From high school dropout to doctorate, a Sweetwater executive shares her story rising above the odds

If you met Kristal Walker, Ph.D., today, you might know her as Vice President of Employee Wellbeing at Sweetwater. She leads the company's wellness, soft skills training and development, and diversity and inclusion initiatives.

But what you might not see on paper is that behind this polished, 40-something corporate executive and doctorate is a story of grit, determination, and fortitude.

Walker's story starts in Inglewood, Calif., where her mother, a single working parent, had to make a hard choice for her and her brother.

“I can remember being at home at the age of eight, watching my six-year-old brother after school,” she says. “My mom had to do what she had to do.” Walker

In retrospect, Walker says she understands why her mother took that chance to leave her and her brother at home while she worked. They had minimal resources, and she was working hard to create a better life for their family. 

Rising above the odds, Walker was an eager student in grade school, placing in honors-level courses. Her strengths, however, became a source of alienation among her peers. She recalls feeling like a “misfit” in social circles growing up because her ambitions were so lofty. 

”I always knew that it had to be better than this,” she says.” I just didn't know what 'better' looked like, but I knew what worse looked like. And so that was my thought process for a long time: I wanted my kids to have a better life than I did.”

Speaking of children, Walker's life was forever changed after the birth of her oldest son. She became a teenage parent at age 18 and dropped out of high school her senior year. She wasn’t sure what life had in store for her at that point. But her trajectory changed when she was made aware of a nine-month program at a vocational school, where she learned basic computer skills.

It was during this time that Walker gained a firmer grasp of all the sacrifices her mother had made for their family when she was a kid. By the time Walker entered the workforce, her mother had worked her way up to an administrative role with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Most recently, she worked as a senior investigator, and what Walker finds most humbling is the fact that her mother has been equally inspired by her journey. 

Walker credits her mother’s encouragement as the reason she has continued to push forward in her education and career aspirations to help others.

Walker credits her mother’s encouragement as the reason she has continued to push forward in her education and career aspirations to help others. She ended up going back to school to get her high school diploma at age 21. Then, one achievement led to the next, and the girl from Inglewood became Dr. Walker. 

“I got my high school diploma at 21, my bachelor's degree at 23, and 18 months later, I had my master's degree,” she says. “By the age of 31, I had earned my doctorate degree.”

In hindsight, Walker says she pursued her degrees at a frenzied pace, but the experiences made her a better-rounded employee and helped her advance in the workplace. 

She focused her undergraduate studies on human services, earned a master’s degree in management and organizational leadership, and her doctorate in organizational leadership. 

Despite her educational achievements, she says she experienced her share of pushback at times in the workplace while at various companies in corporate America. At one point, she served as a director of organizational development for a large specialty retailer. She also was a corporate trainer for a small non-profit, and she worked in higher education. 

In her words, “There were some times where I felt like I had to prove myself harder in my professional career because I had the education, but I didn't necessarily have the experience.”

Other times, Walker encountered microaggressions and other racially motivated power plays. She says these experiences have only strengthened her resolve to become an advocate for anyone seen as an "outsider" in organizations. 

“My people aren't just African-Americans, but (those) who have similar situations, similar setbacks, people who have been traditionally underrepresented or marginalized—people who have not always had a voice or felt like they've had a voice or belonged in the culture.”

Walker says her roots help her in her career today, working with others who are going through similar situations.

Today, Walker takes the good with the bad and is thankful for the opportunities her many roles have afforded her. You could say they prepared her for what was to come. 

“I’ve always been privileged to work with the highest level of leadership in the organizations I’ve worked in, and I believe those opportunities were telling about the kind of work that I would do later in my career,” she says. "I’ve been blessed to not only have great models, mentors, and sponsors, but also the favor of God in many situations. I’ve learned a lot, but I will forever be a student of my craft.” 

Before accepting her most recent job at Sweetwater, Walker was attracted to the organization’s commitment to "wowing" the customer and ensuring a positive employee work experience. 

Now, she plays a key role in the latter, which underlies the former. 

“I enjoy being part of a team where I feel like I belong,” she says.” I enjoy meeting employees at every level and learning about what keeps them coming back every day. Listening to their experiences, coupled with my own, reassures me that my family and I made the best decision to relocate to Fort Wayne.”

More than six months into her role, she reflects on the momentum Sweetwater has amassed with the buy-in from leadership. She says it helped that prior to coming on board, Sweetwater had a robust benefits package and resources for employees. Now, her team is focused on cultivating what she refers to as a “holistic approach” to employee wellbeing. 

“We just completed the BETA series of our new management development program, and we’re revamping our hire onboarding experience,” she says. “All of this is keeping our team very busy but it’s exciting work. We are working closely with the United Front initiative to ensure our work environment remains inclusive, and we’re learning how to embrace cultural competency along the way.”

While Walker has faced her share of adversity, she says in some ways, she wouldn’t change a thing. She’ll never forget her roots, and they continue to guide her in her career as she works with others going through similar situations.

Looking to the future, she is determined to keep showing up for herself and for others who have felt like underdogs in their lives or work. 

“(I have to remind myself), ‘You’ve done the work to get here. If you weren't meant to be here, you wouldn't be here,” she says. 
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Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.