Director, Government Affairs & Corporate Citizenship
PepsiCo on its website calls itself “a playground for curious people,” where “changemakers” are encouraged “to champion innovation, take calculated risks and challenge the status quo.” From your experience, is that an accurate description?
I’ve been here for six years, and it does describe this company and its culture. Our company is constantly adding new products and changing recipes to reflect consumer tastes, and that entrepreneurial spirit cascades throughout the organization and every employee knows they can make a difference. Just today, PepsiCo launched our annual program called “The Next Big Idea,” which is our version of “Shark Tank” — a fun competition where people from different departments and divisions can find allies and present their ideas, promoting cohesion around the globe.
This sounds a bit like an earlier project you were involved in, which resulted in a big-selling book.
That’s right. In my twenties, I worked in the Obama White House and connected with other young women who were having the same amazing experience. We wanted to tell our stories, to inspire other women and show the value of public service. Here we were, very young, asking ourselves sometimes if we were even qualified for the positions we held and the responsibilities we were given. So, we decided we would each write a chapter about our own experiences, unsure if this was something our higher-ups would allow. In time, we found an incredible agent, who connected us with a talented editor, and the result was a book “Yes She Can: 10 Stories of Hope & Change from Young Female Staffers of the Obama White House,” for the young adult readership. Yara Shahidi wrote the introduction, and it became a best-seller. I once heard, “When something you’re working on seems crazy, that’s when you know it’s worth doing.” It really resonated with me, and I always remember this in challenging times.
You were also a policy advisor in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, formerly known as the White House Faith-Based & Community Initiative?
The office was started — under a somewhat different name — in the George W. Bush Administration and continued in the Obama years, with a slightly different emphasis, as you’d expect. It was good to carry that work forward, and we did some important work — work connecting with community organizations similar to what I do today, at PepsiCo — with outside partnerships. I’m proud of what we accomplished and believe we made a real impact specifically around reducing hate crimes and expanding religious freedom internationally.
In what way did it help prepare you for your current role?
At PepsiCo, we engage with external partners that help influence public policy. We know we need to go beyond just cultivating relationships with elected officials to have an impact and to carry out our pep+ agenda. Of course, we continue to work with officeholders, too, around our priority issues.
Sometimes this means linking external partners with an internal audience, PepsiCo’s network of employees across the country. Our employees have diverse interests, so we try to be an important resource for them, too. For example, “Voicing Opinions Fearlessly” is one of PepsiCo’s core values. During election season, we encourage employees to model that behavior at the polls. We set up a voter education and voter awareness campaign making sure associates understand vote-by-mail, ballot initiatives and our time-off policies. This was a big shift for us in 2020. Until Covid hit, HQ locations would host voter registration tables, but that was the extent of employee support.
A lot of companies have gotten involved in social and political issues because they have been encouraged to do so by their own employees, right?
There’s a lot of truth to that, and I’ve found that the work of the Council’s Social Impact Committee and events like the Stride summit very valuable in helping us navigate this increasingly important area. The Council has been critical in helping us understand and work with our own employee resource groups on these issues.
You spent time studying and working in Cambodia?
I did. I grew up outside of Chicago. My mother ran a costume jewelry business, and two families who worked with her were Cambodian refugees. I grew up playing with their children, and it wasn’t until I was a little older that I learned their stories — living under the Khmer Rouge, emigrating, making a life here. I became very interested in Cambodia and its history, and when I was in college I had the chance to spend a summer semester there. I was lucky to have the opportunity, especially because I was already so passionate about the people and the culture.
At the University of Texas at Austin, you earned degrees in government and psychology. The government part is not unusual for people in the public affairs profession, but psychology is an interesting choice. Why psychology?
It’s a good combination, government and psychology. I wanted to understand human organizations and how they function, which is crucial to effectiveness in public affairs. And something that surprised me — the psychology degree required courses in statistics. An unexpected benefit of studying psychology is that it strengthened my math game, equipping me with critical thinking skills and the ability to analyze data sets and pull out key concepts. Almost all of us could be better at that!