Ask anyone to picture the traditional executive and their mind will most likely conjure the image of an impeccably dressed, middle-aged Caucasian man. This isn’t a strange coincidence, because for over a century, most industries have been ruled by a certain stock.
In recent years, the prototypical North American executive has shifted profoundly. More than ever (and despite numerous obstacles), women, and women of colour, are climbing the corporate ranks, leaving their mark as leaders of iconic organizations and establishing themselves as titans of industry.
Yet women still only hold approximately 5.6% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies, and 6.4% at Fortune 500 companies. There’s no denying that the gender scales need to be balanced.
Here are four top female executives who are inspiring the next generation of female corporate leaders.
Indra Nooyi, Chairperson and CEO, PepsiCo
Born in India, Nooyi began her career there in the textile industry before joining PepsiCo in 1994. In 2001, she was named Chief Financial Officer (CFO), and was promoted to the prestigious position of President and CEO in 2006. This led to Nooyi being named the third most powerful woman in business by Fortune in 2014.
In the face of consumers’ changing habits, Nooyi took an innovative approach to restructuring PepsiCo’s family of products, yielding profitable results. She even introduced healthier fare (including the acquisition of KeVita, producer of kombucha) while keeping PepsiCo’s famous snack lines as main revenue drivers. Her vision seems to perfectly marry her brand’s tradition with modern consumer habits.
Nooyi’s ability to precisely execute strategies that keep PepsiCo relevant is rightfully applauded. She can regularly be found listed among the most powerful and influential businesspeople in the world.
Safra Catz, Co-CEO, Oracle
Leading and coordinating a major expansion is a challenge that would force many executives to stumble or flat-out fail. Luckily for software giant Oracle, the company has Catz co-captaining the ship and steering it towards the shores of prosperity. Not only has she led Oracle to new heights, she has spearheaded billion-dollar acquisitions and initiatives which have steadily increased profits in a crowded field of competitors.
The Israeli-born Catz has worked as an executive at Oracle since 1999. In 2014, she was named co-CEO, and earns a reported $40 million per year. Salary aside, her reputation has been built via Oracle’s aggressive acquisition strategy.
In 2017, Catz had to navigate controversy after she joined US President Donald Trump’s transition team, which led to George Polisner, a senior executive at Oracle, to resign. While Catz’s support for Trump might have been strategic, it turned out to be a polarizing decision.
Mary Barra, Chairperson and CEO, General Motors
Since the days of Henry Ford and his Model T, calling the auto industry historically male-dominated would be an understatement. As the Chairperson and CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra is in the challenging position of protecting GM’s future, securing its market share and embracing the shifting and often tumultuous future of automobiles.
Born in Michigan, the daughter of a Pontiac employee, Barra graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from General Motors Institute. Next, she attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She has devoted her career to GM, and reached the position of CEO in 2013.
An innovator known for her ability to adapt and pivot, Barra not only beat Tesla’s heavily-hyped Model 3 to market with the Chevrolet Bolt EV, she helped make it the top-selling electric car. She’s also a huge proponent of driverless vehicles.
Barra’s leadership helped GM’s stock make huge gains over the last year, and she has led the automaker to its most prolific sales growth in a long time. Not an easy feat for an industry known more for plant shutdowns and layoffs than production and growth.
Rosalind Brewer, Chief Operating Officer, Starbucks
A Detroit native, Rosalind Brewer started her career as a scientist at the Kimberley-Clark Corporation. She quickly climbed the ladder until she jumped ship to Walmart, where she assumed the position of Regional Vice-President of Operations in Georgia. In 2012, she was named President and CEO of Sam’s Club. In doing so, Brewer became the first African-American to lead a Walmart division. Brewer put her stamp on Sam’s Club by executing a health and wellness strategy, bringing more organic products to the shelves of the big box retailer.
In a career full of daring leaps and bold moves, Brewer took her biggest one in 2017. She accepted a position among the Board of Directors at Starbucks while simultaneously being named the coffee chain’s Chief Operating Officer. As if that wasn’t enough, she also sits on the Board of Directors for Lockheed Martin and is Chair of the Board of Trustees at her alma mater, Spelman college.
If you wade through Brewer’s vast accomplishments, 2013 might stand out as her most prominent year. It was when Forbes named Brewer one of the 100 Most Powerful Women and one of the Most Powerful Black Women, while another magazine, Working Mother, named her one of the Most Powerful Working Moms. That’s a banner year for anyone, but for Brewer, she simply continues to build her reputation as an unparalleled business leader.
A Greater Shift is Required
As competition globalizes and becomes fiercer, many industries and organizations have stalled in their growth. One of the reasons for this is the continual desire to dip into the same shallow talent pool. Many organizations are filling executive roles based on factors outside of merit, meaning the best and brightest are not being given the chance to lead. As opportunities open for people of all backgrounds, businesses will have a chance to rise to greater heights.
Every industry must evolve and create opportunities for women and women of colour. There is no reason that the numbers skew towards white males in executive roles beyond traditional prejudice.
There should be a call for new voices and new perspectives. These two elements can lead to renewed growth. If four legacy organizations that produce billions of dollars in revenue can see the worth of hiring outside the box, then other organizations should step up and follow suit.
Rob Shapiro | Contributing Writer