Laysha Ward

Laysha Ward

A pioneer in corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion work, Target’s long-tenured chief external engagement officer has helped evolve the retailer’s social impact and set an example nationwide.

While waiting on a Peace Corps assignment after college, Laysha Ward took a part-time job at Marshall Field’s in Chicago. In 1991, she made $7 an hour selling dresses and women’s sportswear. “I thought, this will be fun before I go live in a hut.”

That sales job fueled her in a way she hadn’t expected. “I liked the consumer-facing nature of retail. You get to know the customer very quickly, building connection and community.” Recognizing her innate talent, Marshall Field’s soon made her a department manager. She leaned into the work of culture and team building, and discovered the company’s legendary 5% commitment to philanthropy. “I realized I didn’t have to go to a hut in Africa. Social impact can be achieved with and through a corporation.”

She rose through the sales ranks and moved to Minneapolis to serve as Marshall Field’s community relations director in 1998 before switching to the Target Corp. side of the company, where she continued to work in roles that expanded her focus on purpose, culture, and community impact. Her legacy at Target runs deeper than any celebrity product line, broader than any e-commerce innovation—colleagues and community partners say her work nourishes the heart of the Fortune 30 enterprise.

Named executive vice president and chief external engagement officer in 2017, she’s one of the longest-serving employees on Target’s leadership team today, with a 32-year tenure. And she’s the only executive on the 26th floor at Target headquarters who has met every living U.S. president and even worked with a few. In 2008, President George W. Bush nominated her to serve on the board of the Corporation for National and Community Service. She became board chair during the Obama administration.

“Laysha has been an ambassador for, and a shining example of, Target’s culture of care,” says CEO and chairman Brian Cornell. “Every day, she inspires our team, deepens connections with a wide array of stakeholders and the communities we serve, and drives positive business impact along the way. Laysha also has been a national leader and pacesetter in the world of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Growing up in rural Indiana, Ward didn’t have business role models. Her father was a firefighter; the only office buildings she’d visited were the ones her mother, who worked in social work, cleaned on the side. She was the only Black student at her elementary and high school. She was the first member of her family to graduate from college. Being “first,” “only,” or “one of a few” is a pattern that has repeated throughout her life and career. “It taught me the importance of building relationships with people who didn’t look like me—how to celebrate the things we had in common and also lean into differences,” Ward says. “It became a superpower of sorts. I have a lot of experience standing in my purpose and my power.”

Ward did DEI work before it had a name, a job title, or specific benchmarks at Target—which was typical of many companies little more than a decade ago. She approached it intuitively. “I want to help women, people of color, and other underrepresented communities have more equitable opportunities,” she says. “I’ve worked on that in every role at Target. I’ve done my part to push for change, and I’m proud of the progress we’ve made. But it hasn’t been easy.”

She helped the company prioritize inclusivity as an essential value. She pushed for multiyear DEI goal-setting—“so we’re not just making decisions, but thinking about them over the long-term like we would with any other part of the business.” She says she’s proud that today, nearly half of Target’s store directors are women and, increasingly, men and women of color. With more than 400,000 employees, the majority work in stores and distribution centers. “Store director is an important, meaningful career opportunity,” Ward says. “You’re managing a multimillion-dollar business with anywhere from 300 to 800 employees. We want to make sure they reflect the communities in which they operate.”

And still, the murder of George Floyd hit her like “a gut punch.” He wasn’t the first, she’s quick to point out. But the timing of it, during the pandemic lockdown in May 2020, and the nature of the way it played out on screen for the world to see—“It was compounding trauma,” she says.

For Ward, there was little space to dwell on the personal pain. “I tried not to get self-righteous or say ‘I told you so,’ having been involved in this work my whole life.” Target immediately convened internal meetings with Black managers. Ward helped organize a Twin Cities group of Black executives to share ideas and support one another.

But the calls kept coming, from all corners of the country—CEOs, business leaders, elected officials. “I felt like the Black Google,” she says. “It was overwhelming, frankly. But I wanted to try to be of service.”

She put pen to paper, outlining the pillars of an anti-racist business strategy, including intentional training and hiring practices, rethinking purchasing decisions and separating company policy from politics.

Her handbook was published by the Harvard Business Review and has served as a resource for organizations across the country.

LinkedIn with Laysha

There was a time when Target preferred that its leaders stay quiet and let the company shine. Social media helped change that culture, and Laysha Ward has become a LinkedIn influencer. More than a half-million people follow her “Laysha’s Lessons from the C-Suite.” A few of her favorite pearls of wisdom:

“Sometimes the things that have gotten you here aren’t the things that will get you to the next level.”

“If you’re not willing to set goals and measure progress against goals, you’re not going to have a sustainable impact.”

“Celebrate progress; acknowledge gaps.”

“Treat time as a precious resource. You can’t do everything in a day. Start to think about what you can do in a lifetime. It opens a world of possibilities.”

At Target, Ward helped create the Racial Equity Action and Change committee (REACH) in 2020. “The plans we had in place to improve on outcomes were not sufficient,” she says. “So we went back and created more ambitious solutions.” That includes far-reaching goals, like spending $2 billion with Black owned businesses by the end of 2025 and another $100 million on deficit areas in the Black community, such as housing and education.

But it’s the work to meet bold objectives that she considers the true accomplishment. “We have to look at our own systems and processes, think about what it takes to be able to work with hundreds of new businesses—their access to capital, training, and technology,” Ward says. “We need to build an ecosystem that allows them to be more successful—beyond Target. It’s not just leveraging philanthropy. Some of the best contributions and investments we can make involve using our business acumen.”

Friend and collaborator Sondra Samuels, president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) in Minneapolis, describes Ward as a true partner in initiatives larger than any one company or organization. “I am so grateful for leaders like Laysha who focus on solidarity and not just charity. Time and again she has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with us on the ground, both in times of distress and in times of celebration.”

Ward juggles a dizzying roster of commitments and appointments, serving on the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society Advisory Board, the Stanford Center for Longevity Advisory Council, the boards of United Airlines and Denny’s Corp. as well as Greater MSP, NAZ, and the Minnesota Orchestra.

She’s a mentor, ally, and sponsor of many. She can’t make it through the Target Corp. lobby without stopping for several hugs and fist bumps with everyone from the cleaning crew to direct reports.

Always present in her mind are thoughts of two important women in her life. First are the lessons of her grandmother, who told her, “There are few things you do well by yourself.” Next, the wisdom imparted by her personal mentor, Coretta Scott King, who said to Ward, as she nervously anticipated her first time stepping onto the stage at a Target annual meeting—the youngest executive and only person of color called to the microphone that year—“You have earned the right to be here. Do what you’ve been called upon to do.”

Ward looks up at the photo of King on her office wall and smiles at the memory of taking that stage, with her mentor by her side. “We refreshed our lipstick, and out we went.”

See the other 2023 Minnesota Business Hall of Fame inductees.