News Column

Leadership Counts

January/February 2008, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Frank Nelson

Some of the nation's largest corporations are raising their diversity profiles a notch, giving their top business executives a hands-on role in driving diversity and inclusion initiatives.

David Gonzales is a prime example. A vice-president for community affairs at PepsiCo since 2001, Mr. Gonzales devotes a block of his time to serving on the company's Global Diversity Inclusion Governance Council.

During full-day meetings, sub-committee meetings, and conference calls, council members hammer out strategies and initiatives that focus on everything from workforce retention to leadership development.

One program where PepsiCo has grabbed the lead is Escalera, which addresses the steep drop-out rates among Hispanic high school students. Mr. Gonzales says the program has earned kudos for its success in encouraging students to stay in school and continue on to college.

"We believe it's a world-class model," he says.

Mr. Gonzales is also one of the executive sponsors of PepsiCo's Hispanic network group, Adelante, where he spends significant time mentoring staff. Adelante currently boasts more than 1,200 members. PepsiCo's success in this field, he believes, owes much to the commitment and accountability of sponsoring senior executives.

At PepsiCo, he says, "having a focus on diversity and inclusion is a basic value baked into our DNA."

And PepsiCo is not alone. Leading U. S. companies are increasingly embracing diversity in the workplaces, dedicating time, resources, and increasingly top personnel in pursuit of programs seeking to translate individual differences into benefits for all. A concept once regarded by some as little more than an exercise in political correctness or a regulatory necessity has now found a permanent place on the agendas of senior-level executives running multibillion dollar businesses.

"The business case for diversity is rock solid and has been proven time and again," says Tom Falk, chairman and CEO of Kimberly-Clark. "If a company's workforce is comprised of the best of all people, that company wins in the marketplace."

A frequent example of diversity and inclusion bearing fruit comes when companies tap minority staff to test a product. Minority employees may evaluate a new product's taste, packaging, and marketing and give their seal of approval. PepsiCo's Adelante network helped successfully launch the new guacamole-flavored chips for the Frito-Lay snack food division, while Kimberly-Clark's Latino network provides valuable focus groups and product testing.

Edwin Garcia, vice-president of human resources strategy and portfolio management at Kimberly-Clark, says his network also explores business opportunities by sharing information about markets, for example, in South America. "Latin America is the fastest-growing market for our products."

Mr. Garcia, who grew up in Puerto Rico and is based in Atlanta, says his firm has established eight in-house networks, each of which has executive sponsors from at least the director or vice-president level. Part of his role is to help plan annual events and secure key speakers as in 2007 when Pablo Gonzalez, CEO of Kimberly-Clark de Mexico S. A. de C. V., came to speak.

The CEO's presentation gave many employees and executives a clearer understanding of doing business in Mexico; as a result, Chairman Tom Falk and other senior staff visited Mexico to see firsthand the work being accomplished there.

Antonio Ramos, a manager in the multicultural marketing group at General Mills, says he appreciates the top-down leadership approach to diversity within the international food company.

"It's just the way we do business," says the 37-year old, who is president of the company's Hispanic network and works at corporate headquarters in Minneapolis.

Among the significant benefits flowing from the involvement of executives in corporate diversity is that senior staff become much more accessible to regular employees.

Lisa Baltazar, vice-president and deputy general counsel for the insurance and investment giant's overseas arm, New York Life International, echoes the sentiment. She is one of six team leaders for the Hispanic Employee Networking Group at New York Life, and she is co-chair of the events committee.

"It's a great way for us to meet and interact with senior executives from other parts of the company," says Ms. Baltazar, whose group helps promote professional development opportunities among the company's more than 600 Hispanic employees.

The leadership team meets or holds conference calls monthly, while events generated by Ms. Baltazar and her team include inspirational guest speakers, workshops and cultural outreach programs, and social gatherings.

Ms. Baltazar is also involved in the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund, sponsored by the New York Life Foundation. To date, the fund has offered more than 82,000 scholarships and a series of community-based initiatives helping high school students prepare for college.

"The idea is to increase college graduate rates for Hispanics," says Ms. Baltazar, who herself benefited from the scholarship fund as a student in the early 1990s and has since spoken at student meetings encouraging others to follow in her footsteps.



Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine and Hispanicbusiness.com, Copyright (c) 2007 All Rights Reserved.


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