Walking swiftly through Whole Foods Market’s flagship location with Steph Steele is a fun workout for your legs, an eye-opening experience and also a bit surreal. On a typically busy weekday afternoon during the holiday season, Steele, the store team leader, is greeting team members by name and asking how they’re doing, fielding requests from shoppers (“Yes, we can special order a case of those potato chips for you.”), interceding in any unforeseen incidents, asking coworkers to properly merchandise fresh vegetables that look less than perfect, moving carts that block the nonstop flow of humanity, and functioning as the mayor of the organic grocer’s Lamar location—which happens to be one of the company’s busiest and most profitable.
She does it all with a smile and an affability that has earned the universal respect and admiration of her peers. Having worked her way up through the ranks without sacrificing the core of who she is, Steele is one of a rare breed of boss. This is illustrated by the big hugs she often gets from former team members who have been let go.
Compassionate. Diplomatic. Fearless. Connecting. Charismatic. Funny. Those are a few of the words that friends and colleagues used to describe Steele, whose biggest skill in her professional life is her strength as an active listener. She manages the store and its 700 employees with an open-door policy. “I actually think this is the best supermarket on the planet. I’ll argue it with anyone,” she said with a big, sincere smile.
The story of this 16-year employee’s ascent at Whole Foods Market—from her modest start making sandwiches production line–style in the deli department of its Cupertino location—is one that stands out in today’s more typically turn-and-burn work force. However, it’s not odd for this company, which prides itself on cultivating talent from within and allowing team members to flourish and move up over time.
“I would have never thought I was going to be a grocer, but I’m so proud to be a grocer,” Steele said, taking some time to talk about her professional life, her serendipitous path to her current role and her happiness as a relatively new resident of Austin (she celebrates her fourth anniversary in the city and as the store’s team leader this March). “I don’t just work for Whole Foods. I believe in what we’re doing.”
To describe the store, located below the company’s global headquarters (where an additional 650 people are employed) as a supremely well-oiled machine would be an understatement. To keep that machine running smoothly, day in and day out, is no small feat. The Lamar location, which does more business in one hour over the holidays than some stores do in an entire day, is about more than simply selling organic groceries or promoting a healthier lifestyle. “We’re creating a spirit here that gets brought to the guests. I do think that there’s a feeling to this store, and a good portion of why people shop here is because it feels different and it feels good here,” she said. “That’s generated from the people who work here, the people who shop here, and the interaction between the two.”
“Steph always projects a positive energy and she makes coming to work a pleasure,” said Skot Tulk, the marketing team leader at Whole Foods Market. “She pushes us as a team to constantly raise our game. We are lucky to have her!”
Between laugh-out-loud moments and a few useful digressions, Steele discussed everything from her brief stint as a punk rock cheerleader, her minor obsession with vintage British motorcycles, her own late-blooming coming out process, how she nourishes her artistic side and her self- discovery around the idea of service and giving back to the LGBT community.
In the Fishbowl
It’s not uncommon to see John Mackey, the company’s cofounder and CEO, eating lunch or dinner at the Greens counter, a venue in the store where all the options are vegan. This is another reason, in addition to having the global headquarters above the store, why team members affection- ately label the Lamar location as “the fishbowl.” It’s a high visibility space that tends to feel like the city’s town square.
For Steele, one of the appealing aspects of her job is the proximity to people like Mackey, co-CEO Walter Robb, and Margaret Wittenberg, vice president of global quality standards. Being that close to the people who are creating the company, including the recent addition of “healthy eating education” as one of its core values, inspires her to lead by example and get the best out of her fellow team members.
The daughter of a civil engineer who worked for the city of San Jose most of his life, earning promotion after promotion, Steele noted that her father’s work ethic and dedication to his employer has always resonated with her. That ethos isn’t as common in the workforce nowadays, with fewer employees expecting that type of longevity at one company.
A typical day does not exist in Steele’s work life. There’s the always-running list of tasks, meetings, and then whatever madness or surprise each day brings. With a two-way radio that’s always attached to her hip, you’ll often see Steele bounding across the store in her trademark Whole Foods Market smock paired with jeans and a sweater or button-down, putting out fires and prompting countless jovial greetings from employees and customers alike. Combine that with her open-door policy for the store’s employees, and she is one busy woman.
On the morning we first spoke, a customer had been over- friendly with a team member, perhaps starting to cross the line of what is appropriate between a customer and someone in a service position at a store. Steele spoke with the team member about it and prepared to have a conversation with the customer if needed.
When everyone is at ease and comfortable, Steele is happy. An inclusive environment may be part of the company’s DNA, but it’s also something that she takes special pride in. “It’s a pay-it- forward type of thing—I have a responsibility for the people who work at this store to get what I consider to be the Whole Foods experience: that they’re taken care of and that they have a voice. We work really hard to make sure that this place feels inclusive and is inclusive.”
Back in September 1995, she was studying the arts, film production and furniture design at various junior colleges in and around San Jose while working at a coffee shop. A friend suggested that Steele apply to work at Whole Foods Market, which had just acquired a nearby market called Bread of Life. What was supposed to be a temporary job turned out to be the beginning of a journey that led to promotions and numerous roles at many locations. She has labored in the grocery department, building displays and merchandising; worked as a team leader in custom- er service; opened the company’s first San Francisco location; rebuilt morale at its Berkeley location; been a supervisor in the deli department; been the associate store team leader in Franklin (San Francisco); and worked as the store team leader in San Rafael.
Early on, Steele recalled her colleagues saying to her, “You work hard and you’re really smart. You can do whatever you want in this company.” That awoke something inside of her—the belief that, with a lot of hard work, she truly could achieve what- ever she wanted at this company. Throughout her time here, the encouragement of friends has also been vital. One such person, Cyn Leo, is the current store team leader in Sacramento and met Steele in 1997 when they were working together in San Rafael; they’ve been friends ever since.
“Steph is one of the most fearless women I know,” said Leo. “Her desire to keep learning and growing is what propels her forward and brought her much success. Through her passion, her values and her purpose, she embodies what we are doing at Whole Foods Market.”
Feeling the Love
“This has been the best thing that has happened to me, mov-ing here, in so many ways. People are real and engaged,” Steele said. “It was something I noticed when I first moved here: When people ask you how you’re doing, they’re waiting for an answer. They actually want to know.”
Although Steele moved to Austin by herself, it wasn’t long before she connected with a group of friends who became her new family. She said she’s grateful for the people whom she knows because they’re all wonderfully connected. Two of her best friends, who are truly more like family, are Kerri Clark and her wife, Chelsea Beauchamp.
Clark, a Bay Area-transplant to Austin, met Steele on an all- lesbian houseboat trip on Lake Shasta, and they worked together briefly at Whole Foods Market in San Francisco as well. When she heard that Steele was moving to Austin, she reached out and the trio has been inseparable ever since.
“Steph is extremely generous,” said Clark, who works for Patagonia. “She was a huge help to us during our wedding weekend, even hosting a barbecue for my entire family. The toast she gave at our wedding was both heartfelt and hilarious! You would’ve thought she was a standup comedian that night.” For her part, Steele doesn’t recall the particulars of her speech but did admit that she had “brought the house down.”
“When Steph moved here, Kerri and I were so grateful. We laugh our butts off together and that makes for a phenomenal friendship,” said Beauchamp. “I consider her to be more like my family.”
Building her Austin family has also led Steele to put down some roots in the form of a 1970s ranch-style four-bedroom house off William Cannon in South Austin. Sitting on 1.7 acres and adorned with numerous gorgeous old oak trees, the house is her sanctuary, her space for entertaining and where she gets to indulge numerous artistic pursuits.
“It’s so beautiful! It feels like an old country road, but it’s in town and it only takes me ten minutes to get to work,” she said.
Out back, there’s a deck with a tree growing out of it, café lights for entertaining at night, and a newly installed swimming pool. A large detached workshop, large enough to park two cars, gives her plenty of space for metalwork, furniture design and refurbishing her prized vintage motorcycles. It houses all of her gas-welding tools and steel-welding tables.
Steele recalled her motorcycle interest being sparked when she was a youngster, age 10 or so, and seeing the neighbors across the street—two older boys—with their bikes, including a white Honda 80 that glimmered in the sunlight. From then on, it was nonstop, and she’s been riding for the last 21 years.
Scarlett is her pride and joy, pictured in this article. The 1969 Triumph Trophy motorcycle is British, sleek and solid looking. She also owns a 1942 BSA motorcycle with a sidecar made of teak; the sidecar was being refurbished in the shop at the time of the interview.
“I really like making things, especially functional things, she said. “Practical yet stylish metalwork is fun.”
Although Steele has taken a number of courses in welding and metalwork at Austin Community College and elsewhere and said she wouldn’t label herself an artist, others might not agree. The large stainless steel planter and mailbox that she built for Beauchamp and Clark are sleek and modern. She’s working on a slatted metal bench, as well, and she tends to take pictures and sketch on graph paper whenever she’s traveling.
Cheerleader With a Mohawk
“I was an angry teenager. It came out in a lot of ways and I’d say that pretty early on I rebelled. It came out in my looks. I was very punk rock,” she said. “I was also very smart, so I had these great arguments about how that didn’t mean anything if I looked a certain way. In hindsight I get that it was an outward symbol— that I was pissed off at the world and I was going to let everyone know it.”
Steele was friendly with people from every clique in high school. She proudly wore the uniform of a 1980s punk rocker— leather, jeans, studded belts and funky hair. For a time, Steele sported a Mohawk. Trying out for the cheerleading squad began as a lark amongst her friends.
“I made the squad and I end up being a cheerleader with a Mohawk and it became this thing that other schools and cheer- leaders wanted to see,” said Steele, laughing. “I only lasted a little while, though, because I didn’t realize I had to go to games.”
Her punk rock aesthetic and teenage angst also set the stage— ultimately making it easier—for her religious family to accept her sexual orientation. Steele’s mother, a former church secretary, and her father, a deacon, had been through their ups and downs with Steele quite a bit by the time she came out at the relatively late age of 24. “By the time I [came out] as gay it was like, ‘Oh sweetheart, that’s fine.’”
“She’s blossomed into the adult that she is—not in spite of all that, but because of it,” said Marney Steele, her mother, who lives in Prescott, Arizona. “She’s great.”
The primary challenge with coming out was realizing it herself; announcing it to her friends happened because of a job she held down at a shop called Café Leviticus (no joke) that was a well-known gay coffee shop in San Jose. “As I’m realizing that I’m gay, I’m in this environment that is entirely gay; it was just so perfect,” said Steele. “I was playing in a band at the time and we had a show there. I invited my long-term friends to the show and that was where I told people; they were like, ‘yeah, we know.’”
Steele might have benefited from an organization like Out Youth, which provides programming and a safe space for count- less LGBT youth in Central Texas.
When asked where her obvious ethic of giving back, and the joy she gets from it, comes from, Steele pulls no punches. “A few years ago it would have been lip service. I think I was pretty self- centered for a long, long time.”
Her shift in consciousness started a few years ago and was prompted in part by a seminar for store leadership that she attended called Life Mastery. In it, participants delve into seven different categories to make sure they’re living with balance; they also plan out the next five years and commit finances to that plan.
One of those categories was “spirituality,” which they qualified as giving back. “I started dreaming that I want to give back in some way with my time and my service.”
She’d always found herself getting choked up during Out Youth’s annual Queer Prom, hosted by Whole Foods Market on its rooftop, which serves as a fun and safe space for LGBT youth to be themselves in a celebratory setting. Reaching out to Candice Towe, Out Youth’s executive director, about becoming more involved was the logical next step.
Steele has served on the board of Out Youth, which has a home on East 491⁄2 Street in Austin, for about a year. She chairs its Fund Development Committee and wants to not only broaden the organization’s donor base but also expand its physical reach in the city by eventually being able to build or open other Out Youth locations and grow awareness.
“She’s fearless. Steph brings a unique perspective of and belief in the ability of youth to reach their full potential with the right mix of programs, services and safe spaces,” enthused Candice Towe. “I’m excited about her enthusiasm and willingness to learn, to risk and to trust. She’s tenacious in her quest to ensure Out Youth continues to grow and evolve to meet the growing demands and needs of Texas youth.”
“I’m obviously a lesbian, like I’m not just a lesbian but people can tell,” said Steele matter-of-factly. “I’ve had a measure of success, and by giving back I want to be an example to these kids that they can be whatever they want and have whatever job they want.”
A huge part of Steele’s success as a leader is her perspective: She relates to her employees because she’s walked in their shoes. Even with all the promotions and the ever-growing group of workers under her, she hasn’t lost sight of where she came from.
“I’m tatted. One of the reasons I’m a good leader is because I’m one of them. I am them, I was them, I’ve done their job,” she said. “Whole Foods Market appealed to me because I got to be me here. I didn’t have to put on a corporate outfit.”
“She just really cares about people,” said her mother. “I brag about her all the time. I couldn’t be more proud of her.”
Steele, who still owns a condo in Oakland and makes frequent trips to the West Coast (she admitted to missing the ocean and gorgeous natural spaces like Big Sur) to visit friends and family, is bullish about the future but won’t predict where it might lead. Her next logical promotion would be something called executive coordinator of operations, which involves overseeing the leadership of multiple stores in one region.
According to friends, romance has come into her life recently and it’s having the expected effect: They’re seeing a little bit less of her. Since it’s so new, Steele didn’t want to discuss the blossoming relationship in depth, but she did say, “It is phenom- enally great. I am so happy and so excited about what’s happening. I am crazy and wild about her.”
This connector, diplomat and compassionate listener was modest to a fault throughout the conversation. “They run this store; I have this title,” she said. “I get to cultivate this real dedication to the art of listening—really paying attention to what people are telling me. I feel like I’ve been struggling to be me in the world for as long as I can remember. This company has allowed me to be me, and I can flourish being me.”