Although Gisel Ruiz’s mother was only educated through middle school and her father never had the opportunity to go to school, they ended up being her two most valuable teachers—ones she says instilled in her “the values of tenacity and
Ruiz would go on to take full advantage of the more substantial opportunities that she was afforded in her youth, graduating from Santa Clara University with a degree in marketing and completing the university’s retail-management program. In 1992, she was a Walmart college recruit and joined the retailer at age 21 as a store-management trainee. She never left.
The executive vice president of Walmart International’s people division began her illustrious career in HR by simply working her way up—from assistant manager to co-manager, store manager, and beyond.
“Eventually I took an open position on the labor relations team and went on to become labor relations manager,” Ruiz says. “That was my introduction to human resources.” Though she had no previous labor relations or HR experience, Ruiz found her experience managing stores and being on the ground with customers and employees invaluable. She soon went on to become people director, supporting the west division, which covers one-third of the United States.
At that point, she had given birth to her second child and decided to go for the job she had wanted for years. “When I was in college, I had read “Made in America” by Mr. Sam Walton—and being a regional VP was the job of my dreams.” She first went back into the operations side of the field as operations coordinator before becoming regional VP, responsible for 150 stores in New Mexico and West Texas.
“I was very happy in that job,” she recalls. “Then, the chief operating officer at the time said the people group wanted to rebuild, and he thought they could use my operations skills.” Ruiz accepted and became senior VP, responsible for supporting all Walmart stores from an HR perspective. That meant being responsible for about one million people.
Ruiz was then promoted to executive VP of people for Walmart US. Her next promotion came soon after, to chief operating officer, where she was responsible for about 3,000 stores. Ruiz was responsible for store innovations, HR, asset protection, and real estate.
“I am proud of several accomplishments while I was in that role,” she says. “We started our store expansion program and built over 300 stores in the last year-and-a-half I was there. In terms of talent, we built a strong operations team. And most importantly, we launched our Veterans Initiative.” Ruiz oversaw Walmart’s commitment to hiring 100,000 veterans in five years. “We far exceeded that goal.”
At the end of 2014, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon expressed to Ruiz that she should consider a move to Walmart’s international division, which employs over one million associates in locations from Canada to South Africa to India. “He said it would give me an opportunity to get international experience without having to move my family out of the country,” Ruiz recalls. “I thought it was very generous of him to think of my family.” She took the suggestion and moved over to Walmart International as executive VP of people.
“It was like starting at Walmart on day one,” Ruiz continues. “I didn’t realize the complexity of operating in 27 different countries outside the US. In every country, you’re dealing with different laws, governments, formats, and management structures.” The learning curve was steep, she admits; she had grown accustomed to working in the US, where Walmart is structured into two major formats: superstore and neighborhood markets. Walmart International, on the other hand, has over 60 different banners.
“It has been an amazing experience so far,” she says. “I’ve learned so much.”
The best part of the job, Ruiz explains, is the difference she can make in drastically diverse parts off the world in terms of sustainability, women’s empowerment, and providing opportunities for better lives for associates. She feels her biggest challenges lie in the complexities of different cultures. “We leverage where we can be the same, but we respect what makes each country unique. We’re different where it’s important to be different. For me, it has truly been a year of learning.”
Throughout her career, one thing has remained true for Ruiz: Developing people comes naturally to her, and she loves mentoring people into positions of success. “I became passionate about HR when I saw up-close the impact—for example, seeing an hourly associate get promoted to management,” she says.
“It’s almost addictive. I love being a part of improving a person’s life—and the lives of their family.”
The attributes that make up Ruiz herself—being family-focused and passionate about improving lives—are her strengths. The advice she always gives to Hispanic students, likewise, involves embracing their identity, culture, and family history.
“Your background makes you who you are,” she says. “Share it with others.”