Sweet! Coke's Top Women Champion Women Entrepreneurs in Developing Countries

Last Updated Oct 18, 2010 1:15 AM EDT

Coca-Cola is one of the better multinationals when it comes to advancing women. Its current numbers are middling - women are 43% of the company's "pipeline talent" and 26% of its "leadership positions," whatever those labels mean. (Consistent reporting of women in management is still rare.)

What distinguishes Coke is not where it is now but where it is headed. The company is aiming for women to account for fully half of its managers by 2020. And Muhtar Kent, Coke's chairman and CEO, also promised that women would account for 50% of the new "Micro Distribution Centers" it is rolling out in Africa. A few weeks ago, he broadened that promise to include five million women entrepreneurs throughout Coke's global business system by 2020.

He's a big shot. He could delegate those lofty goals to anyone. But the Coca-Cola Women's Leadership Council has adopted the project as a way to achieve the company's internal goals, too. By drawing midlevel women around the world into the entrepreneurship project, Coke will give them networking and career development opportunities that will qualify them for promotions.

Kathy Waller is the woman to get the job done. Currently the company controller, she also chairs the council of 15 top women who both advise each other and coach women just a few steps behind them. When Kent went public with his intentions to ensure that African women got in on the micro-distribution center action, the council realized that this was its chance to tie the company's social responsibility goals to their talent development needs.

"There's a very clear business case for the Women's Leadership Council," Waller told me in a recent interview. "Our business historically has been successful because small entrepreneurs sell our product." The council wisely chose a goal that is a stretch but not a strain: Of the 3,000 microdistribution centers already running in Africa, 1,000 are operated by women.

Now the council is framing the specifics. It has to recruit an international team of midlevel women leaders; recruit a raft of local non-profit partners; structure tasks that will challenge and cross-train the midlevel women; and put in place measurements for the whole shebang so they know when they've reached all their goals.

Given that this is playing out in public, the council also gets to carry the communications ball. Waller intends to focus on the business imperative. "Women make 85% of the purchase decisions for our products," she said. "We want to mirror the marketplace we serve."


Image courtesy of Morguefile contributor mike.