Debra Sandler: “Learn to deal with discrimination”

‘Learn to deal with discrimination — from racism to sexism to ageism, I have experienced them all. Corporate America is a microcosm of the broader society so it is unrealistic to expect you won’t encounter this at some point. You just can’t be thrown by it. It will sometimes be so subtle that you will feel […]

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Learn to deal with discrimination — from racism to sexism to ageism, I have experienced them all. Corporate America is a microcosm of the broader society so it is unrealistic to expect you won’t encounter this at some point. You just can’t be thrown by it. It will sometimes be so subtle that you will feel paranoid and at other times more blatant (like when I was told that even though I was receiving a superior performance rating I was not getting a bigger raise because I had a husband who worked while my male colleague was the single head of household — oh yes that happened). Just know the discrimination is there but power through because ultimately, you suffer most if you surrender to this. In the end, what most people in corporate America respond to is a success so focus on that.

Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Debra Sandler, CEO Bazodee.

Bazodee was launched by former PepsiCo, Johnson & Johnson Executive and Mars North America Vice President, Debra Sandler. She joined her daughter and their traditional cuisine genius Auntie Mavis to create three sauces in 2018 that blended Venezuelen and Trinidadian flavors to be used as the perfect complement in Caribbean dishes. Bazodee celebrates the successes of anyone making their way in the world and encourages those to honor their culture as a part of their unique individuality. Debra Sandler has worked hard for 35 years in the food industry and leads Bazodee’s philanthropic arm in which community giveback takes priority. Bazodee currently has five unique Caribbean inspired flavors of sauces and seasonings, including one marinade. Debra is passionate about building internal and external networks and dedicates her time to board work. She currently sits on the following boards; Dollar General, Gannett, Pharmavite, Hofstra University and Archer Daniels Midland.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Iwas an International Trade major in college but after my first business class, I knew I had to have a career in business. I developed a love for marketing immediately and built that into a career working on some of the world’s most beloved consumer brands. From Pepsi to Splenda to M&Ms, I had the privilege to work with three great companies and after thirty years in operational roles at PepsiCo, Johnson & Johnson and Mars, I changed my focus to board work and building my own business. Since that pivot, I am having the most fun of my career. Over the years, I launched many great new products and worked on innovative campaigns but now, I am doing it for myself and I love it! It is definitely riskier being out on your own but I feel more centered and aligned with my purpose.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Soon after we launched our business, Bazodee, we got an extremely large order to buy out our first production run. We were celebrating and popping the champagne but we also quickly saw some serious red flags. It was a company in South America that I could not find online and their US distributor did not have an address or telephone number. After a little research, I learned there are companies who buy US goods then fill them with drugs and ship them out. We started asking a lot of questions and ultimately lost the deal. Oh well — easy come, easy go!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Once I decided to launch the business with my aunt and daughter, the first task was to replicate my aunt’s recipes for commercial production. I had no idea that she did not really have a “recipe” per se. Like so many good chefs, she cooked by feel and some internal scale and measure. My aunt did not own a measuring spoon or cup and the product differed a little every time because she would forget to tell me certain ingredients. Sounds funny now but it was definitely a little worrisome in the beginning. We ultimately got it right but it took a minute!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

In my case, the attractiveness is about being a CEO and an entrepreneur. I am passionate about the ability to craft the vision, to chart the path forward and to bring it to life. As an entrepreneur, I get to own it all and be stubborn about the direction. It is very energizing!

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Perhaps the best analogy is that of the Captain of the ship — clearly identify the destination and chart the path forward while supporting the team to get there safely. As the Chief Executive, you’ve got to set the mission, vision and culture for the team and most importantly, hit the business deliverables. At the end of the day if those are not met you are ultimately responsible.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I love building high performing teams — recruiting great people, training and empowering them — my job then becomes breaking down barriers so they can soar. Coaching people to their full potential is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

This varies for each person but for me it is stress. The phrase “the buck stops here” is one I take seriously. Especially in this age with so many challenges from cybersecurity to global pandemics to economic disruption and political unrest, we are all facing new challenges that we were never prepared for. I have had to learn to deal with stress over the years — it can literally kill you if not managed well.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I think there are still people who believe that it’s a “cushy” job — big salaries for just doing meetings all day. Nothing could be further from the truth — yes the compensation package is good but these are some of the most stressful jobs in corporate America and far from “cushy”. The stress comes from the pressure to deliver the business targets and answer to shareholders, employees and customers to name a few.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

The biggest challenge I have faced as a woman who is also a Black Latina is access to sponsorship and championship. I have had great mentors, but sponsors and champions are those people who have the power to put you in the job and stick with you when the ride gets bumpy. I have been fortunate to have had sponsors and champions but I worked hard to get those and they usually came as a result of strong performance. I have found that my male peers often had easier access to sponsors and that the depth of their sponsorship seemed greater — for me sponsorship was often dependent on my most recent results.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I got into this with a pretty clear understanding of what I was signing up for there weren’t really any striking differences. That said, one of the biggest surprises I experienced as I grew as an executive is how isolated you can become if you are not careful. People around you often work to limit or control access to you and most want to delay delivering bad news until the problems have been fixed. Though this is usually well-intentioned, this can be dangerous. In fact, bad news needs to travel faster than good news and this is a culture you will need to be very clear about and support throughout your leadership team. You never want a situation where you are disconnected from what is actually going on in your organization

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

To be successful you will need:

Determination — You need to be single-minded to get through the many distractions that come your way.

Courage — A must for our great leaders. Tough divisions don’t come with easy answers so you will need to be courageous and step out on your beliefs even when they are unpopular.

Resiliency — You will fall and sometimes you will be thrown so learning to get back up quickly is critical.

Authenticity — People can identify fake in a heartbeat, they will work harder with and for you if they believe in you.

Accessibility — You can’t hide at your desk or in your office — you need to be available, approachable and accessible. Sounds simple but it’s a lot harder than it might seem.

Adaptability — Things will not always go as planned so you need to be nimble and adapt plans in the moment if needed. You won’t always have all the information you need to make a decision so invest in a healthy gut about your business.

Team Player — Perhaps the most important trait, you must be great at working on teams and building fellowship and follower-ship. As you grow in the organization, the teams you are on will get smaller but the teams you are leading will be greater. You need to do both exceptionally well.

On the other hand, you will struggle as an executive with any of the following issues:

Lone wolf — If you can’t work well with others you will be limited in your growth opportunities.

Low EQ — You must be able to read the room and be aware of how you are perceived. Ask for help if you are not sure it is important to know what is being said about you when you are not in the room.

Easily bruised — It’s a competitive environment and there will be some bruises along the way. You need to be tough enough to take critical feedback and strong enough to fight for yourself when needed.

Introvert — As discussed earlier, as an executive, you need to be accessible and approachable. This can be difficult but take it from an introvert who had to learn extrovert behavior — this one is workable!

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be authentic and bring all of yourself to the job. We are usually the CEO at home, in our churches or in our social circles. Bring all of that energy and authority to the office.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

As you can imagine, over a 30+year career, I have had a lot of help along the way — almost too many people to count. It does take a village and in my case the primary village consists of three Black men: Ron Parker, Maurice Cox and Lawrence Jackson. These men coached and mentored me through my career at PepsiCo many years ago and are still mentors to this day. I don’t make major moves without consulting with them and they have never steered me wrong. I cannot thank them enough.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I would like to think that I made a positive difference in some people’s lives while I was in corporate America. On the personal front, I have long funded college scholarships for students in need. I also have a gaggle of mentees whom I love. I have benefited from mentorship so I try to pay it forward. On the corporate front, my work at J&J was some of my proudest ever. Working for and with a bigger mission was extremely rewarding. Today, although my business is a start-up, we are about food so we donate food and meals to those in need. We’ve done meals in homeless shelters and community facilities to serve the under-served and we plan to do even more of this as we grow.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a brief story or example for each.)

I wish I had been better prepared for my life in corporate America. Specifically, I wish someone would have told me the following:

Learn to deal with discrimination — from racism to sexism to ageism, I have experienced them all. Corporate America is a microcosm of the broader society so it is unrealistic to expect you won’t encounter this at some point. You just can’t be thrown by it. It will sometimes be so subtle that you will feel paranoid and at other times more blatant (like when I was told that even though I was receiving a superior performance rating I was not getting a bigger raise because I had a husband who worked while my male colleague was the single head of household — oh yes that happened). Just know the discrimination is there but power through because ultimately, you suffer most if you surrender to this. In the end, what most people in corporate America respond to is success so focus on that.

Tooting your own horn is a good thing — somewhere in the socialization of women we are taught that it is not good to brag about ourselves. While too much self-promoting is off-putting, in my experience most women can dramatically improve showcasing their skills and their work. This extends to advocating for ourselves for compensation. One of the reasons why the pay gap exists is that women often do not negotiate hard enough for their worth.

Build networks — building internal and external networks are critical to success. The environment is impossible to navigate alone so build your own Board of Directors to help you through — the sooner the better.

Balance — take the time to nurture your personal life — your health and well-being depends upon it. It is also important to be multidimensional at work — no one enjoys working with someone who has no interests outside of the office.

Career adventure — rather than plotting a straight line upwards through the organization, engage in career adventure and explore roles and assignments that broaden your skills and prepare you for a variety of opportunities. Your career plan should look more like a leaf than a pyramid.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

After a career in corporate America fighting for equality, I have been disappointed by the lack of diversity in CEO roles of large corporations. Women are less than 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs; there are only 4 Black Fortune 500 CEOs (all male) and there are no Black women. It has been proven that diversity drives innovation and performance — more companies have an opportunity to embrace this fully. These results would be considered failure for any other business objectives. I would love to inspire leaders to do more in this area and to move with urgency.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. — Maya Angelou

This quote captures a fundamental belief that I have always tried to live by. Leading with empathy has always been a priority for me — I was once told by an HR executive that I was just “too nice” to get the promotion. Fortunately, I ignored that advice but over the years I have developed the ability to be a tough leader who holds people to their highest potential while still making people feel good about their contributions.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

There are so many heroes and sheroes to choose from but I think a private breakfast or lunch with Oprah would be my dream meeting. I respect her work, her commitment to her mission and her ability and courage to pivot as needed. I especially love that the word “No” has not stopped her from realizing her dreams. She is also now involved and doing great work with WW and in the spirit of mutuality, I might have an idea or two that could be helpful to her as well.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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