Innovation isn’t always about the latest gadget or invention. Sometimes innovation is about finding ways to create opportunities.
At its annual Power of the Purse event, the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas (WFA) will honor J.B. Hunt Transport Services executive Shelley Simpson as its 2022 Woman of Innovation, a new award this year.
“It’s rewarding, yet at the same time humbling,” Simpson says. “Having an innovative mindset – seeing something and asking, ‘How can we do this differently and make it better?’ – comes very naturally to me.”
Simpson is chief commercial officer and executive vice president of people and human resources. She joined J.B. Hunt as an hourly employee in 1994 and has held a number of roles across a variety of segments.
In her 27 years at the Fortune 500 company, Simpson has improved productivity and customer service, created new departments, devised a number of initiatives and led the development of the J.B. Hunt 360 technology platform for freight matching and occupational efficiency.
The fresh ideas, new projects and technological solutions would be enough to earn the WFA’s innovation honor, says WFA Executive Director Anna Beth Gorman, but it is Simpson’s efforts on behalf of women and minorities that, as much as anything, led the nonprofit to take notice.
“What really inspired the WFA was Shelley’s work as EVP of people and human resources,” Gorman says. “WFA hopes more Arkansas companies will join the movement to create cultures that truly work for women. We hope more companies will pledge to focus on building an equitable and inclusive environment, then follow through on that work.”
As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, Simpson sponsored the new employee resource groups (ERG) Growing and Retaining Outstanding Women (GROW), Latinos Engaging, Advancing and Developing (LEAD) and the LGBTQIA+ resource group PLUS (+).
The company also supports its African American ERG (AAmERG) and its Veterans Employee ERG (VERG).
Simpson also serves on the new J.B. Hunt Inclusion Council, made up of the company’s senior leaders.
“The mission underscores our commitment to ensuring inclusion remains a key component of creating an exceptional employee experience and driving how we do business,” Simpson says.
Inclusion, of course, is what the WFA is all about. By working to ensure economic equity and security for the women and girls of Arkansas, the organization fights for inclusion in career opportunities, inclusion at the table and inclusion in the future.
“We are focused on the future for women and girls, and by ensuring that there are equitable opportunities for them to become scientists, engineers, mathematicians and successful entrepreneurs, WFA is creating access to economic security and bright futures,” Gorman says.
Simply put, when the state’s women succeed, the state succeeds.
“The work of helping women advance up the economic ladder is advancing the state of Arkansas economically,” Gorman says.
Founded in 1998, the WFA is the only statewide foundation focused entirely on women and girls. Through its programs, grants and initiatives, its mission is “ensuring economic security for Arkansas women and girls through focused economic investment on their education and economic well-being.”
Through its Girls of Promise initiative, the WFA introduces girls from eighth grade through college to opportunities and mentors in the STEAM fields: science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Girls of Promise is working to increase the number of girls in higher-level STEAM courses and careers.
Through its Women Empowered initiative, the WFA takes on elements of women’s economic security like asset building, access to capital and the wealth gap.
“We have educated and empowered thousands of women across Arkansas to save money for life and retirement, reduce debt and plan for their financial futures,” Gorman says. “We are also focused on helping women leverage business ownership as a vehicle for economic mobility, particularly women of color, who have been historically and systematically disadvantaged in the entrepreneurship ecosystem.”
In 2021, the WFA launched the Tjuana Byrd Summer Internship Program for college-aged women of color pursuing careers in STEAM fields. It also introduced the Women-Owned Economic Mobility (WEM) Hub program to help Black women entrepreneurs leverage their businesses to create economic mobility for themselves, their families and communities.
Also in 2021, the WFA unveiled an online grant application system and distributed nearly $150,000 to organizations and businesses serving women and girls.
“We are a statewide foundation with a statewide footprint, and I am very proud that our grantmaking reflected that last year,” Gorman says.
With its 25th anniversary arriving next year, the WFA is doubling the size of its new programs as well as the number of women served. Gorman noted Gov. Asa Hutchinson re-established the Arkansas Commission on the Status of Women, with which the WFA will work closely, and it recently introduced a program under its Save10 initiative that helps Arkansas Department of Education employees learn about public loan service forgiveness, retirement savings and more.
“We look forward to celebrating that work and leveraging our 25th anniversary to prepare the organization for another 25 years and beyond,” Gorman says.
Power of the Purse is the foundation’s signature benefit event, honoring a number of women in different categories for their work in creating favorable environments and opportunities for women.
Gorman says the Woman of Innovation honor dovetails with the WFA’s work to provide opportunities and economic equity for women.
“We’re an organization of innovation in the work that we do and the way that we do it, and we’re happy to celebrate innovative women in Arkansas who align with this value,” Gorman says.
She says Simpson’s career record, creative approach and long-term vision that earned her a seat at the table is relatable to women across the state and made her a shoo-in for the honor.
“In a male-dominated industry, Shelley has taken the reins on fresh ideas and new projects that have propelled a Fortune 500 company forward,” Gorman says. “She is responsible for technology-driven solutions for company efficiency, and anytime the WFA can recognize the importance of woman-led STEAM solutions, it’s a good day.”
For Simpson, innovation means intentional disruption, which she sees as a mindset change, sort of like changing mindsets about what is possible for women and girls in society.
“I am constantly thinking ‘Disrupt, adapt, accelerate. Disrupt, adapt, accelerate,’” she says. “It starts to open your mind as to what is possible.”
Simpson’s dad frequently enjoyed telling her she could become President of the United States if she set her mind to it.
When she worked as a preschool teacher while earning her marketing degree at the University of Arkansas, he told her she could be a principal or superintendent or teach at the college level.
And when Simpson broke into the trucking and transportation industry as a J.B. Hunt customer service rep, her dad told her she could become the first female vice president or even president.
“I am so thankful I listened to my dad and believed in myself as much as he did,” says Simpson 27 years later. “But it wasn’t just my father who inspired me, it was also meeting the right people at the right company at the right time and seeing what was possible.”
The vice presidential and presidential dreams have come true, more than once. In 2007, Simpson was named president of the J.B. Hunt business unit Integrated Capacity Solutions (ICS), which she helped create. In 2014, she became president of J.B. Hunt’s truckload business segment, helping to improve fleet efficiency. In 2017, Simpson was named president of highway services, created when the company combined its truckload segment and ICS. In 2020, she was named executive vice president of people and human resources, from where she leads J.B. Hunt’s efforts to create a more inclusive culture and work environment.
She has held numerous other positions and roles, serves on numerous boards, councils and selection committees and has won numerous awards, but one of Simpson’s proudest achievements is the J.B. Hunt 360 platform, the unveiling of which was “one of the top 10 days of my career,” she says.
The platform, with 100,000 carriers connecting businesses to almost 1 million trucks, gives carriers real-time information on wait times, locations and their available amenities, types of freight available, tracking and free two-day payments.
“The previous way of hauling freight was like trying to schedule a trip to a foreign country without the internet,” she says.
Simpson notes many of the positions she has held didn’t exist when she began as an hourly employee. She has succeeded, she says, because of mentorship at a company invested in solutions and because of people investing in her throughout her career.
It’s how she got to be a Woman of Innovation and why she is happy to accept.
“The work the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas is doing, the investments they are making in solutions that support women and girls in reaching their full potential, that work is going to prepare the women of tomorrow for jobs that don’t even exist today.”
Editor's note: After publication, Simpson was promoted to president of J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc.
Power of the Purse
Sept. 21, 11:30 a.m. | Statehouse Convention Center