As my red-eye flight descends into Recife, Brazil, I look out the plane window in great anticipation, reminiscing of the past weekend’s conversations:
“You’re going where?”
“Afogados da Ingazeira.”
“Never heard of it—is that near Sao Paolo?”
Afogados is a six-hour drive from Recife, the fifth-largest city in Brazil. On the long drive there, I learn that Afogados means “drowned” in Portuguese. Many years ago, a couple tried to cross the Pajeú river during high tide and were washed away—a few days later their bodies were found. I immediately think “How sad!” Those who know Afogados see it as a symbol of pride and perseverance, yet also understand the sting of the name’s irony—the region has been struggling through a drought for the past three years. Each time I peek through the van’s curtains hung to keep out the heat, I am struck by the dryness of everything I see—leafless trees, dusty roads, a sea of brown.
I’m traveling to Afogados to see PepsiCo’s Performance with Purpose business strategy in action through the work of the PepsiCorps team. On paper, Performance with Purpose (PwP, for short) is about delivering strong financial performance while focusing on Human, Environmental, and Talent Sustainability, because doing good is good for business. In practice, it’s much more three-dimensional.
The idea for the PepsiCorps program emerged three years ago from a group of employees searching for a way to make PwP more personal for employees. They had a vision that put PwP into tangible action, allowing PepsiCo employees to not just think purposefully, but to act purposefully. Three years later, the endeavor has grown into a signature program across our global company, enabling PepsiCo employees to apply their job skills and life experiences to real-world challenges. Working alongside their colleagues in communities around the world, PepsiCorps participants develop transformational solutions to complex challenges, serving as a purposeful force for good. I’m most interested in seeing what affect this experience has had on them—after all, that’s really what PepsiCorps is all about.
After seven hours of driving, we finally arrive in Afogados where the PepsiCorps team has been on the ground for nearly a month working with the community to overcome sustainable agriculture challenges brought on by the ongoing drought. This week marks the culmination of their work.
We climb out of the van and I am immediately hit by a wall of dry heat. We are welcomed with a huge smile and hug by Vanessa from PYXERA Global, the corporate volunteering and service organization we partner with on our PepsiCorps programs. PYXERA Global has people on the ground in even the most remote areas, working with our teams to engage local NGOs, scope our project parameters, arrange for lodging and transportation for our teams, along with other aspects of the program’s implementation. Vanessa is a wonderful bundle of positive energy and affection who genuinely seeks to make the world a better place.
We walk inside a small building to find a single room with tables and chairs. Colorful drawings and objects scattered around the room remind me of the cheerful classrooms of my childhood. From where we’ve entered, we can see the attention is focused at the front of the room, where four PepsiCo employees in green ‘PepsiCorps Brazil 2013’ T-shirts are reviewing the lesson for the day. The PepsiCorps team is working with Projeto Dom Helder Camara, a local government project to develop a commercialization strategy for a recently launched fruit-pulp businesses.
They pause to introduce us—with the help of Michelle, a locally-based interpreter—and then continue presenting to the students. As the team discusses marketing and branding techniques meant to boost the sales of local produce, the group is completely engaged.
On this, their last day of service, the team decides to present their attentive students with ‘graduation certificates’ prepared for the occasion. After a brief pause for Michelle to translate, eyes widen across the faces of the humble group of villagers. One by one, the villagers walk to the front of the room to accept their certificate. I watch the faces of the four PepsiCo employees, struck by how deeply moved they are. They look down at the floor periodically, clearly trying to control their emotions.
This group met each other for the first time just a month ago. Now, they are like a family, their familiarity and warmth for each other visible in how they interact with one another.
The product referred to in the session is a pulped fruit, which the villagers pick, wash, boil, process, package, seal, label, and freeze for future sale. We tour the production facility where one of the women walks us through the production process with Michelle translating as we go. The pride in her voice is unmistakable, even without the translation.
The team then shows us the field where they have planted 50 new fruit-bearing trees. They describe the hard, dry dirt that was impossible to dig through, and how they cheered when they finally broke through and planted the new trees. A local NGO was so inspired by their efforts for the community that they donated the materials and labor to run irrigation hoses to the field to ensure a steady source of water for the young trees to thrive. They all grin at each other—no need for an interpreter, just smiles, pride, and a sense of common purpose.
Later that night, we gather with the rest of the group who has been working on an organic growers’ market concept. They are equally inspired and inspiring as they talk excitedly about what the past month has taught them.
We descend on a local restaurant for dinner where the team has made friends with the owner and waitstaff over the past month. I have to remind myself that none of them spoke a word of Portuguese four weeks ago as I hear them pointing to menu items and greeting the staff.
The next morning, the two teams of four employees present their formal insights and recommendations to the local organizations. They share assessments and analysis of local market conditions, insights and implications of what they have learned, general ideas and specific recommendations for successful agriculture practices. Having engaged additional resources, they go so far as to share branding concepts, packaging and signage logo ideas, and suggested marketing campaigns to generate additional demand for the crops and products this community relies on as a source of income.
After the teams wrap up their presentations, many share thoughtful and reflective comments. They speak to each other with an unspoken understanding about what the program has meant to them, to the NGO representatives they hope will carry on their work, to the translators who have made these human connections possible, and to their new-found friends who they’ll leave in Afogados but stay with in spirit. I hear parts of the conversations, watch the exchange of hugs, and see the emotions in each participant’s face. The words don’t seem to matter as the meaning is more in their personal connections. This time I’m the one who has to look down for a moment to control my emotions.
A group of us board the van for the drive back to Recife, cheerful but subdued. I am grateful for the long drive, which provides a chance to reflect on the past few days and the remarkable, multidimensional effects of this program. Between the social problem solving, the employee skill-building, the deep connections with people from other cultures, and the cross-company relationship-building, it is hard to identify just one thing that makes the PepsiCorps program so impactful. Ultimately, it’s a combination of all of these things, and more.
Success on the job isn’t all that different from success in life. It requires clear goals, a line-of-sight to how to achieve them, relevant tools, materials, capability, and the colleagues with the talent to bring it all together. The game-changer is inspiration and a sense of common purpose.
PepsiCorps is not just about helping those in need, though it’s not a bad place to start. Helping others is the sandbox the group plays in. The program, built on the core principles of Performance with Purpose, strengthens the internal wiring needed to develop exceptional, strong leaders who are able to generate this sense of common purpose, a shared desire to achieve something significant, beyond their normal capabilities. The essence of the program is about rising to the occasion—reflecting on the circumstances, assessing what needs to be done, establishing a goal and a path to achieve it, cultivating unity, and, finally, inspiring and motivating others around that common purpose.
Through global pro bono service, employees learn that success isn’t about having the biggest job or the loudest voice, but about mutually beneficial collaboration, a culture of servant leadership that deemphasizes who is in charge in favor of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. At the end of four weeks in Afogados, it isn’t entirely clear who gained the most from the experience—our employees, our hosts, or our company. The true victory is realizing it doesn’t really matter.
Sue Tsokris is the Vice President of Global Citizenship and Sustainability for PepsiCo, with responsibility for leading the strategy-setting and operations of the PepsiCo Foundation, as well as aligning the corporation’s citizenship and sustainability activities across the globe to advance PepsiCo’s Performance with Purpose vision. She and her team develop strategic grant and community engagement programs that offer game-changing solutions to address fundamental and systemic issues facing underserved communities. Focusing on Affordable Nutrition, Clean Safe Water, Sustainable Agriculture, Enabling Job Readiness for Youth and Empowering Women and Girls, PepsiCo and the PepsiCo Foundation work to open doors for struggling communities with programs that have significant and enduring impact.