BENTONVILLE, Arkansas – Walmart’s Walton family wants to put the American heartland’s name in the hat for attracting talent and investment.
Walmart founder Sam Walton’s grandsons, Tom and Steuart Walton, and their respective spouses, Olivia and Kelly, hosted their second, invitation-only Heartland Summit from May 11 to 12 in the big-box retailer’s headquarters of Bentonville, Arkansas. They invited 350 attendees and guest panelists as diverse as Pharrell Williams, Chelsea Clinton, JP Morgan chief executive officer Jamie Dimon and a slew of governors, mayors and investors from flyover states to reveal their challenges and recipes for success — what the Waltons dub the secret sauce.
To the summit’s tune of, “We’re all in this together,” the collective idea is to alter the course of these overlooked pockets and transform them into thriving, progressive hubs. With its Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, James Beard-nominated restaurants, nearly 500 miles of bike trails, and pending boutique hotels and mixed-use developments, including America’s first bikeable building with exterior switchbacks, Bentonville has become a playbook for such community meets business-minded action.
“Our aha moment was a WSJ essay about how rural America has replaced the inner-city as the new center of crisis,” said Olivia Walton, of their founding Heartland Forward, a “think and do” tank, and its annual summit. “It began a conversation about how to bring 21st-century opportunity to the heartland.”
Though some of the summit’s speakers live on the coasts, they have experience with underserved areas or ties to rural ones. Clinton, an Arkansas native who noted that her mother Hillary Clinton was the first woman to serve on Walmart’s board, talked about the Clinton Foundation’s providing millions of meals in her home state’s capital during the pandemic and installing libraries in coin laundromats. She stressed how places like the heartland need basic infrastructure and necessities. The marathoner was also excited to hit Bentonville’s famous trail system.
With his family watching from the front row, Williams discussed his educational nonprofit Yellow and its Yellowhab school for low-income children in Norfolk, Virginia. (The Walton Family Foundation was an early donor to the school.) He claimed to like small towns and third-tier markets, but their mentality can be so backward; his reference to Hazzard County, as in “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV show, got loads of laughs. Williams cited relocating his 2022 Something in the Water music festival on Juneteenth weekend from his native Virginia Beach to Washington, D.C., after he believes the city mishandled his cousin’s fatal shooting by a Virginia Beach police officer. The event was meant to create harmony between local businesses and restless youth in his hometown.
“Think about people who don’t look like you. If you don’t, you don’t have the right to complain,” he said.
Panelists also spoke about giving other people and places a chance. Dimon — who this week received somewhat of a rebuke from JPMorgan’s shareholders when they voted down his proposed $50 million bonus — said inequality is what’s holding back America most, with up to 30 percent of its society left behind. He ranted about how the U.S. is its own biggest threat rather than China rising, and called for increasing the minimum wage, ending tax breaks for everything from cotton to golf courses, and teaching young people employable skills and healthy habits. Venture capitalist and panelist Gayle Jennings-O’Byrne was fired up about investing in women of color innovators, not only for balancing the “bro” factor but for pure profit. Allison Lee’s on-demand tailoring service Hemster is among Jennings-O’Byrne’s WOCstar Fund’s portfolio.
Investors and entrepreneurs including AOL cofounder Steve Case and Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams covered the many advantages in doing business in the heartland: cost of living, quality of life; brand authenticity/trust; pride; community; geography/being at the country’s crossroads; making an impact sooner, and access to politicians and other community leaders. They added that COVID-19 relocation, WFH and coastal cities’ diminished housing inventory and cost of living exceeding salaries sped up the exodus to rural America and boomerang effect of urbanites returning to their rural hometowns.
“COVID[-19] has crystallized that we need to shift from attracting business to attracting talent by doubling down on quality of life,” said Olivia Walton.
Summit attendees got a taste of that here with the Waltons’ secret sauce. They rode bikes, toured the museum, ate dinner by local restaurant the Hive’s executive chef Matthew McClure and learned about Walmart’s drone deliveries in northwest Arkansas. Alice Walton shared news about her next big project — Whole Health Institute, a nonprofit for affordable physical, mental and spiritual care. Designed by Marlon Blackwell Architects, the 75,000-square-foot community space opens on Crystal Bridges’ grounds next year. The museum is also expanding by 50 percent.
Performance art was part of the agenda, too. Lil Buck and Jon Boogz showed off their Broadway-bound jookin’ choreography between panels and again after dinner during country music singer-songwriter Caroline Jones’ concert. Borrowing from Austin, Texas’ playbook, Bentonville has an active live music scene. The Waltons took their guests over to the Momentary, Crystal Bridges’ satellite for contemporary art, dance, film and music, to see the string band Old Crow Medicine Show. Installed on the former Kraft cheese factory’s exterior, Tavares Strachan’s iconic neon text sculpture “You Belong Here” cast a pink glow over the concert lawn.
The family views entertainment as a key to the region. The Walton-owned Oz Brands is collaborating with Austin’s C3 Presents (Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits Music Festival) and the Triadic creative firm to launch the inaugural Format (For Music + Art + Technology) festival from Sept. 23 to 25 at the family’s Sugar Creek grassy airstrip/fields about three miles from downtown. Beyond bands, there will be art activations — Doug Aitken landing a mirrored hot-air balloon, a barn-turned-disco by Maurizio Cattelan’s Toiletpaper magazine and other works by Nick Cave, Assume Vivid Astro Focus and more.
The Waltons also will soon spice things up with fashion and retail. Crystal Bridges’ foray into fashion exhibitions, “Fashioning America: Grit to Glamour,” curated by guest curator Michelle Tolini Finamore, opens in September, and its symposium is slated for October. Olivia Walton said the vast overview includes pieces from Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and Hamish Bowles’ personal collection.
“Over a million people went to the Met’s ‘Heavenly Bodies” [exhibit],’” she said, of the push to try fashion and be more accessible. “We’re also talking to the CFDA about creating scholarships for heartland designers.”
Brika, a temporary lifestyle boutique in a historic bank building in downtown Bentonville, represents local designers like Hillfolk (hand-dyed scarves and socks) and N.A. Martin (women’s tailored shirts). Jen Lee Koss, who cofounded the pop-up concept that’s traveled to Aspen, Colorado, and Ontario’s Muskoka district, hosted a shopping party for the summit’s participants. She offers 100 lines for women, men, children and home, such as Faherty, Pehr, The Great Eros and Mignonne Gavigan, and regularly imports collections for trunk shows to see what sticks.
“There’s definitely a gap in the market for apparel, and people are asking for it,” said Lee Koss, having been charged by the Waltons to curate more stores, from monobrands to independent retailers like Wylde, whose pop-up launches mid-summer. “Well, we are in the retail capital.”