Giving women with a mix of backgrounds and experiences a seat at the corporate table makes good business sense all around. A 2020 McKinsey & Co. study showed that companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability compared with those in the bottom quartile.
These corporate trailblazers have boldly pushed for inclusion, and taken chances in their careers — switching industries, helming startups and encouraging their businesses to embrace new markets — to create opportunities for themselves, their companies and future leaders:
Bridging the Gap
It’s difficult to find a company that’s pledged to double the representation of Black and Latino workers at all levels by 2025, or to increase the representation of Black employees in store leadership roles by 2025, but Gap Inc. has done both.
“We take this issue very seriously,” says Sonia Syngal, the company’s CEO. “We were also the first Fortune 500 company to announce equal pay for men and women.”
Out of more than 7,000 companies across the world, Gap was named one of the top five most diverse companies by the Thomson Reuters Global Diversity and Inclusion Index for two consecutive years. “Our north star is that we are inclusive by design,” says Syngal, who is now considered the highest-ranked Indian American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company since Indra Nooyi stepped down from her post at PepsiCo in 2018.
Even when she was at the helm of sister brand Old Navy, where she led the company to record-breaking growth between 2016 and 2020, Syngal relied on the same principles to guide her, often referring to the company’s goal of offering “affordable fashion to anyone regardless of gender, income and body shape.”
Last year, Gap became the first retailer to require all suppliers to pay garment workers electronically, which Syngal says is “a critical path to financial freedom.” She’s also the head of one of the only retailers to claim a workforce that is 55 percent Black, Latino, Asian American or something other than white.
This year, Gap announced it was regularly hosting diversity and inclusion workshops and includes mandatory racial equity training in its employee onboarding. “We started out as an inclusive company,” Syngal says. “Creating opportunities for the people and communities connected to our business inspires us to this day.”
Making a Difference
Rosalind Brewer may have grown up the daughter of assembly-line workers, but she is no stranger to the C-suite. In fact, she’s helped lead retail giants twice before her current position as CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, the company that owns Walgreens drugstores, having served as chief operating officer at Starbucks and president and CEO at Sam’s Club.
But her current position comes with one giant distinction: It makes Brewer the only Black woman at the helm of an S&P 500 company. “I take my role as one of the very few Black female CEOs very seriously,” Brewer says. “However, I look forward to the day when I’m no longer the first.”
In 2019, Brewer became the only Black woman to sit on Amazon’s board. A year prior, she shut down all Starbucks stores for mandatory racial bias training after two Black men were arrested for trespassing at a Philadelphia Starbucks when they were simply sitting at a table. “For me, making a difference and positively impacting the bottom line are complementary, rather than an either/or proposition,” Brewer says. “Being able to do both is important to me because, at this point in my career, purpose is my driving force.”
Deborah Liu knows what it’s like to be the token person of color in a room. She also knows what it’s like to be the only woman.
“I can’t tell you how many times throughout my career I have been both,” says the 18-year tech industry veteran and new president and CEO of Ancestry, who also serves on the company’s board of directors.
Even today, 72 percent of women in tech are outnumbered by men in business meetings by a ratio of at least 2-to-1, according to Trust Radius, a business-to-business review site that funds industry surveys. “One time, a Black colleague and I were presenting to a group of white men, and when I told my career coach about it, she says, ‘Well, when you were looking at them, they were looking at you, right?’ She had a point. It’s very hard to be the ‘only’ anything, but just being in the room represents a step in the right direction.”
Prior to taking the helm at Ancestry in March 2021, Liu was a senior executive at Facebook, where she came up with the idea for Marketplace, the hugely successful platform that allows millions of people to buy and sell products. She previously spent several years in product roles at PayPal and eBay.
Despite her own success, the lack of women and people of color in her field was so obvious to her that in 2016 she launched Women In Product, a nonprofit that connects women in product management and advocates for equal representation. “I think the interest in diversity is greater now than ever, especially for women and people of color.”
Even before many brands began waking up to the idea that diversity and investment in multicultural markets were worthwhile, Nestlé USA had long been hailed as a model for both, and it’s in large part because of Alicia Enciso’s leadership.
“When you bring diverse perspectives to the table, it enhances a team’s overall abilities,” says Enciso, the company’s chief marketing officer. She should know; her team is as diverse as the strategies it implements. Across the Nestlé marketing team, 65 percent are female and one-third are people of color.
“Being Latino or part of any other diverse group today is a strength,” Enciso says. “There’s never been a better time to lean into your culture.”
Nestlé’s massive success in the Hispanic market began with the community’s most beloved beverage: café. “Years ago, we noted that Latinos were missing their coffee, so we seized the opportunity to market Nescafé,” Enciso says. “When that proved successful, we applied the same multicultural marketing strategy to Coffeemate. Today, more than 10 percent of our budget is dedicated to Hispanic marketing.”
As a point of reference, most companies invest somewhere between 2 percent and 7 percent of their marketing budget to reaching Hispanics, according the Hispanic Marketing Council.
Enciso has long had a knack for seeing opportunities where others thought they didn’t exist. After spending the first decade of her career at Procter & Gamble (P&G), where she helped lead the company’s largest Latin American acquisition at the time, she shocked her colleagues by handing in her resignation. “It was the internet go-go years, so I went home to work at a small startup in Mexico,” she recalls. “My friends at P&G were like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ”
Enciso eventually became general manager and shareholder of the company that was later sold to a Silicon Valley investment group. “Sometimes to really broaden your skill set, you have to take a leap,” Enciso says. A few years spent consulting eventually led to a position in Nestlé’s Mexico office, and the rest is history. Today, she heads up the company’s marketing efforts from its base in Washington, D.C.
“My career has always been about taking risks,” she says, adding that there’s never been a better time for all people of color to do the same. “A friend said recently, ‘It’s a time like no other for multicultural talent.’ ”
In business, timing can mean everything, and for Ingrid Otero-Smart, the start of her career couldn’t have come at a better time. It was the 1980s, and brands were just beginning to recognize that marketing to Latinos could be good for business.
“I joke with friends that we have the same conversations with clients that we’ve been having for decades,” says the president and CEO of Casanova//McCann, one of the most prominent minority-owned Hispanic marketing agencies in the country. At the time, Otero-Smart was working for advertising agency McCann Erikson in her native Puerto Rico, but an itch to move to the mainland led her to take a position with an independent agency in California, where she’d stay for 18 years and eventually became president.
Loyalty, she says, is one of her strong suits, a trait that’s helped her build long-lasting relationships in an industry known for wearing people out. “We still spend a lot of time educating corporate America about marketing to Latinos, but we have better tools now,” she says, half-jokingly. “Some marketers cast a Latino in a commercial and say, ‘Check! We are diverse!’ but consumers know when there’s just a token face in the crowd.” Instead, Otero-Smart works with brands like Coca-Cola to market to Latinos with culturally relevant messaging.
Her expertise has led to several industry awards and distinctions, including induction into the Hispanic Advertising Hall of Fame. Under Otero-Smart’s leadership, the agency also doubled its revenue, she says, welcoming an impressive roster of clients that includes the U.S. Army, Cigna and Nestlé. “It’s OK to celebrate your accomplishments,” she says. “As women and as Latinos, it’s about being prideful. It’s also our responsibility, once we reach certain positions, to bring up other Latinos, too.”
Carla Vernón understood at an early age that for society to succeed at all levels, representation is paramount. At just 7 years old, in 1978, she and her mother traveled across the country to join the women’s march in Washington, D.C., in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.
As one of the most senior Afro Latinas in the food industry, most recently at Amazon, where she oversees a multibillion-dollar portfolio that includes grocery and household and beauty products, Vernón’s determination has served her well. “I don’t care why I’m at the table, but now that I’m here, I’m bringing my ancestors and the communities that aren’t in the room yet into everything I do,” she says.
Born to a Black mother from New Orleans and a Black father from Panama, Vernón was taught at an early age that she already had what it takes to succeed in life. “Immigrants know how to lean into opportunity and ambiguity. We have hustle,” she says. “That’s why there’s no one better equipped to deal with this moment.”
As a Minneapolis mother of two teenagers, the moment she’s referring to is the social justice movement that followed George Floyd’s killing in the city in May 2020. “That changed my family and my teens’ lives forever,” she says. “It was a crucial moment of realizing there still isn’t equal justice in this country, and once again we are all called to accountability.”
Corporate America’s subsequent call for diversity was a welcome message to Vernón, but “the truth is diversity has always been the reality in the U.S. — that’s not new,” she says. “We’re all a piece of the economy. We all should be represented in how it’s talked about, shown and built.”
Less than a year into her tenure at Amazon, Vernón says diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) are key to her business strategy. “I am excited to take DEI from what many think of as a recruiting strategy to a real business driver. There’s a whole demographic with a lot of influence right now. It’s an untapped audience.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Female power brokers are changing the way business is done