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Bea Perez: From 'Sustainability' to 'Social Purpose,' and Why Mistakes Lead to Success
March 6, 2017
You could say she’s unconventional. You could say she’s ambitious – her first job was an administrative assistant to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. But you can’t say she’s in it for herself – her proudest professional achievement is that of the individuals on her team. But who inspires Bea Perez – Coca–Cola’s Chief Sustainability Officer and SVP of Global Assets, Partnerships, Innovation, Licensing, Retail & Attractions – and what are her values?
This is one of a series of interviews that started when Rosie Warin, CEO of culture and communications agency Kin&Co, began having conversations with high–profile, values–driven leaders of the ‘purpose revolution’ about the future of leadership. Each explores how these leaders got to where they are now, and what they think the future of values–driven leadership looks like.
What was your first job?
I grew up in a house where you had to be busy. My first real job was very fortunate. I was an administrative assistant to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Jose Niño. He gave me a huge breadth of experience, from planning the annual convention to managing the Board. The first time I applied to Coca–Cola, I actually got a rejection letter – but I didn’t let that stop me!
What does a normal day look like for you?
There is no normal day. I travel a lot – 60 percent of the year I’m not in Atlanta. I’m also a mother, so when I’m in town I’m driving carpool in the mornings. By the time I get in the office, it’s 7.45 am. I catch up on e–mails, read the news and review my calendar. I look for openings where I can drop in and meet with my colleagues and teams throughout the organisation. It’s the only way to get a pulse of what’s really happening.
Clearly, you have a very values–driven position, but what are your most important personal values – the things you stand for yourself?
Just do the right thing – even when there might be personal loss when you’re doing the right thing. I like to be simple – if you wouldn’t tell your mother about it, don’t do it.
What’s been your greatest achievement at Coca–Cola?
Creating other leaders and driving results that create value. When I look at my team, I’m proud to say there are many people on my team held up as high potential talent. I mentor them today – we bounce ideas around – and a large amount are women. I didn’t set out to do that, but I’m most proud of that – to see them shine and be successful. I know that’s what I want to leave as part of my legacy.
Who is your hero in the values–driven business space?
My mother and I’ll tell you why. She came to the U.S. from Cuba and started from scratch. I look at her and I think – here’s a woman who lost everything, then raised two daughters on her own, got a fellowship to the White House, started a business, and represented people in the court of human rights law. She now owns a real estate company and doesn’t charge commission for those who can’t afford it. I look up to her every single day. As a businesswomen and a mother, she’s my hero, my role model and my mentor.
In your ideal world, what would society look like in 30 years’ time?
Like many mothers, my hope for society is that my kids will always have opportunities to be successful. I want them to have the confidence, the tools and the hard work ethic they need to accomplish whatever they want to accomplish in this world.
Tell us about a time when you failed. What happened and what did you learn?
Some of my greatest opportunities have come from learning from my failures. A long time ago at Coca–Cola, my team at the time lost a great customer relationship, so we assembled a team to analyse what went wrong. When we applied our learnings, we got better. And I’m proud to say that one of our most successful partnerships was born out of that failure.
Thank goodness I’ve made so many mistakes – and thank goodness I knew how to listen afterwards.
Is there any business jargon – specifically related to the world of values–driven business – which you really hate?
“Sustainability.” It means nothing without context and every time I use the word, I have to explain exactly what I do. It does a disservice to those in it. I like “social purpose,” “values,” “growth.” The work we’re doing at Coca–Cola is more than “sustainability.” We’re integrating strategies and collaborating with partners to create shared value and solve societal problems for future generations.
What do you see as your biggest priorities and challenges for 2017?
Our biggest priority – and sometimes challenge – continues to be finding the right balance. We want to make sure we’re developing the right programs that have the right impact in that community and are right for our business. Each has to support the other.
In each of the more than 200 countries we sell beverages, we have local, native teams who live and work. We rely on those teams to develop and implement appropriate programs with the help of our local partners who have firsthand knowledge.
If you could give advice to your 25-year-old self, what would it be?
Don’t close your mind to opportunities. Don’t be too focused on going up the ladder – think about a lattice not a ladder, and don’t fear taking a step back. I remember a point in my career when I had an opportunity to take a significant demotion to broaden my skills. It was one of the best career decisions I ever made.