food and food-related careers. As you’ll quickly discover, Mrs. Waller was the perfect person for the job.

Ms. Waller connecting with students through computer.

 

Jessica (Savage) Waller is a proud Kalamazoo native and graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS); Mrs. Waller attended Northeastern Elementary, South Junior High School (currently known as Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts), and Kalamazoo Central High School. Mrs. Waller’s parents always stressed the importance of getting an education and served as examples for her through their professions. Her father was employed at the state of Michigan at the Michigan Commission for the Blind Training Center as a Mobility and Orientation Instructor and as an adjunct instructor at Western Michigan University in the Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies and her mother owned a day care.

Upon graduating high school, Mrs. Waller earned a full scholarship to Western Michigan University. At first, she was not sure what she should major in and her mother suggested Business. Later, Mrs. Waller discovered the Food Marketing major. This would allow her to work in the food industry which is a plus because she loves all kinds of food!

Mrs. Waller has been employed with the Kellogg Company for 21 years. She started as an intern and has held several positions within the company along the way to being promoted to her current position of Vice President of the Salty Snacks Division. Mrs. Waller is proud to work for an organization that values Diversity and Inclusion. These two core company values can be traced back to the founder, W.K. Kellogg. For example, the company added love notes in braille to one of their signature products, Rice Krispie Treats; Mrs. Waller was instrumental in this project. Mrs. Waller stated “Inclusion is in our DNA. Everyone is important, and we want each child to be able to feel loved, supported and acknowledged.”

When Mrs. Waller is not busy developing exciting selling stories for customers, she is spending time with her family which includes seven children ranging from the ages of 24 to two years old.

Agenda Ms. Waller shared with students

Mrs. Waller also recently spent time with Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids. Her interview follows.

As part of your presentation—which, by the way, was extremely well received by the youth (and grownups) in attendance—you discussed product innovation. It seems that innovation has a natural relationship with diversity and inclusion. Love notes in braille on Kellogg’s Rice Krispy Treats is an excellent example of this. Innovation, like diversity and inclusion, just doesn’t magically happen. Kellogg’s obviously puts work into living out the values of diversity and inclusion. That effort involves creative thinking, listening, and strategizing. Can you speak more about this relationship of diversity, inclusion, and innovation?

Diversity and Inclusion (or D&I) is in the DNA of the Kellogg Company. It started with our founder, WK Kellogg, who was really the Father of the Cereal Category. His persistence resulted in a tremendous amount of innovation, products we now enjoy daily around the breakfast table. Despite many challenges along the way, WK did not give up, and that persistence clearly paid off after many decades of hard work and commitment. At the heart of his work, he solidly believed in changing the world for the better. As part of that, he believed in investing in others, often quoting, “I’ll invest my money in people.” And that he did.

Today, thousands of employees globally still live by the core value set forward by WK. Diversity and Inclusion efforts are at the heart of everything that we do. We have eight different Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) at Kellogg that represent different areas of focus, and these groups work to ensure that every employee can bring their best self to work every day. I served for the last five years as a Co-Chair for one such ERG, Kapable, which focuses on those employees that might be disabled (or differently-abled as we like to say) or might have family members who are. One of the initiatives we helped lead within Kapable was an inclusivity effort within the Rice Krispies Treats Love Notes campaign, which resulted in the release of Rice Krispies Treats Love Notes stickers for both blind and autistic children. These stickers can be placed on the top of Rice Krispies Treats and share a special message of love and recognition for children as they return to school. Because love and inclusivity are the most important school supplies, aren’t they?

Kelloggs Rice Krispies treats braille stickers (Kelloggs)

Yes, you are correct, innovation doesn’t just happen, and neither does diversity and inclusion. They all take hard work, persistence, and a determination to never give up. When paired together, they can change the world, just as WK aspired to do. Hope is not a strategy—we all have to get involved—and I am personally committed to pushing for a better tomorrow.

What are you learning about yourself and/or the world during these challenging times?

I am learning that I haven’t done enough. I was raised by socially progressive parents who always believed in community involvement, engaging in the service of others, and equality for all, and so all three of us kids have carried that forth as a way of living and representation within our own communities and families. I thought that I was doing my part by not being closed-minded and by engaging in work that encourages inclusion and diversity. As I have done some reflection over the past several months, I have recognized that simply isn’t enough. It’s a start, but in order to truly make the world a better place, it’s going to take aggressive action, activism, loud voices, persistence, teaching of our children, and most importantly…listening.

I’ve also learned that every challenge brings forth an opportunity for unity. COVID-19 presented an immediate challenge globally, one that quickly divided us all into our own separate homes and lives and significantly changed our former lifestyles as we knew them. Yet we saw the best of humanity rise up as people helped one another get access to food supplies, deliver groceries, tend to our children, visit the lonely, and countless other ways of uniting for good. Then we have the rising unemployment rate, which can quickly divide the Have’s and Have-Not’s. Again, another place where I have seen the best of people, rising up to help one another with the necessities for their families, extend arms of employment, sharing of resources, etc.

I would also point to the civil unrest this country has seen come to the forefront as of late with the horrific slayings of several black fellow Americans. While this is yet another example of terrible divide, we see the unity coming to life with people of all walks of life and ethnicities taking to the streets and demanding equality. It’s a pivotal point of change that is long, long overdue, and I will stand with my family to take a part in every one of those opportunities for unity. My prayer is that we all engage in unification opportunities within our own communities and drive to deliver a better world for us and for our children.

Do you have a sense that American’s snacking habits have changed as a result of the pandemic?

Absolutely—people are eating more and eating differently. We are constantly engaging consumers to understand this evolution. COVID-19 created this vertical upheaval in the American way of life that has greatly impacted how, when and why people are eating. We know that 89% of shopper buying habits have changed since the start of COVID. More people are buying online, perhaps having groceries delivered, perhaps shopping in another Channel (type of store) versus where they have traditionally shopped. They certainly stocked up more, at least for a period of time, than what they had in the past, and as a result, they are eating more. I know that’s true for me! Being home 24/7 with a house full of kids that would otherwise be so actively engaged in school and community activities has left us eating more food at home instead! We find that to be true broadly across the US.

What will be most interesting is watching what consumers do after this pandemic settles a bit…will they go back to their former ways or be forever changed? We will be anxious to see!

What is one of your favorite snacks?

Cheez-It Extra Toasty, hands down! I love them.

Thinking back to your days as a KPS student, can you tell us about a teacher(s) who influenced and inspired you?

There were so many that I would honestly feel bad if I called out any one in particular. I rattled off nearly a dozen in my mind as the question was asked. There are many excellent teachers in KPS, and everywhere for that matter. We don’t value them enough in this country, and that has to change. Without teachers, where would any of us be?

What are you currently reading?  

I just finished a book called Top Down Day about a family that lost a loved one and how they processed and coped. I lost my Dad nearly five years ago now to brain cancer, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him and struggle with that tremendous loss. That book really helped me recognize that many of the personal and painful things I have felt with the loss of my Dad are ‘normal’ feelings. One never knows what to expect in the face of tragedy I suppose, but I’m learning everyday how to cope. I miss him terribly, we all do. But at least I can hold onto the wonderful example and teachings he instilled in me of being kind to others always. As long as I uphold that, he lives on.

What is your favorite word or phrase right now?  

“Just do it.” A former leader in my church said that often, as does Nike, of course. We all need to get up off our couches and out from behind our computer and phone screens and get involved. Don’t overthink the ‘buts’ and ‘whats’…just do it. Do what you know is right.

Anything else you want us to know?

I’m so grateful for this opportunity to engage tomorrow’s leaders. So thank you for that.  If I can ever help in any way, count me in!

Thank you, Mrs. Waller, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.