Paula Santilli: “It takes a whole village to bring up children”

…a movement about how to create growth in Latin America. Latin America is a challenging, huge and diverse sector, and we live in an area of huge inequality, and the needs of many are overwhelming there. So, if I could, I would put the best and brightest brains together to think of what the right […]

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…a movement about how to create growth in Latin America. Latin America is a challenging, huge and diverse sector, and we live in an area of huge inequality, and the needs of many are overwhelming there. So, if I could, I would put the best and brightest brains together to think of what the right direction for growth is, for this very specific region that Latin America is.

As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paula Santilli.

Paula is the first Latin female CEO of PepsiCo Latin America, where she leads the company’s food and beverage businesses for Mexico, South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. She’s been within the company for over 28 years and has held various roles at PepsiCo such as beverage business leadership in markets such as Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, and a position as vice president and general manager of the company’s business unit in Mexico before becoming COO and later president of PepsiCo Mexico Foods. Paula has more than 30 years of experience in American consumer goods companies in Latin America, including prior roles at Campbell Soup Company and Kellogg Company. In 2019 and 2020, she was included in Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women International list and in 2019 in Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women list. She was also included in LinkedIn’s Latin America’s Top Voices 2019 list as recognition to the content that she publishes on this digital platform, and in 2020, was recognized as a LinkedIn Influencer.

Can you please tell us a little bit more about your backstory? What led you to this particular career path?

Well I’d like to share that when I was a teenager, I had two strange dreams. One was that I was traveling in business class. And then the other one is that, one day, I would walk into a building and an office space that had beautiful wood floors and beautiful carpets on it. And that was kind of my imagination at that point of time, when I was 17 or 18 years old.

The message I’d like to share here is: You have to be careful with what you dream, because eventually it becomes true.

And then all of a sudden, you’re on too many airplanes (except now in the middle of a pandemic), or you are in very sophisticated working spaces that are beautiful. So, that was like an infantile dream, but I tell you this because it drove who I am today. It was indicative of the fact that I really wanted to take a leadership position, and that I wanted to go places, and I wanted to go around the world. And that I felt comfortable in sophisticated complex environments where decision-making was taking place. So, those were my two main teenage dreams and they have become true. And sometimes too true.

What’s the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I have many of them and it’s hard to choose. I mean, what I am most proud of the stories I hear, because I’m very close to PepsiCo’s frontline workers. So, yesterday I went out to do store checking in Mexico City. And I had the chance to talk to the sales representative that is driving the truck and selling our products on the streets of Mexico City. The same thing in Brazil or in Bogota, etc. So, what I like more about the stories I hear is the people that are proud to be holding a job and creating a better context of growth for their family. So, the individual that we saw on the streets of Mexico City, he has been working with PepsiCo Mexico for five years, and he was so proud of the fact that he could provide a living for his family, you know, medical benefits for his family, and education for his children, and we do that all the time. I hear the stories of gratefulness for PepsiCo, for the jobs we hold in manufacturing, in merchandising, in sales, etc. And I’m really proud of that, because we create really good employment for Latin America, and we create really fortunate livelihoods for many, many thousands of families in Latin America.

Could you please share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you first started? And, can you tell us what lessons you learned from that?

I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody this story, but I was very, very young and I was working for Kellogg’s Argentina. I was in charge of a product line and category that, at that time in Argentina, nobody knew about. You’re going to be surprised by this now, but this is the reality. I was in charge of ready-to-eat cereal. So, you know all these Kellogg’s brands. I was in charge of three very important brands nowadays and all those brands, back in the day, were completely unknown at that moment to the Argentine consumer. We were toasted bread kind of breakfast at that point in time. So, I stand in front of an audience of salespeople, and our sales force at that point in time was the company that makes cookies and breads in Argentina. And I said something like, “we’re going to change the breakfast of all the Argentine consumers. They’re going to stop eating cookies, crackers, and bread, and now they’re going to start eating ready-to-eat cereals.” And they all started laughing, there were maybe 500 people or something like that. I was on a stage, super young, and I’m telling them we’re going to stop selling the stuff that you guys have been selling for the last 35 years, and we’re going to replace that breakfast for cereals. And that was an incredibly stupid thing to say to the audience. And from that point on, I have been obsessive on understanding correctly the audience I stand before.

What is it about the position of being a CEO that most attracts you?

The possibility of creating growth.

But in just a few words, could you explain to us what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?

We make constant trade-offs. We make constant decision-making on the journeys of the business. And that means making a trade-off. You choose one journey and you, as a consequence are not taking the other road. Right. So, that is the constant dichotomy that we are doing every single day.

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

I like the challenge. I like problem-solving, I like it actually, and to generate solutions. I think that’s a challenging thing that excites me every day.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

Oh, it’s a lot of work, it’s a 24/7 activity. You’re never off. You’re always thinking, you’re always elaborating even when you’re relaxing — whether you’re doing exercise, reading a novel or watching a film or something, you’re always connecting the dots permanently. It never stops.

What are the myths that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive?

You have to know that being a CEO is fun. And this is a particularly important message for women, because women think this is a very tough thing to do, and I’m not saying it’s not complicated, but this is a really fun thing to be doing. I can’t be more grateful and happier for the role I have, and it can’t be more fun than what it really is.

What are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

A woman in a leadership role, in a decision-making seat, is still unfortunately a rare thing around the world. So, it is hard to deal with some of the bias and the prejudices against women.

Women in a decision seat are sometimes seen as too direct, too assertive, too straightforward. Sometimes we are even read as motherhood. We’ve all had mothers and mothers have very clear roles in our lives, and we’re in a decision seat, like a CEO, and they think we are teachers or mothers of some sort, and that’s not the reality. We are super wise business people when it is related to a decision-role in business. But, it’s still hard to take the stigma out of being a professor, a teacher, a mother, or some of the directness, assertiveness and straightforwardness that comes with the role, and that when it comes from a woman is interpreted differently than if it would come from a man.

What is the most striking difference between what you thought this job as a CEO could be and what the actual job is, how does it look like in reality?

I don’t think there’s anything that is strikingly different.

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?

Being a constant learner is one very high up on the list of people ready to be CEOs. Having the ability to connect the dots is another one. Understanding talent and how to grow talent is another very important one.

And do you think that there is any type of person that should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

I mean, you have to have personal will and courage sometimes, and willingness. Some people are cut for other jobs, for medical jobs, for agricultural, for whatever. I think you have to follow your personal passion, it’s not for everybody. You are going to be happy only if you follow your personal passion.

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

It’s important to talk, to speak and to avoid being silent. I always tell the female talent that it is very important, especially in Latin America, that they open their mouth and talk, and express their own personal thoughts, their own personal viewpoint. Because more often than not, unfortunately female leaders are quiet. We’ve been taught to be silent, unfortunately, so that’s not helpful. The other thing is to build a very good strategic network. Women are very prone to sort of go in their head doing their task and not understanding the big picture, not thinking strategically how to build a network of people that can help us in many different situations and that strategic network together with having a voice is very important.

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 you get where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m very thankful to many of the men that I have happened to cross paths with in my career. Because these individuals, these men in particular, were very generous with me in teaching me, in mentoring me, in giving me personal advice. And they we’re also very generous in giving me visibility of who I was to the larger enterprise or the larger organization, because I started in Argentina. And, if I had not had male leaders that recognize my capability and sort of talked about my capability, my potential within the companies I was working at, my career would have never materialized actually.

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

I’m constantly talking about unleashing growth. And talking about unleashing better growth, whether this is better agricultural practices that are better with the environment, or whether it’s better business that helps small store owners to grow, or whether it’s better, you know, jobs creation within PepsiCo, better equality in our business. So, I really believe in the growth potential of people in Latin America, and I think I have an obligation to give back to society by unleashing growth, economic growth, because in that way people will simply have much better livelihood there, they will have a better place to live, a better city, a better education for their children, better health. So that is the special drive I have, I think.

What are five things that you wish someone had told you before you started and why?

So, I actually speak about this in the book that I wrote along with two other co-authors: Marty Seldman (Executive Coach) and Monica Bauer, VP Corporate Affairs & Sustainability for PepsiCo Latin America. The book is called “The Power of Empowerment: Women Building Latin America”.

Some of the 12 rules that are included in the book I really wish I had somebody who had told me those rules before. So, some rules include how important it is to speak and to build your own network. A better understanding of this notion of power within an organization, it’s very significant for younger women. The other thing — which I now tell younger women — is that it only lasts about 20 years. And I’m speaking in particular about motherhood. So, when I was a young mother, I thought it was the end of the world. I mean, I thought I was not going to be able to survive. Now I have two sons, and the two of them are young adults. They survived a mom that worked continuously throughout their childhood, but nobody told me that motherhood lasts about 20 years because sooner or later your kids will leave your home. And this has been such an amazing feeling for me to know that your kid is independent, and he or she decides what to do with his or her life. When you’re a young mother, just starting in motherhood, you think it’s forever. You think you’re going to go crazy for the rest of your life. And it’s not true, it’s really not true. It really is hard during about 10 years, but once they’re independent and they leave your home you realize that you have a career and a job. And in my case, I have a career that I’ve invested in, and I have my own life, and my own hobbies. I don’t depend on motherhood. So, I wish somebody had told me that when I was younger, I would have suffered a lot less.

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.

I think I would make a movement about how to create growth in Latin America. Latin America is a challenging, huge and diverse sector, and we live in an area of huge inequality, and the needs of many are overwhelming there. So, if I could, I would put the best and brightest brains together to think of what the right direction for growth is, for this very specific region that Latin America is.

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quotes and share how that is relevant in your life?

Going back to the question of motherhood, I think one of the phrases I learned some time when my kids were like six or eight years old, was “ it takes a whole village to bring up children”. And the same thing is valid for business — it takes a whole village to grow businesses. And that is my single most important learning. This is not something that we do individually. This is something that we do in very tight teamwork with many people, with an entire village actually.

Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

Yes. I would like to have a private breakfast with — you’re going to laugh — with Madonna, Shakira, and JLo. Because they are super talented. Musically talented. They have been able to catch the love of audiences in a very peculiar way, and that gives them a voice, and that is exactly what they do, they sing. So, I would like to ask them how they feel they have done to impact a better world, not just through creating music, but also how has their messaging impacted the world.

What’s the most striking difference between how your actual job is, and what you imagined it to be?

It’s pretty close to what I imagined. What I never imagined was a pandemic. I never imagined that I would have to work from home for such a long period of time. I never imagined I was going to be far away from the markets for so long, and that is an unbelievable situation for me.

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