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Q-and-A: Former PepsiCo, Albertsons exec Subriana Pierce on diversity in the food and beverage industry

9 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Former PepsiCo and Albertsons exec Subriana Pierce

Diversity is critical to any business, but according to Subriana Pierce, who spent most of her career with PepsiCo‘s Frito Lay division and also served as senior vice president of merchandising for Albertsons‘ Southern California division, diversity is most essential in the food and beverage industry. According to Pierce, developing a workforce that accurately reflects the diversity of the consumer base is key to the success of any food and beverage company.

SmartBrief talked with Pierce about why it is important for the food and beverage industry’s workforce to reflect today’s increasingly diverse consumers, and how food and beverage companies might go about getting there.

In your experience, what is the state of diversity in the food and beverage industry right now?

Many companies are saying they are focused on it. I still think the industry is not changing as quickly as the consumer base and I think there’s still a broad opportunity in both consumer packaged goods and especially retail. If you look at just the purchasing power alone of our diverse consumers, whether that’s African American, Asian, Latinos or Native Americans, you’re talking $3.6 trillion in spending. The growth of our consumers is nearly 85% people of color I would ask how does the stack up with your current workforce, or your hiring practices? As well as we all know the data on the changing of America, our industry isn’t moving as quickly to keep up.

What kinds of developments would you like to see in the industry when it comes to diversity?

First of all, there’s got to be very direct and visible changes at senior levels — people at lower levels in the organization aren’t seeing enough people who look like them in middle management; middle management isn’t seeing enough diversity at the senior levels. It is a vicious cycle that can be disenfranchising for a young woman or person of color in an organization.

If you just look at women of color in management positions in corporate America, it’s appalling. The numbers show that women of color, for instance, make up just 13% of senior management roles in corporate America, but in the next few years, a woman of color in our country will be 53% of all women. So I think a very eye-opening change is changing at the top levels and having a more diverse representation at every level of the organization. This could mean hiring outside the company and may not be a practice the organization typically does, but that’s the kind of transformation that you have to make and be committed to the onboarding of the senior leaders being put into these visible roles.

Secondly, ensure the diverse senior leaders get the stretch assignments that are afforded others. Does the diversity of your leadership team have profit and loss ownership or are they in a support role? Profit and loss responsibilities are critical to the growth of your leader, and to the bottom line of an organization, and there’s just not enough diversity in those decision-making capacities in our industry.

Lastly, don’t forget the basics. Years ago it was really popular to manage diversity by metrics. New hires, promotion rates, turnover rates, etc. Now that we’re looking more at inclusion, I think some of the key metrics of diversity may have fallen aside and are no longer at the forefront.

So I think getting back to basics with how you incent and how you bonus people is the key. You can’t do one without the other. People focus on what they are bonused on. It’s that simple. Putting a pay plan in place that recognizes strides in diversity and inclusion could be transformational in this industry.

What do you think are the benefits of diversity for business in general?

The success of an organization will depend on how it embraces diversity. Once embraced, then how do you realize the benefits of it? So first of all, if you have an employee base that understands the shopper base, you can grow sales, you can grow your brand awareness, you better understand the nuances of your products, your services and everything that you offer. Financially, it just makes sense.

When too many people in the room are in full agreement, somebody in that room does not need to be there. Diversity fosters a more innovative and creative workplace. Bringing together workers with different qualifications, backgrounds and experiences are all key to an effective team. Similarly, diversity, if leveraged properly, breeds creativity and innovation. Ensure you bring on a team that will challenge you to think differently and challenge the status quo. People lead differently, and they bring that style to work. And companies can grow if they actually understand how to leverage those differences.

A diverse workforce can capture a greater share of the consumer market. By bringing together individuals from different backgrounds and experiences, businesses can more effectively market to consumers from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, women and consumers who are gay or transgender.

And what about for the food and beverage industry, specifically?

It’s in my opinion that CPG and retail are top industries that must leverage diversity. We are at the center of basic human needs — food and drink. Culture is the centerpiece of that. I think of other industries that may have a product or service and basically, the end user uses the product exactly the same way — we all use the computer the same way, right? But when I think of food and beverage and how people consume, how people shop, that to me is what makes this one of the most important industries for diversity. Make sure that your employee base reflects what’s going on in that store, on that couch or in that kitchen.

We already know our shopper base is about 70% female. So who’s making the decisions in terms of how she shops our shelves or consumes our brands? We have a long way to go. This industry is going to have to stay ahead of the trends. Millennials don’t shop like their parents. Latinos aren’t shopping like their parents or even at the same stores as their parents. If we continue to design food and beverage products and assort our stores as we’ve done in the past, we’re not going to win in the future. We have to stay relevant. Bringing in the diverse talent that can challenge that old thinking is how we will win.

What do you think food and beverage companies should be doing to help promote diversity within the industry?

I think we need to be bold. I often feel that diversity initiatives are sometimes whispered in an organization and not boldly acted upon. I can go on almost every company’s website and see a mission statement around diversity and inclusion in the organization, but then when you go through the front doors of that same company, do you feel it and do you see it? It cannot simply be a mission statement on your website. You have to live it and breathe it to stay relevant. The companies in this industry need to be leaders, they need to state the goals out loud, not work behind closed doors, and show the industry that you’re committed to it. One of the things I always tell people is to go back and just look specifically at your numbers, department by department and what percent of your workforce is diverse — and not just women but also people of color — and come up with goals for each individual department that people can grasp. Put diversity goals that are not vague in place, build them into part of a compensation plan, then you can actually make a change in this industry. Oh, and by the way, watch what happens to your bottom line!

The other important aspect is realizing we all need each other. I look at an organization like the Network of Executive Women where competitors come together for the good of women advancing in this industry. Many times there are organizations such as NEW or Executive Leadership Council, that could support industry best practices. We can learn so much from each other.

I can give you a couple of examples of leveraging diversity in my former organizations.

One example of goal-setting is PepsiCo. I was one of the founding members of the women of color organization and we leveraged the 360 feedback from our women of color. If you ask, “how can I make a change — what can I change?” your company probably has existing tools that will give you feedback now. We were able to carve out data points and develop programming for women of color based on what their issues were. There were unique differences, but when drilling down, we developed training plans to change the trajectory. We tracked it and held the company accountable for the actions that were needed. So I just think that’s a great example of an action-oriented plan, not just to bring in diversity but to focus on inclusion in a very measurable way.

Another example is at Albertsons. I was the senior vice president of merchandising, and the president of Albertsons, Sue Klug, had launched an LGBT employee resource group. We did a re-grand opening of a store in a community in California with a high gay population, and instead of going in and doing the same thing we do in every single store, we leveraged the group to help us to determine the right merchandising. They gave us input in areas I wouldn’t have thought about. So we were able to make changes by ensuring we offered the right departments, right assortment, right sizes and selections, etc., and the sales results of the store were tremendous, and it was simply just by leveraging the beauty of the diverse workforce we had.

As stated, we are in the heart of cultural change by nature of the food and beverage business. We have the grand opportunity to make a change that could be transformational for this industry.

Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common. Embrace it. Celebrate it.


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