Sunday, 27 September 2009

The "different" Brenda Barnes

Financial Times recently published its list of the top 50 women in world business. The usual toppers were all there – Indra Nooyi (Pepsico), Andrea Jung (Avon), Irene Rosenfeld ( Kraft), the highly controversial Ho Ching (Temasek – as our Singaporean friends will know). At No 14 stood Brenda Barnes, Chairman and CEO of Sara Lee, the makers of Kiwi shoe care, Douwe Egberts & Senseo coffee, Hillshire Farm meat, Good Knight mosquito coils and a whole host of famous brands.

She’s a lady with a difference. And her story merits telling.

In 1997, she was president of Pepsico North America. One of the top jobs in Pepsi. A glittering career. She would have surely risen even higher. But then she turned her back on the job and walked out. To spend time with her family – her three kids - and be a fulltime mom.

Seven years later she came back. Sara Lee hired her. A year later she was Chairman and CEO. Consider this for a moment – the upper echelons of corporate America is a dog eat dog world. If you step off, its even harder to come back than in lower or middle level positions. And yet she did . Any working mom, or dad for that matter, wondering if a career break will end working life need only look at Brenda Barnes' journey

Click here for an interesting interview she gave on her taking that career break. She says she sees life as a series of chapters. She says the time she took out was like going to graduate school.

Sara Lee even launched a paid internship program, dubbed returnships at Sara Lee, targeting professionals with a gap in employment.

The corporate world is not kind to people with career gaps. It’s the women who bear the brunt of this, when they are juggling with starting a family and continuing an aggressive career. This is particularly a serious issue in India. The demands of corporate life are such that balancing work and family life is virtually impossible. Something has to give. And many women, to their eternal credit, refuse to sacrifice the family. And end up sacrificing their career.

To all ye women, who made the right choice for your family. Brenda Barnes is your inspiration. The corporate world will, and must, change.

14 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Ramesh! Inspired! A very good read early in the morning!! (and made for the shock you gave yesterday morning :P)

    //For me, over time, I transitioned to: that's what I did, that's not who I am. I still am who I am and I will do different things in life.//

    This is what we, the working class (irrespective of positions), need to re-assure ourselves from time to time, don't we?

    Felt very good with the post and interview!! Thank you :)

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  2. Anonymous28/9/09

    Amazing story... she must be incredibly talented and yet sounds so level-headed in the interview. It takes a lot of guts and conviction to do what she did - both taking the break and getting back in. It is a big dilemma for women of our generation - we have enjoyed great opportunities but can still feel trapped in the choices we make....Luckily, having kids puts our lives in perspective and the idea of "balance" begins to make sense. ----DA

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  3. One line in her interview says it all "It is all trade offs."

    You always have to give up something to get something. It is impossible to have it all even though it may seem so. In the end if you are happy with the choices you made, that is all what matters.

    Cheers
    preeti

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  4. Cant connect more to this piece Ramesh.

    while corporate india needs to change, i also think non-corporate india (family) also needs to significantly change. its sad that we as a society are not ready to acknowledge that a working woman is not a house wife and hence there are going to be some sacrifices to the definiton of a traditional indian woman. some men are forward looking and really support but hardly a few. at some point in time when the stress is unmanageable the woman breaks down and lets go the more socially acceptable choice - her job - which she has spent years together building. Not every company is Sara lee and not every woman is Brenda Barnes.

    this is actually my favourite topic: you would definitely find a comment from me on anybody who would have posted something on this topic in sulekha. few of my posts on this subject

    http://sandhyasriram.sulekha.com/blog/post/2008/08/women-of-today.htm

    http://sandhyasriram.sulekha.com/blog/post/2008/09/the-return.htm

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  5. @athivas - I promise not to be a bad boy again on a Sunday morning !! I too was very impressed by the lady's views.

    @AJCL - Indeed, but, we're getting there ....

    @DA - Yes, she appears to be a remarkable lady.

    @Preeti - Yes trade offs indeed, but maybe if the odds were righted just a little, the trade offs might become a tad easier.

    @Sandhya - I certainly expected strong and passionate views from you on this topic ! Completely agree with your sentiments - it is loaded currently against the woman, but I believe things are changing.

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  6. It was inspiring! And she is so attractive too, no? ;-)

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  7. I agree with thethoughfultrain that Brenda Barnes is quite goodlooking. I didnt mention earlier it because I felt like it somehow detracts from her achievements.
    But it is an interesting observation given some research in economics that shows that good looks and height matter for corporate success (http://www.eco.utexas.edu/faculty/Hamermesh/Beautystuff.html). That being said, I am quite certain (and biased, maybe), based on my limited corporate experience in India, that Americans are much more obsessed about looks than Indians. I hate to go off on a tangent to the inspiring message in Ramesh's blog....

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  8. :):) What a coincidence Ramesh! I write fiction on my blog, and incidently the last story I wrote was on the same lines!

    The subject that you picked, is something which spins in my head many times. This was indeed very motivating and encouraging. I have to say 'Thanks'!

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  9. @thoughtful train - Indeed she is.

    @DA - You are absolutely right. looks matter (male or female) and Darwinian principles are equally true in the corporate world. The only reason it seems to be less of an issue in India is simply that Indian businessmen are uniformly ugly !!

    @Deepa - I had expected a strong reaction from you too. For people like you, its a live issue of extreme importance. I hope that all of you are the Brenda Barnes of the future.

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  10. if only...

    there are many things that Brenda had going for her - that many of the other middle class Moms dont.
    Everyone's in awe of how she got a CEO position after her 7 yr 'break'. They miss out a few crucial things

    1. She wasnt on a complete break. In those 7 years, she was serving on the board of a few companies. She wasnt just a SAHM. She was still connected with the corporate world - and that too at the highest levels.


    2. Her last salary was $1million a year. => she's very rich. and had hired help to do the housework and other 'chores' etc during her 7 yr break. So in those 7 years, she actually had time to spend with her kids, and pursue "other things". Most middle class women who quit work to become SAHM, also have to take care of house and a 100 other responsibilities. They dont have the time - or energy - left to do 'networking' or stay on top of the corporate ladder they left behind.

    All I want to say is that Brenda had quite a few things going for her, that the average returning-to-work-mother doesnt.

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  11. Thats a inspiring post!

    Career break is hard for anyone esp so with women, who has loads of responsibilities to manage family and career.

    I remember a colegue of mine who resgined because she was working in shift based job and couldnt breast feed her son. That time I realised How hard it could be for a mom to work.

    Well writtern Ramesh kudos! :)

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  12. @Srivats. Thanks for the kind words. Hope you are having a smashing time in Europe.

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  13. @happyfeet - Thanks for visiting and your comment. Yes she wasn't a complete drop out and yes she is very very rich. In that sense the comparison with an average mother isn't quite right. But still, examples like her are worth celebrating. It will change corporate views on career breaks. And it might inspire some options for others in the same position. In my own career I have seen views changing dramatically on this in companies - I think there will be more and more options for people who have career breaks. Not easy and not always, but its getting better.

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