Elevator Profile: Joe Randene on Building a Team That Reflects Your Community
Together We Stand NC
Joe Randene had built a career in corporate America, even reaching the executive level at a Fortune 500 company, when he realized the unintended cost of that hustle.
“I woke up one day and just realized I was way out of shape; I was 100 pounds overweight from years of traveling and eating out all the time and not exercising. It all caught up to me,” he says.
Randene started running to improve his health, but, as is the case with many runners, the change went deeper than physical fitness. He started a blog chronicling his progression from 5Ks all the way to 100-milers. For him, it was a way to share his journey with other middle-aged runners who were new to the sport and didn’t see themselves reflected in the running community.
A decade later, this spirit of inclusivity has found a new outlet in his role as general manager of the Fleet Feet Greensboro/High Point location. Just before the start of the pandemic, Randene and store owner, John Dewey, took a serious look at their staff, which was lacking in diversity. Shortly thereafter, Randene synced up with Together We Stand (TWS) owner Tyrone Irby who was seeking on-the-ground partners across North Carolina. Through this collaboration, the Greensboro/High Point area became the first market to host TWS events outside its home base of Durham.
At the same time, Randene and Dewey were making strides toward their own internal goals. Today, their staff reflects the community it serves and has become one of the most diverse workforces within the Fleet Feet system. Their efforts have not only boosted business but also cultivated an even better work environment. Randene acknowledges it can be intimidating to take a stand on social issues or to ask for help in hiring a more diverse staff, but ultimately the business has been better for it. And, as he puts it, “doing the right thing should never be wrong.”
Name: Joe Randene, a.k.a. Joe the Runner
Job: General Manager at Fleet Feet Greensboro/High Point
TWS Elevator since: 2021
What prompted you to change how you hire staff?
We were starting our own diversity initiatives, and we were looking at our staff, which was more or less completely white. John [Dewey] and I had to ask ourselves why our staff was white if our community wasn’t completely white. Why wasn't our staff reflecting our community? And we kind of challenged each other and came to the conclusion that the way we were hiring people was reaching out to our neighbors to ask if their kids wanted to work at the store or if their spouse wanted to pick up some hours. But our neighbors and our community were mostly white.
So it wasn't an overtly racist act, but it was us not putting in the effort to ensure our candidate pool had qualified people of all backgrounds, whether it was people of color or the LGBTQ+ community.
How did you start making changes on this front?
One of our full-time supervisors, Devon, who ran in college for North Carolina A&T, told us we had to be willing to get uncomfortable. It sounds so obvious, but Devon spelled it out, ‘How do you hire more Black people? You interview and hire more Black people.’ That's how you do it. John and I have friends and acquaintances who are Black, so we told them what we were trying to do. It was odd and uncomfortable because you're approaching a friend and saying, ‘Look, we want to be allies, and we know we’ve been making mistakes. We would like to hire more people of color, but we don't have the network. Can you help us out? Can you send us qualified folks who are looking for jobs?’ The overwhelming majority of the time, our friends and community members who are Black or Hispanic or Asian were wide-open to it.
People who are against any kind of affirmative action or initiatives to hire people of color have this misconception that you're not hiring for the job; you're hiring because they're Black. And I tell people all the time that that’s being lazy and making excuses. I didn't say to hire an unqualified person; I said to make sure the candidate pool reflects the community and that we find qualified people. That means developing relationships with A&T. It means reaching out to our gay friends and saying, look, we're hiring and we need qualified people. It's uncomfortable initially, but there's momentum that you gain. As you hire more people from different backgrounds, they bring their friends in and all of a sudden you've created that network organically. It's so obvious to me now, but two or three years ago it wasn't.
When we wanted to bring in a person with Down Syndrome—because we had seen what some of the folks at [French restaurant] Chez Genèse and [coffeeshop] Special Blend were doing—it was as simple as reaching out to some of our contacts that we knew had family members with Down Syndrome. We said, ‘This is the job we're looking to fulfill. Can they do it or are they qualified? Would they like to work?’ And within a week we had a couple of applicants, and we hired someone.
How has your commitment to hiring across different backgrounds affected the business?
What we found out was, as we did the work and hired qualified people from all different backgrounds, our business got stronger. And I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is we no longer sit in a vacuum where we’re not only getting one cultural point of view. Now we have a cross-cultural point of view and conversations, and I think that makes us a stronger team with stronger solutions.
The other thing is when people walk into our store, they see themselves reflected in our staff. And the immediate message is: You're welcome here. We're your community. We are you and you are welcome. Whether you're coming to get a pair of shoes for work or you’re starting your walking journey, or you're an avid runner, someone here looks like you.
We have a waiting list of people who want to work for us, and that I attribute 100 percent to this network we have built and the environment we try to create in our store. I think a lot of our staff are telling people how great it is to work for our company: ‘They listen to you. It’s welcoming, and they care about all the employees. They compensate well.’ We try to hold onto our best employees. We give them an incentive to stay with us.
Have you experienced any backlash for taking a stance on social issues?
In the old days, you didn't talk about politics and religion at work. Now, because we've dipped our toe in, we are in situations from time to time where we're having conversations during working hours with a customer on the floor. It's new, and we were worried initially. We have a responsibility to our staff; they rely on us for jobs and money and saving for their retirement. Are we putting those things at risk? But at the end of the day, we felt doing the right thing should never be wrong.
We had a couple of situations where people came to us and said, ‘Why did you have Black Lives Matter in your email?’ And [those conversations] turned out OK. We were worried about what we thought was going to happen, but our business is stronger and better because of the journey we've been on. Our sales are better. We have more customers. I think we have more return customers because of what we stand for and who we put on our floor every day, which are really qualified people who look like our community. We have gay people on our staff. We have a person with Down Syndrome on our staff. We have Asian people on our staff, we have Black people on our staff, and we have white people on our staff. So when people walk in our store they see themselves—and I don't see how that could be bad for a business
How do you invite everyone to the table for difficult conversations?
We definitely had times where we sat at the pub runs and told people, ‘I'll buy a round of beers for seven or eight people if they're willing to sit down and have some conversations.’ We've had the Greensboro police come run with us and then sit down and have them at the table for the conversation. It has to be everybody; we can't do this in a vacuum. There are bad police for sure, but we can't demonize the entire police force. We have to sit down and hear what they have to say. And Tyrone [Irby] has always been very open to this. Initially we focused on people of color, but we need to include the LGBTQ+ community and other groups. Human rights are human rights.
Our biggest challenge right now is with our run groups; they don't reflect our community, so we're trying to figure out how to get more people of color involved. It's difficult because the places we host these pub runs are, for whatever reason, not multicultural. How do you get a more diverse running group if you're doing it out of a place where almost everybody is white? So we are trying to figure that out, but it’s a little trickier than the employee thing.
I tell Tyrone all the time that I don't know if he can change the world or if I can change the world, but we can change our little world, right? And I can tell you the Fleet Feet Greensboro–High Point little world is completely different than it was three years ago and in a better way. And that's a start.
Fleet Feet Greensboro/High Point will host its Unity 5K on Sunday, October 15. Sign up now!