Lori Raya began her career as a courtesy clerk at a Colorado Safeway more than 25 years ago. Today, she is the president of the company’s Vons division, with responsibility for 277 Vons and Pavilions stores that employ more than 25,000 people throughout Southern California and Southern Nevada. Raya is the first female president in Vons history and only the second woman to lead a Safeway division in all of North America.
It was only fitting then that, last week, Raya was the 2013 guest of honor at the Food Industries Sales Managers’ Club (FISMC) of Los Angeles’ “Women in the Food Industry” event. She was introduced as the event’s keynote speaker by Cynthia Weifenbach, the chairperson for the luncheon reception.[gn_pullquote align="right"]“I wake up every morning and I’m absolutely honored to have the job I have and work with the people I do.”[/gn_pullquote]As for her accomplishments, Raya quoted Eleanor Roosevelt saying, “I just did what I had to do as things came along.
“And I think in our business, in our industry, you have to be able to do that because it’s ever-changing, every minute,” Raya said. “You can’t plan for it, you have to be ready to change and move as it goes along. And I think I was able to do that.”
She said her accomplishments can be credited to her willingness to accept opportunities. She has moved for the company, she said, seven times over the years.
“As a woman trying to move up in a male-dominated industry, we have to take all those opportunities that you get,” she said.
Raya, who grew up in Englewood, Colo., went to college on a basketball scholarship. Following her fourth year of college, she moved back home with her mother and, in 1987, she began work at the local Safeway near her home. She was quickly promoted to floral department manager, but she had no intention of sticking around.
“…I set my course that I would probably work for Safeway for about five years, build up my money so I could go back to school and finish my degree. And I actually worked at two stores so I could work 40 hours.
“I wanted to go back to school, teach biology, potentially go into medical school,” Raya said, “and continue coaching (softball at an area high school).”
It didn’t take long, however, for one of her store managers, a fellow woman, to take notice of Raya’s ability of working hard and talent for helping others. She was a team player, a gift that came naturally to the standout athlete.
That manager encouraged Raya to try out a first level management position, though the job entailed a 3 p.m. to midnight shift. Nevertheless, Raya took the opportunity and soon figured out she could use her coaching and mentoring skills in the business world.
“I had a passion to be with people, to help people do better,” she said.
Of course, Raya’s responsibilities have steadily expanded over the years—from a district manager to working directly with Safeway CEO Steve Burd, a relationship, she notes, that gave her the equivalent of a Harvard business education. She took the helm at Vons in January 2012.
In addition to taking advantage of opportunities, Raya encourages women, not only in the industry but across all business, to take chances and speak up, even if one is the only woman in the room.
Additionally, she said, “beyond mentoring, don’t let obstacles and challenges stand in your way. Call them educational moments.”
“I guess I would challenge all of you to challenge yourselves,” she added.
She also calls her team at Vons “family.”
“I wake up every morning and I’m absolutely honored to have the job I have and work with the people I do,” she said. “And I’m excited to go do my job because it’s my sweet spot and I very much enjoy it.”
Raya thanked those fellow female leaders in the room last week and pointed out future women being cultivated for leadership. She also recognized that Denver store manager who gave her that initial opportunity.
“She’s now a district manager in Denver,” Raya said. “We talk every week.
“She would have loved to have this (Vons) position. It was one of her goals and her dreams. And what she needs to know is that she made it happen.”
In the featured photo at top: Honorees, followed by the year they were honored, include, back row, Debbie Esparza (1995), Unified Grocers; Carole Christianson (2008), WAFC; Donna Tyndall (1998, 2009), Gelsons; Diana Godfrey (2003), Smart & Final; Barbara Oberhammer (2003), Unified Grocers; Cheryl Kennick (2002), City of Hope; Kendra Doyel (2010), Ralphs Grocery Co; Carrie Forebear (1998), retired, Ralphs/Food 4 Less; Subriana Pierce (2011), Navigator Sales; Caroline Cotton-Nakken (2010), Social Sampling; and Cynthia Weifenbach, reception chairperson; and front row, Tammy Brusseau (2001, 2008), Horizons Sales; Deborah Romero (2003), Northgate Markets; JoAnn Murdock (2000), Unified Grocers; Lori Raya (2013), Vons; Lorna Bjorklund (2006), Presto Products; Kay Garbizo (2006), retired, Ralphs Grocery Co.; and Sue Klug (1997, 2004, 2012), Unified Grocers. (Find more photos from the luncheon reception here.)