Derek Lewis of PepsiCo Beverages North America: “Diversity is the one thing we all have in common”

Diversity is the one thing we all have in common. If we can get everyone to recognize that we each bring something unique to the table, there will be an unparalleled level of unity and teamwork. Each of us is unique — that’s what we have in common. If everyone could acknowledge and appreciate our differences, we […]

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Diversity is the one thing we all have in common. If we can get everyone to recognize that we each bring something unique to the table, there will be an unparalleled level of unity and teamwork. Each of us is unique — that’s what we have in common. If everyone could acknowledge and appreciate our differences, we will be united.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Derek Lewis, President of the South Division at PepsiCo Beverages North America (PBNA), where he is responsible for leading market-specific sales and commercial planning for all division retail and foodservice customers. Prior to this position, Lewis, a 32+-year PepsiCo beverages veteran, was Senior Vice President and General Manager of Field Operations. Lewis is Co-Chair of PepsiCo’s Diversity Advisory Board, a governing body comprised of a variety of senior leaders who help to set the company’s diversity strategy. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management from Hampton University in Virginia, where he also serves on the Board of Trustees, and an Executive Master of Business Administration degree from Xavier University in Ohio.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Derek! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thanks for the opportunity. When I graduated from Hampton University in the late 80’s, I was fortunate to have 4 or 5 job offers but was really set on working at PepsiCo for several reasons. First, I thought it had an amazing portfolio of brands, and impressive global scale and reach. Secondly, I loved that there seemed to be a lot of opportunities to grow professionally and ascend in the ranks. And I also saw early on that there was strong support within the company for African Americans, which dates back to the 1940s, when PepsiCo was the first major American company to hire two African American interns, Allen McKellar Jr. and Jeanette Maund. Their stories were inspiring, and I wanted to continue that legacy.

When I started at PepsiCo, my first position was a sales trainee, which was a great way to learn the business. I had no idea what I signed up for and it was a real wake-up call — it taught me humility, the ability to focus and how to learn things from ground level. To be honest, I still draw on things I learned my very first week in the job, and I think that helps me stay close to the people who join our company now. And from these beginnings, I launched an over 30-year career at PepsiCo that’s still going strong.

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

As I look back on my career, I think about people like Allen McKellar, Jr., who, as mentioned previously, inspired me to want to work for PepsiCo one day. Allen was one of the original sales executives on PepsiCo’s first Black salesforce. He became a mentor for me later in life. This year, he would’ve been 100 years old, and I look back at him as being a pioneer and setting a new standard for what it meant to be Black in Corporate America. He did a tremendous job for our company, brands, and the people around at that time. I have much admiration for the work he did; and in recognition of his tremendous contributions, we launched the She Got Now initiative — an innovative collaboration between PepsiCo and ESSENCE that recognizes and celebrates women at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and as part of this effort, we launched the Allen McKellar, Jr. Internship program which provides summer internship opportunities at PepsiCo or ESSENCE. An interesting and full circle moment for me to carry on a legacy that inspired me more than 30 years ago.

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?

When I was just starting my route, I didn’t use the proper tools to cut the product and I used the wrong tool and ended up spraying myself and the customer in soda. Picture 2L bottles spraying across the aisle, including shoppers. Rookie mistake!

Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important for a business to have a diverse executive team?

Absolutely. At PepsiCo, our commitment to diversity and inclusion is woven into our values and our guiding philosophy of Winning with Purpose, which recognizes that our company is strongest when we embrace the full spectrum of humanity. That means both building a more diverse and more inclusive workplace and promoting what we call courageous engagement in our company and the communities we serve. Part of this commitment is striving to improve the attraction, retention, and advancement of diverse talent within our ranks. For example, we set a target to reach gender parity in management roles by 2025 and increase our current Black manager population by 30 percent, which is part of our 400+ million dollars commitment to advance racial equality.

Having a diverse executive team is important for the following reasons:

  1. Numerous studies have shown that diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams — it’s not even close, it’s by a wide margin. Diversity benefits companies across the board, from faster problem-solving to increased profits to better decision-making. It also makes companies more innovative and creative because you have people with different perspectives and worldviews bringing ideas to the table.
  2. A diverse executive team is better able to understand and appeal to their company’s customers, which is especially important as our country becomes increasingly multicultural. At PepsiCo, our customer base is very diverse, so it’s important to have an executive team that reflects that and is well equipped to understand and engage with all kinds of consumers.
  3. You can’t be what you can’t see, so having a diverse executive team is critical to provide women and minority employees with role models and mentors and show that it’s possible for them to become leaders within the company. It also contributes to a more inclusive company culture and has been shown to improve employee retention and engagement.

More broadly can you describe how this can have an effect on our culture?

People are our culture. When they are part of a company where they can see themselves and their own values reflected in their place of work, that helps to build a sense of pride. It also contributes to retention and engagement because when we are helping to respond to societal challenges that impact their personal and professional lives, it creates an environment that says you are seen and valued. For example, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, PepsiCo launched a 7 Million dollars initiative to provide increased medical and economic aid to Black and Latino communities across the country where the company has long worked. These are cities and towns where our employees and their families live and work, and when they see us show up in their communities, that positively impacts how they show up on the job. Additionally, as PepsiCo continues to leverage its size and scale, we can help drive those changes critical to positively impacting our culture and improve diversity within and beyond our industry.

Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in executive leadership?

As a community, there needs to be real, authentic conversations about the root causes of this problem. I strongly believe we need to keep it real, be courageous and embrace the discomfort of facing realities head on in order to make real progress on these issues.

As a society, there first needs to be a wholistic recognition that racial inequality has long existed in our country, and while much progress has made, there is still much work left to be done. Real change can only occur when all us recognize and commit to taking the tangible steps to effect that change. There needs to be education, partnership, and a willingness to lead and an openness to bring others along the journey.

As an industry, we have the responsibility and opportunity to lead by example. If each company makes a commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace, with goals and measures of accountability built into its approaches, together, we can help to have more meaningful impact.

In our South Division, we launched the Pepsi Stronger Together, a community-focused initiative that harnesses the power of our business across three pillars — community, education, and sustainability — to facilitate conversations, bring people together and help our communities in need.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Set ambitious goals. If you don’t, you’re not going to look to create and reinvent yourself, you’re going to operate in complacency mode and look for comfort.
  2. Be a continuous learner. When I was young, I thought I knew it all and was going to be a superstar but I realized early on in my career at PepsiCo that I still had a lot to learn.
  3. Execute with excellence. No matter what job you have, do your best at it and learn all you can from it. You never know who’s watching and what could come from it.
  4. Surround yourself with people who will drive you to excel. It’s so important to put people in your circle that won’t just make you comfortable but will make you better.
  5. Don’t be afraid to take risks. We can grow from failure.

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

Diversity is the one thing we all have in common. If we can get everyone to recognize that we each bring something unique to the table, there will be an unparalleled level of unity and teamwork. Each of us is unique — that’s what we have in common. If everyone could acknowledge and appreciate our differences, we will be united.

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

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” — C.S. Lewis. It’s a constant reminder to keep the bar moving.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

This is hard. There are so many legendary people that I would have loved to converse with — legends like Muhammed Ali, Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, Jr. But overall, I just love to meet new people, particularly, those who demonstrate a genuine care for others — whether a neighbor or colleague. I’m always interested in meeting new people I can learn from and share experiences.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me on LinkedIn, on Twitter and Instagram at @RealDerekLewis.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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