Kinna Thomas, Creator of Patti LaBelle Sweet Potato Pies, Credits Her Success To Her HBCU Experience

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Kinna Thomas is currently a Senior Buying Manager (Director) for Cakes and Pies at Walmart Stores, Inc. She has a multitude of experience in merchandising and manufacturing.  Her decisions impact the lives of millions of people each day across America. She leads a team of professionals to bring quality bakery products to over 4,500 store locations.

A notable accomplishment is that Kinna is the person responsible for creating the Patti Labelle Sweet Potato Pie. Due to her commitment to excellence and high standards, she broke history in grocery retail by giving her customers something to sing about. After a viral video, there were thousands of stories written about the sweet success.  Kinna has appeared in hundreds of online articles, BET, CNN live, Fortune and Forbes magazine.

Kinna is a proud HBCU graduate.  She received her Bachelor’s degree in Business from Lane College in Jackson, TN.  During her matriculation, Kinna was initiated into Beta Chi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.  The amazing sisterhood allows her to sharpen her leadership skills and lead change in the community. She is currently a member of Phi Alpha Omega Chapter in Northwest, Arkansas.

Kinna also received two Masters Degrees from Webster University. She graduated with a Master of Arts in Management and a Masters of Business Administration.

She has won a multitude of professional awards for her outstanding work in retail.  She was crowned with the prestigious honor of Buyer of the Year for Walmart Stores, Inc in 2017. She was also nominated for the honor in 2015 & 2016.  Kinna is dedicated to driving results. Her passion for the customer and work ethic has made an impact on her industry and will be used as a case study for many in the years to come.

Personally, Kinna lives in Bentonville, AR. She is married to the love of her life Gerry, 14 years ago. Together, they share two handsome boys, Julian (9) and Timmy (7).

Randall Barnes: Let’s talk about your college career! How’d you end up at Lane College?

Kinna: It was June 1996 when one of my close high school friends put me in contact with the dean of admissions at Lane College. My original plan was to become an entrepreneur, but my friend convinced me to have a conversation with the small private HBCU located in Jackson, TN.  It was the best conversation of my life and changed my direction drastically. In less than two weeks, I had an acceptance letter to attend in the Fall. It was one of those things that were just meant to be and if I could do it all over again, I certainly would. The staff cared for me as if I were their own.

RB: What did you get your degree in? Did what you learn in your degree coursework at Lane College aid you in what you’re doing now.

Kinna: I received my Bachelor of Science Degree in Business, with a concentration in Marketing. The core principles of marketing, business and ethics are all applicable to my day to day operations at work.

Let’s talk about your college experience! I want to go through your first few years at. How was your: (Please detail how you felt each year along with your mindset, how you’ve grown and transformative experiences)

  • Freshman Year?

Kinna: I was definitely scared. I was in a whole new city with very few people that knew my name. I never took the ACT or SAT, so I had a lot to prove to myself.  Again, I thought that I would run my own business, not take college courses. I was a manager at McDonald’s since I was 16, so I’ve always learned to lead, but this was a whole new world. I learned the importance of proper diction and focused on my school work.  My academics were really strong.

  • Sophomore Year?

Kinna: I pledged AKA! Not only was I initiated in the best and first black sorority, but I also learned to lead differently.  I had an opportunity to intern and received scholarship funding from the UNCF based on academics. I was also house manager of the theater department. I had an opportunity to intern with H&R Block.

  • Junior Year?

Kinna: I became president of the Beta Chi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha for the next few years. I interned with Nestle USA in Glendale, CA (right outside of LA) in accounting. This opportunity was provided through the UNCF. I also became involved with Phi Beta Lambda business organization.

  • Senior Year

Kinna: The classes certainly got harder. LOL!!! But, my coursework continued with diverse professionals. My favorite class was statistics even though math was never my favorite. I also accepted an internship with Wyeth Ayerst Research in Pearl River, NY through the UNCF.

  • Post Graduation Years

Kinna: It’s been such an amazing ride. I’ve had the opportunity to work for a few Fortune 500 companies in finance, forecasting, programming, replenishment, planning, and buying. I also received two Masters Degrees from Webster University. I have an MA in Management as well as an MBA.

  • Success Years (when you finally started seeing career success and stability)

Kinna: Stability came about a year after college. I became more confident in my ability to drive results and make an impact. My current role with Walmart allows me to run the worlds largest cake and pie business.

  • One thing I discuss in my book A Queen’s Pain is campus politics and the social environment at HBCU’s. In the book, the main character Raynetta Duram has a warped sense of what popularity is. She sees popularity and “clout” as being Greek (specifically a member of the Rho Eta sorority on Laketon State’s campus) and holding a title. As a successful alumnus of Lane College and an Alpha Kappa Alpha woman, what’s your opinion on this? Should we care about popularity and on-campus positions so much in our college years?

Kinna: I don’t see popularity and clout as being successful or Greek. Although I love the networking associated with my sisterhood, it’s about the number of lives that can be positively impacted in the community by the organization. You should care about the influence you carry every single day. If you decide to take a leadership role in a sorority or have an on-campus position, it should be aligned with character building and positive outcome.

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  • Also in the book Raynetta encounters Alicia Taylor, the 75th Miss Laketon State University who reigned when she was a freshman. Alicia took Raynetta under her wing as a mentor, allowing her to shadow her as she fulfilled her duties as a campus queen. However, they grow apart as the school year rolls. Raynetta feels hurt, as she grew to be dependent on the wisdom and guidance of Alicia throughout her freshman year. Their separation aids in her pain In your opinion, what’s the role of a mentor (especially when the mentee is not that far in age from the mentor). Also, how can a mentor prevent their mentees from being dependent on them?

Kinna: A mentor should be a person to share the good, the bad and the ugly. They should also be your biggest advocate and accountability, partner. Boundaries have to be placed on the mentor/mentee relationship. It all starts with respect and identifying core needs for growth and development.

  • Please tell us about your experience as an AKA! How has your experience as an alumna been juxtaposed to your years at Lane? What’s been your most memorable experience as an Alpha woman?

Kinna: My most memorable experience was the initiation of my niece, Paige. She attended my initiation luncheon as a baby decked out in pink and green. It was such an honor to see her join our illustrious organization.  I was so proud to welcome her into the organization. She is currently a senior at Mizzou studying buying. She is also president of her chapter. Again, so proud!

What’s your advice to young women that want to join any D9 greek organization, especially AKA?

Kinna: Be authentic and focus on helping the community with a group of sisters. That’s all that matters.

In A Queen’s Pain, Raynetta finds herself looking at being Greek a different way than others. To her, it isn’t about popularity or clout. To Raynetta, becoming Greek is fulfilling a family legacy and rights of passage to becoming a successful woman. Because of this, her value is tied to becoming a Rho Eta woman and she obsesses over it. It causes her to spiral into depression and it affects her schoolwork. Her deteriorating mental state even starts to affect her Miss Laketon State University campaign. What is your advice to Raynetta and other young women like her?

Kinna: Organizations don’t make you. Your experiences, education, and purpose define you.

Let’s talk about your unique story of working with Patti Labelle and the “Patti’s Pies” brand!

What does your career as a senior buyer for cakes and pies at Wal-Mart entail? I’m the senior buying manager (Director) in the fresh bakery.

Kinna: It’s all about seeing a product come to fruition. I determine the price, product placement and the quality of goods offered in our 4400 store locations. 

How’d did you start working in this position?

Kinna: I was a buyer for the fine jewelry department prior to this role. This led me to become focused on the customer and quality, so it was an easy transition to the food business.

Please tell us the story of how you ended up working with music legend Patti LaBelle!

Kinna: There are so many articles about it, but the fortune magazine article is my absolute favorite. I googled and reached out to gain credibility on this “idea” to make the sweet potato pie a good one like I’d grown up eating. Within 9 hours, I was on the phone with her team and within 4 months, we were on the shelf. I called and her team answered.  

Did you expect for the pies to become the cultural phenomenon it did?

Kinna: No, but I did expect it to resonate with people. It’s a great quality item that was similar to what I grew up eating. There was certainly a gap in the market place that’s now been filled.  I couldn’t be more proud of that and all the people who still work every day to make that pie a reality. At one point, we sell 2 pies per second. That’s a pretty big deal. I’m grateful.

Do you feel as if you’ve gotten the proper recognition for your role in the creation of Patti Pies? Does recognition matter to you?

Kinna: I’ve been featured in over 300 online articles and also the buyer of the year for the worlds largest retailer. I’m constantly doing business interviews about the success of the pie. I’m not worried about who knows my name. I am concerned about having my team of people delivering great quality foods and brands relevant to the customer experience at the best VALUE possible. The only recognition that matters to me is helping the customer. The rest of that stuff will take care of itself.

  • How do you feel your HBCU experience at Lane College aided you in your success?

Kinna: There is definitely a direct correlation between my HBCU experience at Lane College and my success. I was taught at Lane to be confident. My leadership experiences and collaboration with others helped prepare me to become a good team player and collaborator. I’m humbled but not ashamed to say that I’m successful. I’m confident because of the diverse challenges faced at Lane and engagement with my peers.

  • What’s next for you?

Kinna: I will continue to speak at youth events and business conferences.  Careerwise, I will continue to see opportunities for a purpose. At this point, It’s all about my purpose and doing things to help businesses grow and develop.

  • Where can we find you on social media?

Kinna: I can be found on Instagram @therealkinna

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