Growing up, Lionel Riley couldn’t wait to take on his dream job: building refrigerators at the same Whirlpool factory where his father spent thirty-two years of his career. It may sound odd, but Riley says working at the factory was seen as a best-case scenario for many in his hometown: a good job with good pay and the knowledge that you were creating something that made people’s lives better.
It wasn’t the path he would ultimately take. After a stint in the Army Guard, Riley went on to further his military career in the Air Guard. He then built out best-in-class human resources expertise on behalf of Walmart and its 2.3 million associates. In coming to Oportun as vice president of people and culture, however, Riley has managed to thread the needle of his early goals and his more mature ambition.
Riley is aiding an organization that helps build credit for underserved communities by growing diversity and inclusion efforts from inside the company. He’s found a way to improve people’s lives inside his company and for his customers.
Advocacy in Action
One of the primary motivating factors for Riley in coming to Oportun was the company’s commitment to making the organization one that is welcoming to all.
“Part of the reason that I came to Oportun is that I knew DEI is not an uphill battle here,” the VP explains. “From our board to our CEO to our executive committee and leadership team, Oportun truly understands what we’re trying to accomplish. I have the chance to continue to advocate for people and make meaningful differences for each and every person here.”
The company had an already established framework and commitment to continue to build out its DEI capabilities when Riley joined in 2021. With that framework in place, he has helped move the organization forward, including signing on to the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion pledge.
Along with more than two thousand other CEOs, Oportun CEO Raul Vazquez is part of a broad consortium of leaders working to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. The pledge is more than a call to action; it includes specific actions that signatories are taking to make that goal a reality.
Additionally, Riley just recently helped Oportun lead its first annual employee resource group (ERG) summit, an opportunity for ERG leaders to come together to talk about leadership, establish common goals, metrics and open up true collaboration amongst the ERG leadership team. There are currently eight ERG groups at Oportun for members and allies alike.
Riley says that while it was a place for like-minded individuals to come together and share their experiences, there was also a broader expectation of the groups that contain so much talent.
“It’s important to connect ERGs back to the business and make sure they are a place for development,” the VP explains. “We have metrics and budgets in place to make sure that these groups are more than a place to air grievances. They’re a place for employees to learn, grow, and feel connected to each other while continuing to build buy-in and allyship.”
A Leader on Every Front
It’s a significant goal that Riley is working toward, and his résumé showcases a high performer who has consistently demonstrated the ability to exceed the mark.
Riley built his HR chops in the whirlwind environment of one of the world’s largest retailers: Walmart. Over seventeen years, Riley earned several promotions and amassed a skill set at a pace that he says was truly unrivaled in the retail space.
“You’re talking about the global Fortune One company. The minimum was that you were always working one or two levels above your role. It was incredible for development, but I think the speed and rapidity of pace brainwashed me for the rest of my life,” he says with a laugh.
Yet it wasn’t the first experience where Riley was encouraged to bite off more than he could chew. Lt Col Riley currently serves as an Intelligence squadron commander for the 288th Operations Support Squadron in the Arkansas Air National Guard. “We are the best Guard unit in the United States. I put that challenge out to every other Air Guard unit out there,” he says.
He recalls the challenges of spending his early career in the Army Guard. “I remember being eighteen years old at the wheel of a $1.1 million Bradley Fighting Vehicle and thinking, ‘Man, I’ve only had my driver’s license for two years,” Riley says. “The military wasn’t afraid to train you to do a job and expect you to perform.”
He now acts as a mentor for those pursuing their own military careers, regardless of where they are in their own pursuits. In fact, Riley was heading off for weekend drill duty a day after speaking with Profile.
“The military has been part of me since I was eighteen, and now I just want to help others navigate through their own challenges and offer access to all and share all the benefits the military has to offer,” he says.
That’s really where Riley excels now. Whether it’s on the clock or on duty, the VP is helping remove obstacles for those working to make their own opportunities. And he’s with them every step of the way.