Sunday, September 27, 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.