Omar G. Jorge Peña, CEO of Charlotte-based Compare Foods and Chairman of Aurora Grocery Group, visited UNC Charlotte for the Belk College’s CONNECT event, a networking opportunity that brought 33 alumni and business professionals and 50 Black and Latinx business students together on March 17.
Founded in 1989 by the Peña family, Compare Foods is the largest ethnic supermarket chain on the east coast. Jorge spent his teenage years working for his family’s grocery stores. After college, he obtained his law degree and practiced as a transactional attorney in New York.
In 2009, Jorge Peña moved to Charlotte to return to his family’s grocery business. Today, Aurora Grocery Group manages 37 supermarkets under the Gala Foods, Compare Foods, and GalaFresh Supermarkets banners from North Carolina to Massachusetts.
Jorge Peña and Dr. Natasha Randle, Belk College associate dean for undergraduate programs, participated in a fireside chat. Here are some of the highlights.
1. Compare Foods is the largest ethnic supermarket chain on the East Coast. How have you strategically grown the presence of Compare Foods, and what role do you think that plays in the Charlotte community?
I think the impact we have on the community is really centered around our purpose. Our purpose is to connect Charlotte’s international community back to their roots; reminding them of grandma’s homemade dinner and cooking in the kitchen to share a meal at the dinner table. That cultural piece is what’s most important to us, and it's what motivates us. We’ve trained our employees to listen to our customers so we can source the products they need.
2. Think back to the time when you were pursuing your bachelor's degree. What advice would you give your younger self?
Be present in the moment every day. I remember in college I was always thinking “what’s next, what’s next?” My freshman year I was already thinking about graduation. My sophomore year I was thinking about the LSAT and where I was going to apply to law school.
You’re missing what is in front of you when you’re always looking ahead. Goals are important, but enjoying and maximizing your day-to-day experiences and creating long lasting friendships with the people you’re sharing this journey with is something you won’t have an opportunity to correct later.
3. What is your favorite part of your job?
I love bringing a little cultural flavor to Charlotte, especially by supporting the cultural events happening in the city. Hispanic Heritage Month is probably the biggest month of the year for us with so many different events going on. The more we have that, the more it enriches Charlotte as a community. We’re all in.
4. You were named to the Power 100 by the Charlotte Business Journal in 2022 as someone who is leading Charlotte’s growth into the next stage. What are some things you have done during your career that helped you become the leader you are today?
Another one of our core values is to never stop learning. I really embody that. Your education does not end when you get your degree. It continues from now all the way through. That’s been a key to my success and anyone else I know that has success.
5. How have you recovered from failure?
Failures will happen in your career. To say “I failed” is a hit to your ego, but you have to put that aside. Accept that you’ve made tactical errors and the plan didn’t work, and then minimize the losses. You have to debrief and analyze the mistakes so you can pull as many lessons as you can from it.
6. Non-white executives make up just 18% of c-suite positions. As a Hispanic CEO, how have you seen progress toward diversifying the executive suite, and where do you see the biggest opportunity for growth?
The opportunity for growth is everywhere. Everyone in this room is a future business leader. The fact that universities are graduating more and more capable students who are minorities I think is really the foundational step for that type of growth. The trend is going in the right direction. It’s difficult to wait for it to happen, but it starts at the universities.
In addition to the fireside chat, CONNECT brought together nine speakers who led themed conversations in breakout sessions with business students. The event included a networking session for students, alumni and business professionals. At the conclusion of the event, two students, Bryan Lopez Villanueva and Lizbeth Vazquez-Cortez, received $1,000 scholarships from the Dean’s Excellence Fund.
CONNECT is part of the Belk College of Business’ Diversity and Inclusion initiative. The college is committed to diversity through a DEI Toolkit for faculty and staff, a standing faculty and staff DEI committee to recruit faculty from underrepresented groups and to better serve underrepresented students, and an annual award for faculty and staff who foster an inclusive environment in which diversity is understood, valued, and supported, and the creation of subcommittees.