Derek Lewis, PepsiCo’s Multicultural Business And Equity Development President Discusses His Company’s Diversity Initiatives

Marie C. Delgado

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The summer of 2020, protests flamed the nation because of the murder George Floyd. Numerous social and political dissidents criticized police brutality and the racist structures set against the Black community. Many companies vowed to make equitable changes to show solidarity with the Black community. Some donated to social justice nonprofits, creating initiatives, increasing minority representation of minorities through diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, supporting historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and providing funding for Black-owned businesses.

Most companies have kept their promises long after the protests have subsided, particularly PepsiCo, which recently launched a Pepsi Stronger Together scholarship program in partnership with Grammy-nominated recording artist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Fat Joe and Gamesa Cookies. The endowment is tailored to local underserved multicultural communities and focuses on inviting students to apply for one out of the four $25,000 scholarships offered that can be used towards education in music and arts, according to Pepsi’s press release.

“Across some of the largest cities in the country, Black and Hispanic students under index on access to creative arts education, despite the benefits and opportunities it provides. Addressing the needs of underserved communities is why Pepsi Stronger Together was created, and given our brand’s rich history and footprint in music and entertainment, this program was a natural fit. We are honored to have the help of leading artists like Fat Joe and Angie Martinez – people that have broken barriers to get to where they are today – as we collectively look to open more doors for multicultural youth who want to pursue an arts education,” said Derek Lewis, PepsiCo’s Multicultural Business and Equity Development President.

The program commenced in New York City on June 12. Fat Joe participated in the Puerto Rican Day Parade as Padrino (Godfather) of the ceremony on the Pepsi Stronger Together and Gamesa float. Angie Martinez, NYC radio personality, former Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., and singer Tony Sunshine joined Fat Joe in the celebration.

“I’m honored to work with Pepsi Stronger Together to create opportunities for the next generation of multicultural leaders and give them the resources to pursue their dreams in music and arts,” Fat Joe said. “As an entertainer with a public platform, I take my responsibility to blaze a trail for the future very seriously. It’s important that we empower our youth – especially from underserved communities – so they have the confidence and foundation to reach their full potential.”

Angie Martinez added in response to the program: “As someone who has spent much of my life deep in the music industry, I understand the importance of music and the arts to the youth in our communities,” she said. “It’s an honor to work with Pepsi Stronger Together to encourage young people to turn their creativity into a lifelong passion or career.”

Pepsi Stronger Together and Gamesa will continue the tour nationally, stopping in Los Angeles, Houston, and Los Angeles, then concluding the route in Miami in October to announce the winners while planning to further their commitment for 2023. Also in tow will be internationally revered photographer and filmmaker Estevan Oriol and Houston, Texas rapper Bun B. The four scholarship winners will be announced in October at iHeartRadio’s Fiesta Latina concert celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. In addition, PepsiCo expanded its Uplift Community College Scholarship program and dispersed funding for nearly 1,800 scholarships across 20 cities.

The fellowship is only one notch of PepsiCo’s series of grassroots initiatives. The organization released its 2022 annual Racial Equality Journey (REJ) Black initiative progress update to adhere to public transparency and accountability.

For(bes) The Culture had the opportunity to speak to Derek Lewis, PepsiCo’s Multicultural Business and Equity Development President, more in-depth about his corporation’s commitment to enacting racial equality strategies. Lewis began working with the multinational food and beverage corporation after graduating from Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, in 1988. He started in Baltimore, Maryland, and worked his way up through the organization serving in various roles such as selling, operations, and positions at headquarters over the last 34 years. Thus far, Lewis is continuing PepsiCo’s work concerning diversity and inclusion. He leads a new unit established earlier this year to address business inequalities to drive better results and a positive impact internally and externally.

PepsiCo announced a five-year, $437.5 million commitment to confront inequality and empower Black communities and increase representation within the international company, according to Philanthropy News Digest.

The company announced its REJ commitments in 2020 to amplify diverse voices while helping dismantle long-standing racial barriers for Black and Hispanic Americans.

The company will allocate $25 million to fund scholarships for students who transfer from two- to four-year colleges to acquire a trade/certification or two-year academic degree programs at community colleges. They will pledge $6.5 million in community impact grants focused on dismantling systemic issues, $1 million to duplicate programs in Chicago and enlarge its Food for Good initiative in African-American communities nationwide. In addition, PepsiCo will build on a list of internal reforms by establishing a $5 million for a Community Leader Fellowship program for Black nonprofit CEOs that will supply participants who hold executive education with networking possibilities and subsidies to their respected organizations.

The organization also achieved a crucial milestone in providing grants to its first 100 Black restaurateurs in eleven cities across the U.S. through its Black Restaurant Accelerator (BRA), a joint initiative with the PepsiCo Foundation and National Urban League. PepsiCo’s partnership with the Urban League has yielded significant investments to help strengthen Black-owned businesses, and they reached a fair amount of restaurants in year one. Throughout 11 cities with expansion plans, the Urban League served as an extraordinary catalyst and in assisting the corporation in creating awareness for PepsiCo’s Dig In program among Black restaurant owners.

“We’ve invested money to create awareness, tools, and resources for Black-owned restaurants. Last year, we had our first Dig In Day in November, which created a lot of excitement around supporting Black-owned restaurants,” Lewis says. “We used endorsers and celebrities like Carla Hall, Marcus Samuelsson, and people who have been advocates of our program to carry our message forward around our support for those Black-owned businesses in the community.”

Lewis affirmed that PepsiCo would continue to champion for those businesses to continue to thrive, grow, and become successful with the platforms the company offers them. For their Uplift Scholarship program geared towards community colleges, they handed out almost 2000 scholarships last year.

“We want to focus on people in two-year to four-year to create skills to enter the workforce [leading to] higher paying salaries and live their dreams in terms of building their careers,” Lewis explains while at an event in Los Angeles hosted by Doritos as snack line kicks off their Solid Black campaign that bolsters the voices of Black innovators, creators, and changemakers by equipping them with resources to continue their drive for cultural revamping.

Over the next five years, PepsiCo plans to invest $50 million in local Black-owned businesses, finance an additional $350 million with Black-owned suppliers, and increase its supplier pipeline chain by employing advocacy and outreach initiatives. For in-house changes, the company is prepared to increase the number of Black Americans in managerial positions by 30 percent, expedite recruitment endeavors at HBCUs, and administer continual professional development exercises and training to tackle and minimize unconscious bias in the workplace.

“There was obviously a lot going on in 2020, and it was time for everyone to step up. I was proud that our company and senior leadership starting with the CEO Ramon Laguarta, Kirk Tanner, and Steven Williams, put together and announced a series of commitments. What we call our racial equality journey to help dismantle long-standing racial barriers for Blacks and Hispanics across the country,” says Lewis. He points out the company is initiating steps to amplify diverse voices in the marketplace and accelerate its progress by implementing REJ to heighten awareness throughout the organization.

Based on a Washington Post review that analyzed 50 prominent companies, the data revealed that only 8 percent of “C-suite” executives were Black.

Lewis recognizes the obstacles for Black executives and further explained that his firm has made considerable progress with an increase of 8.4 percent of Black managerial representation at PepsiCo in Q1 of 2022.

He further explained the REJ initiative’s progress in Black managerial representation. “Our goal is ten percent. I certainly feel we’re on track to exceed that goal [within] the next couple of years. There is certainly across the HBCU network and also across PWIs, as well. Our recruitment strategy is very sound, and our ability to bring in people from the outside at the mid-level or executive levels [are] also in place. I will start to see some great results from our recruiting efforts here in the fall and ongoing,” he discloses. Lewis and PepsiCo are determined to add 100 Black associates to their executive ranks by 2025, mirroring the workforce availability.

Locating and employing qualified Black talent is only half the battle when many Black employees still face hostile working environments. Lewis emphasizes PepsiCo has instituted unconscious training led by external diversity experts mandated for all national and global executives. A key component of driving the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda is its training and development programs which the corporation utilizes to build more inclusive leaders.

When asked if there were improvements in employees’ morale due to inclusion training, he affirms that everyone was on board to cultivate an environment of respect in the wake of 2020.

“We have an effort to maintain that through new hires, people getting promoted [and] to make sure we’re capturing new people that move throughout the organization. Something that’s been certainly progressive is to help educate people [to create] an environment to have more courageous conversations, to be more empathetic, certainly in times of need, and it allows us to [become more proactive, as opposed to reactive potentially],” Lewis explains. “I think the training was a good step forward in uniting the culture and [ensuring] everybody was level set on the opportunities.”

As a result of their holistic efforts, Lewis saw a deeper engagement across various teams and managers’ increased participation in training sessions, which are ongoing throughout the year. Furthermore, inclusive leadership training includes frontline managers who drive comprehensive leadership for the associates who make, move, and sell our products. PepsiCo is sure to provide helpful, practical advice and guidance on fostering an inclusive environment throughout their organization and deepening the understanding of others lived experiences.

Naturally, the question arises if some employees resisted participating in unconscious bias training.

“No, some people looked forward to it because there are a lot of people that just didn’t know,” he touts. “I think one of the positives of the training efforts is that people go, ‘I didn’t know, I’m glad I learned, I didn’t understand the way, you understand it.’ I think this education of bringing people along and learning of what’s going on all sides of all corners was very beneficial.”

While he makes allowances for the possibility of some employees holding a negative sentiment towards the training, he did not hear of any pushback from staff members and that most people embraced the instruction.

The general discussion among those demanding increased measures of diversity to be reflected in every sector of life is that diversity and equity inclusion are exceptionally beneficial to a company’s bottom line. PepsiCo’s history is heavily steeped in this ideology.

“It’s part of our DNA. We have a rich history that goes back to the 1940s. We were the first company to hire African-American interns back in 1942. Allen McKellar Jr. was one of the two winners of a twenty-student essay contest group who joined Pepsi. Allen McKellar eventually [became] part of the first Black Salesforce,” Lewis elucidates that Pepsi recognized in the 40s that hiring people of color helped drive the business in sales.

Black sales professionals went to businesses in their communities and developed Pepsi’s presence, driving growth with consumers and supplier partners.

“The other side of this, I call it house, is about driving equity, and this is focused again on people or communities and culture. So the combination of creative driving growth with the stakeholders involved in creating shared value for our people inside and outside the company is a winning formula for companies to maximize their results overall for shareholders and all the stakeholders involved.”

By Lewis’ account, diversity is not a word that should be feared or condemned. Still, many executives can takeaway the lasting lesson by remixing and amalgamating the infamous phrase of Gordon Gekko, “diversity is good.”

For additional information about PepsiCo’s scholarships, high school seniors nationwide can apply online at PepsiStrongerTogether.com until September 20, 2022. Each of the four cities will also feature a designated site where students can apply in person with the help of on-site staff, starting with Fat Joe’s UP NYC store in the Bronx.

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