As a child, Barbara Dunlap and her family moved from North Carolina to Chicago, where they were the first Black family on her street. That meant she’d have to grow accustomed to being the “one and only” in her classrooms and her extracurricular activities. Her uniqueness and adaptability didn’t stop there. It extended beyond her grade school and high school halls to the predominately Black church her father preached at on Sundays and to the cousins she’d frequently visit on the city’s South Side.
She says that chameleonlike ability started in her loving household and helped her navigate the ebbs and flows in her decades-long legal career.
“I learned how to adjust to whatever environment I was in and to maneuver in different spaces because of the foundation my parents gave me,” says Dunlap, who currently serves as vice president of employment law and litigation at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. “They gave me that confidence and self-esteem to go into situations like, ‘This is different, but I can do this too.’”
That foundation went hand in hand with her interest in law. Her dad had always been involved with civil rights work, and Dunlap would often hear stories about the injustices her parents experienced growing up in the segregated south. The combination of those experiences inspired Dunlap to consider a career as a public defender, where she could make sure rights were being properly protected.
After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a law degree, that’s what she did. She went on to represent parents in the child welfare system in Cook County, Illinois. It was the kind of work that made for sleepless nights, but it taught her how to be a professional, how to think quickly on her feet, and how to have a thick skin. Despite the ways it developed her as an attorney and a leader, Dunlap came to realize that area of the law just wasn’t for her.
She decided to leverage her legal skills to become a federal mediator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where she fell in love with employment law as she conducted negotiations and settled employment discrimination claims. There, Dunlap also met colleagues and leaders from Walgreens, where she went in-house as a senior labor and employment attorney four years later. Those and other career experiences positioned her well to lead at Southern Glazer’s in 2022.
“Mediation helped me better discern where people’s needs are and helped me understand their real interests,” she explains. “In a corporate environment, what is said isn’t always what is needed, so having the tools to ask the right questions has served me well. Walgreens served as a great foundation for being in-house because they had their processes and procedures down to a science.”
When Dunlap stepped into her role at Southern Glazer’s, it was like drinking from a firehose. She hadn’t worked in the liquor industry, hadn’t previously heard of the company, and needed to understand its employment litigation philosophy in order to properly manage cases. But as someone who spent her life figuring things out on the fly, she didn’t miss a beat. She had virtual one-on-ones with her colleagues to build rapport and learn while pulling from various sources to get up to speed on the industry.
Today, Dunlap is thriving in the role and oversees immigration, affirmative action, environmental health and safety, and the company’s HR policy and compliance team. In addition to streamlining processes and making them more efficient, she’s focused on taking the company to the next level by “helping to make sure we’re treating our people the best way we can by creating an inclusive and safe work environment.”
“From a policy standpoint to our investigative processes, employees must feel comfortable to speak up, so we can address issues when they arise,” she says. “That’s my job—to create the best work environment possible by following the laws, making sure employees treat each other right, and if not, promptly fix it.”
Young people wanting to follow in Dunlap’s footsteps should be intellectually curious, open to career possibilities, and intentional about their career moves.
“Be ready to take on new things and to take on more,” she advises. “Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Be willing to say yes to something that might be out of your comfort zone.” Dunlap says these qualities have helped her to learn, adapt, and succeed in any environment.