Darian Washington, Ecommerce Program Manager for Gift Cards, Whole Foods

We all love a t-shirt with a great saying, and if we had to develop one to describe Darian Washington it would say: Hustle and Heart.

As Ecommerce Program Manager for Gift Cards at Whole Foods Market, Darian oversees all aspects of gift cards for the company. From brainstorming ways to share surprise-and-delight gift cards that bring a customer into the store, to working on plans for loss prevention, to understanding the laws and regulations surrounding gift cards, Darian does it all, and as a small, but mighty team of one! But doing it all isn’t something that’s foreign to Darian, as she’s been flexing her courage and confidence muscles since she was 7 years old to work toward the opportunities she wanted for herself in life.

Remember those articles that say most women won’t apply for a job if they don’t check all the boxes on a job description? Let Darian be one to inspire you. When applying for her last job, she checked all the boxes except for one—running a gift card program. Yet, despite that, Darian had the interest, passion and determination to explore this aspect of business. And after some honesty and convincing, she was hired by PetSmart to grow and further develop its gift card program prior to her role at Whole Foods Market. While at PetSmart, Darian grew national recognition for her work overhauling the program, which eventually caught the eye of her current employer.

Read on to learn more about Darian’s role, what it’s like to work for the company and the part of her job that brings her the most joy. We’re convinced you’ll finish this article thinking the same thing we did: Hustle and Heart.

What was your very first job ever, and what is a lesson you learned in this job that you still use today?

I had my first job at 12. I worked in a yogurt and sandwich shop and made $100 a week. I thought I was rich! I worked from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and I mastered the art of the perfect swirl and a neatly stacked sandwich.

But honestly, I was the kind of child that always liked having my own money. Plus, my mom was a struggling single parent and we were living in poverty. So, at 7 years old, I would clean my grandfather’s office or do my twin uncles’ laundry for extra cash. I can remember cleaning my grandfather’s office for money to go to Six Flags the next day and forgetting to dust his stereo console.

After I thought I was done, I called him into the office to see that it was clean and pay up. He then took a piece of tissue and wiped the console to show me the job was incomplete. He looked me straight in my face and said, “You’re not finished, and I’m not paying you until it’s done. Remember Baby, if you put the best in, you’ll get the best out. Now do your best!” I live by this mantra, and I say these exact words to my own son often.

How did you get your start in your career, particularly with your gift card niche?

It’s a long story! I was living in Phoenix, unemployed. I had been working for Warner Bros. and had been laid off. Things were really tight. I was collecting unemployment, on my final extension, and my husband was a full-time student. During my job search, I had connected with an employment agency called All About People. They understood that I was under a massive amount of pressure to find a job, but the feedback from potential employers was that I was either over-qualified or under-qualified (because I don’t have a college degree). After being turned down for yet another role, the career coach I was working with encouraged me to reevaluate the job postings and open my mind to other opportunities I might be a good fit for. And there it is was, gift card program manager for PetSmart.

I didn’t know anything about gift cards, but I loved dogs, and I had inventory and merchandising experience from working at Warner Bros. as an order management rep. I also knew the system they were using at the time, which was SAP. I was open with the agency and told them that I didn’t know anything about gift cards, but I was confident that I knew everything else the job required, and I assured them that I was a quick learner. The woman at the agency told me that she would recommended me and see if she could get me an interview. That same afternoon she called and said that she had scheduled an interview for the next day at 1 p.m.

At PetSmart, I met with a senior buyer named Dan, and he bluntly asked why he should hire me. In return, I was direct and honest with him and said, “I don’t know anything about gift cards, and in this position, I am the one with everything to lose. But, I promise that if you give me this opportunity, I won’t disappoint you. I am a quick and eager learner. Besides, if you don’t think I’m a good fit after a few days, you can always call the agency and tell them not to send me back in.” He literally said, “Well, neither do I, so that makes two of us,” and shrugged. At the close of the interview he told me that he would be interviewing other people and I would get a call either way. That afternoon, I got a call asking me to show up at 8 a.m. the next day!

I remember ugly crying and praising God for this blessing as I was driving up the 17 freeway. I was so grateful. After that, I learned everything I possibly could about gift cards. I reached out to all of the internal and external partners and would ask tons of questions, trying to consume as much information as I could. I also found a mentor at a non-competitive retailer, and she really showed me the ropes.

Prior to my joining the team, the program was owned by four separate departments, and 36 different people had a say on how the program was running. It was in shambles. Once I figured out who did what, I determined if their partnership was necessary and shared feedback with my leadership. This allowed me to centralize the program’s ownership and implement the RACI model, which stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed. Then I started making decisions backed by leadership, while also getting alignment from other teams or informing them as needed. That year the program saw a huge lift, and after 10 months of diligent work they hired me on permanently!

What is your day-to-day like at Whole Foods Market? How do you divide your day—e.g. meetings, emails, team management, etc.?

Currently, I am a team of one. I have multiple cross-functional partners that support my business, but no direct reports. My director is a super smart #BossBabe who is amazing at blocking and tackling, which allows me to pivot and be flexible. Usually I start my day by tackling small, quick tasks like emails, which then allows me to focus on strategy development, store issue resolution and project deliverables. This also includes managing deliverables from internal and external partners.

On the topic of team members, what qualities do you look for when making new hires?

While I don’t manage any direct reports, my team overall vales dependability, a positive attitude and self-reliance in potential new hires. I also think it’s important to know that you don’t have to manage others to be impactful or influential.

What qualities do you possess that you feel help contribute to your success?

Humility. I am humble. I know what real poverty is, and I don’t ever want to experience it again. That keeps me focused on always doing my best. For this same reason I’m also not afraid to fail, because I know how to survive, and in my head, failure is short term. As long as you are breathing and conscious, you’ve got another chance to put the best in, and get the best out. It’s a fine balance of self-confidence and a healthy respect for failure.

What is the culture like at Whole Foods Market?

It’s been an awesome experience for me! I’ve connected with so many wonderful and diverse people in such a short period of time. My Whole Foods Market family has welcomed me with open arms. It’s very different from regular corporate America. I go to work every day with a group of people who really like what they do and are loyal to the brand. The vibe is amazing!

I also made an effort to dive right into the culture by joining our Team Member Awareness Group, which is responsible for planning extracurricular activities for our global headquarters. So, my first week onsite, I ended up helping out with our largest company event—the global holiday party. It helped me settle in and not feel like the new girl.

What aspect of your job at Whole Foods Market brings you the most joy?

I like watching people shop the cards in our stores. I also really enjoy the lifecycle process—watching something form from an idea, to a tangible gift card living on shelves around the country or world, and then sun setting (or phasing out) that card to repeat and improve upon the cards’ appeal. That’s exciting to me. Gift cards don’t usually come with tissue paper and a bow to create suspense and tear away revealing a present, so recipients don’t typically get the same warm and fuzzy feeling when receiving one. I’m always trying to generate those same warm and fuzzy feelings with a tiny little card.

What is something surprising someone might not realize about your work?

The gift card industry is heavily regulated and requires knowledge of payments, marketing, financial legalese, loss prevention and merchandising. You must know all of these things and put them into action, and that’s an amazing experience.

What is a mistake you made starting out in your career, and what did you learn from it?

I had over-committed us to a partner before our tech team was ready to integrate, because I didn’t fully understand how all the other teams supported my business. Now, my rule of thumb is to invite everyone to an exploratory/scope of work meeting before considering third party vendors or potential partners. I say, “This is what I want to do for the business, and this is the impact I think it will have on your function. Did I gauge this correctly? Can you think of any other impacts it will have? What other internal stakeholders should I involve?” I invite everyone who makes sense, communicate my intentions clearly and let them disinvite themselves if they are not required.

What future trends do you see coming to the gift card space? How are you helping to lead that innovation for Whole Foods Market?

More retailers are exploring their mobile capabilities. There are pretty cool gift card wallets all developed by these small innovators with little voices. I think if some of the larger retailers got behind the innovation, we would move the industry and consumers ahead. I am helping push this forward at Whole Foods Market by using my voice and my interactions with other teams to let them know what’s on the horizon in my space and how these possibilities can make an impact at an enterprise level. Everyone wants a way to shift total business. When I fish, everyone eats.

What advice do you have for readers interested in your job?

The best way to get this job is to find a company who is just starting to invest in their gift card program. They won’t have a clue, and neither will you. Learning the business together gives you both a small margin of error to make trivial mistakes that won’t have a massive impact on business—learning lessons.

Additionally, what advice do you have for readers interested in getting their foot in the door at Whole Foods Market?

Consider working with an employment agency that partners with Whole Foods Market or a vendor. It’s the perfect opportunity to test it out for both the employee and the company.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Life is too short to be unhappy. Take risks, find something that interests you and dive in. I think you’ll find it’s very fulfilling.

  • I’d love to grab coffee with: Oprah, but only because I think she is so busy, coffee is all she would have time for! I imagine dinner with Oprah would be the most amazing meal I’d ever have. Come on now, you know it would be healthy, organic and delicious!
  • The books/magazines on my nightstand are: The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and Born A Crime by Trevor Noah
  • My favorite quote or saying is: I have two. “If you put the best in, you’ll get the best out.” – James O. Potter
    “Life is the Spirit of God passing through you.” – A passage by Don Miguel Ruiz, interpreted by moi!
  • My favorite item at Whole Foods is: I can’t pick just one, so I am going to give you my top three. 1) The peanut butter chocolate bar from the Cookie Bar. I can eat this every day and not feel guilty because it’s so delicious. I’ve even gotten my co-workers hooked on it. I know, I’m a #BadInfluence. 2) Truffle Oil Marcona Almonds 3) Jamón Serrano Note: The last two paired together is life changing…
  • I can’t live without: The obvious answer is my family, but the group chat with my girlfriends is always one of the best parts of my day. We’re constantly uplifting and empowering one another, and we exchange the most hilarious memes and videos. It’s EPIC!
  • My favorite way to unwind is: I love to lay in bed, with my expensive headphones and a silk sleep mask and listen to jazz. It has given me a real appreciation for musicians. It’s also the best way to fake sleep so people don’t ask me anything! My mom used to call this “resting her eyes.”
  • I feel my best when: At the end of every day, I come home change my clothes, wash my face, look in my full-length mirror and tell myself that I am a queen and I tackled the world today. Every evening I do this ritual.
“If you put the best in, you’ll get the best out.”