Fresh Perspective: How Fresh Grocer’s Mouna Haidara Uses Empowerment to Lead by Example During COVID-19Feb 24, 2021 08:00AM ● By Kerith Gabriel. Additional reports by Kassidy Garland
Despite being tasked with overseeing the over 10,000 square foot space that is the Monument Road location of The Fresh Grocer, as well as the employees and staff that come along with it, Mouna Haidara doesn’t readily consider herself a leader.
Haidara worked her way up from store cashier to running everything from inventory, distribution, and personnel in her role as the store director. For this 36-year-old native of Mali, the job is less about being a taskmaster and more about empowering people to claim ownership of their responsibilities.
“I actually don't see myself as a leader, but I do see myself as more of a resource,” a masked Haidara tells FunTimes from inside her second-floor office. “I try to build a community of people who want to do the work and take pride in having whatever they’re doing be a part of their responsibilities. I hope when [my staff] looks at me, they see me as more of a teacher than as their boss. I don’t own anyone, I just try to work with everyone.”
Empowerment is a word Haidara takes to heart, courtesy of the chance she was given 13 years ago. In 2007, Haidara, a recent immigrant who spoke virtually no English, applied for a cashier’s position at Brown Superstores (now Wakefern Foods), the parent company of The Fresh Grocer. While English was not her first language, degrees in math, physics, chemistry, and biology from a university in her native country put her on a path to success. The job was hers to excel in – or lose, but she wasn’t about to let her limited English deter a grand opportunity.
“I remember, I would carry this little notebook around with me and I would write everything down that I learned about the job, you know, like little tips and tricks,” said Haidara. “I wanted to really understand the job and even though my English wasn’t that great I still wanted to be in a position to help others if they had an issue.”
It was this mindset that would vault Haidara into an assistant manager role with the company in 2012, and just two years later, as one of the store’s primary directors, managing everything from inventory to personnel, all while ensuring the store ran smoothly, produce arrived on-time, and strict safety measures were followed. Now, COVID-19 has made things more difficult. Before COVID-19, business operated as usual, with the first of the month being busy, and the end of the month slowing down even while news of the virus began to spread.
When asked about the challenges that COVID-19 caused, Haidara responded, “I had COVID in March when it was new to people. Right before that, people had just started to pay attention to it. Our volume started to pick up like around a snowstorm, but it was nonstop. Customers were buying anything. At that point, there were no mask regulations or anything, but we started to run out of important things like paper towels, toilet paper, and meat.”
Haidara was out for about a month with the coronavirus, and when she returned, she described walking into a totally different world. She explained that they were now recognizing social distancing, the use of masks, and capacity limitations. She also mentioned that there was a large increase in online shopping options due to health concerns.
Haidara believes that Fresh Grocer has taken all of the necessary precautions to maintain the safety of the community and its shoppers during this unprecedented time. “The concern that I have is people actually listening and following the CDC guidelines. People need to respect social distancing and wear their masks the proper way. Customers don’t always want to follow those rules.”
Mouna Haidara listens to her employees and values their health, safety, concerns, and opinions. “I try to tell people that we need them to communicate their issues. I don’t like to see [my staff] suffer through silence,” she said. “My job is to get out of your way so you can be successful but I need to be there if there’s a conflict, to ask important questions. Especially with the job I do, I like to listen. At the end of the day, I tell them, look, I'm here to work for you, not the other way around. You’re actually giving me a job to do because helping you to be successful is my job.”
Haidara is the poster child of what hard work and dedication can provide. She’s also among a strong collective of Black women business leaders in Philadelphia. As the goal is to bring more women of color into more positions of power, Haidara’s story is one of inspiration.
Even if she doesn’t see it that way.
“There’s a lot of pride in being a Black woman having the job I have because I know there’s not too many of us,” Haidara said. “But I don’t always look at it as a Black woman, I am always learning and that when it comes to people, everybody has different issues. You’ve got to be able to understand and connect to your people. I think that’s how a good ‘leader’ finds success, by making sure everyone feels heard and important.”