Immigrant. Temp worker. Graduate. Supervisor. Citizen. Industrial engineer. Malal Sow went from being a dunnage handler who couldn’t speak English to developing XPO automation projects all over the country. His perseverance is what defines a leader.
Nestled at the crossroads of the Midwest and the East Coast, Tennessee is the perfect place to warehouse goods. Big companies use it as a hub for funneling their products all over the country. It’s why XPO has 11 different supply chain facilities in the Memphis area alone, and a 12th opening later this year.
Malal Sow didn’t know that when he came here in 2003. A native of the French-speaking nation of Guinea, the 23-year-old just wanted to earn a degree from an American university and take it back home, guaranteeing a better life for his family.
More than 15 years later, Malal is an American citizen, married with two kids. With hard work and his colleagues’ help, he found that better life – even if it wasn’t quite where he expected.
Out of Africa
“In Guinea, you can make good money if you know about computers,” Malal explains. Growing up in the west African nation, Malal saw firsthand how a US college degree could make a difference. He put in for an educational visa and applied to almost 20 computer science programs across the country – and was accepted by the University of Memphis.
Despite not speaking a word of English when he arrived, Malal immediately began looking for a job. He had to pay for college and living expenses, and still be able to send money back home. So he started as a temp at an XPO distribution center, packing dunnage – the bubble spacers and soft material that keeps product from bouncing around – into shipping boxes.
The language barrier was an obstacle, but in true XPO fashion Malal used technology to press forward. “Google Translate helped a lot!” he laughs. “And I had some friends, African folks who had been here longer than me. If I needed to do something like get my driver’s license, they’d go with me.”
In the Door
After just a few months at XPO, Malal transitioned from temp worker to hourly employee. He spent the next three years balancing a full-time job with his full-time education, all while continuing to support family in Guinea.
Along the way, Malal found his priorities shifting. He still wanted to care for his family, but doing so from the US was looking more attractive. When Malal graduated from the University of Memphis in 2006, XPO promoted him to supervisor. It was an enticing opportunity for leadership experience, though it came with its own hurdles.
“How can you lead the people you used to do everything with? We would go on break together, go to lunch and hang out after work. How do you go from that to being a leader?”
Just as Malal turned to his fellow immigrants for help during those early days in America, he turned to other leaders for guidance on how to fill this new role. “The people I worked with – the leadership, the management supervisors – they helped me through. HR sent me to classes on management: how to interact with people, how to communicate, what to say and how to say it.”
Up the Ranks
After the promotion, Malal saved up vacation days and travelled home to Guinea to marry his childhood friend Binta Balde, before bringing her back to the States. XPO supported him along the way, and when it came time for his wife to find a job, Malal already had a recommendation in mind. Today, Binta is a supervisor at a different XPO distribution center. She and Malal are naturalized US citizens with two children, Mohammed and Abdoul.
For his part, Malal continued to climb the ranks from supervisor to superintendent to operations manager. He took those early lessons of leadership to heart. “You have to imagine yourself in the position of the person you’re leading and try to understand – how would you like to be treated?”
Then last year, Malal was offered an entirely different role, one that took advantage of both his computer science degree and his vast experience at XPO: industrial engineer on our supply chain automation team. The new job sends him all over the country, designing infrastructure that works alongside XPO employees – the very people Malal worked with and relied on during his climb.
From those colleagues, Malal learned the surest path to success: a focus on simple, positive results. “Set a goal for yourself every day. ‘I want to learn one new English word today from this book I’m reading.’ ‘I want to do everything I can to make this customer happy.’ At the end of the day, those are the things worth focusing on.”