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The convenience store industry is often seen as a place where women have little (or no) upward mobility. And it's hard to refute the obvious: The industry has many female managers, but few women in top leadership roles.
But throughout my career, I have worked with exceptional women in the convenience retail industry who have moved up. They had the resilience — and courage — to forge career paths that worked for them and their companies. Their impact on what’s sold and how it's sold has been remarkable. Their influence on gender diversity at the companies they work for has often been transformative.
One such woman is Debra Sandler, past president of Mars Chocolate North America. At the Network of Executive Women (NEW) Executive Leaders Forum in July, Debra — now a board member at Gannett Co. — shared her inspiring personal story of disrupting the status quo as she successfully navigated her career to the top levels of the industry.
"With belief in yourself, hard work, focus and dedication, your opportunities are limitless,” she said. "You have to be realistic, of course, but if you don’t believe your opportunities are limitless, you won’t live it."
Her words have stayed with me. How many women in this industry truly believe their career opportunities are "limitless?"
Debra's words of advice are underscored by her own life story. As a Latina and African-American woman born in Venezuela and raised in the small island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, she has defied society's — and many colleagues' — expectations. When she left Mars earlier this year, she had risen to the position of chief health and well-being officer, a new global position ideally suited to her health care and consumer packaged goods background.
Debra acknowledges that she is a rarity — and is passionate about changing that. "People don’t expect someone [like me] to be president of many things," she told the nearly 350 invited industry leaders at the NEW Forum. "And while I’ve taken great pleasure in being ‘the first,’ after a while that gets old. Why, after 30 years, am I still the ‘first’ or ‘only’ in the room?”
Debra's advice for all women looking to step up and step into the room with her is straightforward: "Don’t be trapped into behaving a certain way. Stop behaving as expected. Do some introspection. Know what is right for you and when it is right for you."
She speaks from experience. As a young professional at PepsiCo, she enjoyed a wonderful career. But after 13 years with the company, she was expecting a child and burned out after a hard-charging decade in "up-and-coming" roles, the last of which required 80 percent travel. As vice president of marketing, she took an extended maternity break and decided not to return to work.
"I didn’t know if I had the courage to do it," she recalled. "People said I would kill my career and I would never get the momentum back. But leaving is what I needed to do at the time for me. Now, it’s called 'off-ramping,' but I didn’t know that fancy term at the time. There were a lot of people who made me feel I was crazy.”
Two years later, when she wanted to return to work, recruiters "treated me like I had forgotten everything and had been bathing in applesauce while I was on leave. They asked me if I could read a P&L. I said, ‘Did you read my resume?’”
Her carefully cultivated professional network became invaluable and she accepted a leading role with Johnson & Johnson, where she quickly rose to the positon of worldwide president of McNeil Nutritionals, overseeing the launch of Splenda. From there, she joined Mars where she served as chief consumer officer before moving up to lead the candy company's North American chocolate business.
At the NEW Forum, Debra shared three principles she’s used to drive her barrier-busting career:
1. Believe in yourself. If you lack confidence, your possibilities are limited. "You will get knocked down and you won’t get every promotion,” she said. "But how do you not stay down? How do you build resilience in yourself and in our young people? When your business gets stuck, you find a way to make the numbers. We must use that type of attitude on ourselves. When I was passed over for a promotion, when my comments were ignored, belief in myself got me through."
2. Get a support network — both professional and personal. "It took me forever to hire someone to clean my house every other week,” Debra shared. "It made me feel like I was a bad mother or wife. I had it in my head that I was supposed to be able to run to work, get every promotion, run home, have the clean house and cook the food.”
3. Invest in career planning and take risks. "Nothing will happen if you don’t take a leap of faith," Debra said. "So many women have no five-year plan. But if you don’t have one, they will create one for you. It may be absolutely not what you want. If you haven’t articulated a plan, then you have no one else to blame."
These are principles NEW supports as we work toward our vision of "a workplace with no limits" for all. To find out how to get involved or get more information, visit newonline.org/itstime.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.
The Network of Executive Women (NEW) is a presentation sponsor for the 2015 Convenience Store News Top Women in Convenience awards, being presented during the 2015 NACS Show in Las Vegas.