As the Chief Executive Officer and Chair of PepsiCo Inc., Indra Nooyi serves as a role model for women’s leadership. I’d argue that Nooyi, ranked second on Fortune’s list of “Most Powerful Women,” has done more to smash the notion that women can’t be strong leaders than anyone else in business today.         

A champion of workplace diversity, Nooyi shares her career story as a woman and person of color, never sugarcoating the challenges of being a working mom. She has been just as vocal about the powerful benefits of women’s leadership, saying her gender influences (but doesn’t define) her approach to leadership. “Being a woman has helped me develop a unique, adaptive approach to leadership that is critical in today’s world of rapid change,” she was quoted as saying. “For me, this means leading with open eyes, open ears, an open mind and an open heart.”

Last month, Nooyi pledged her support to the Network of Executive Women’s vision of “a workplace with no limits” as co-chair of the Network of Executive Women (NEW) Future Fund Campaign ( The fund will invest in new programs and technology to help advance women in the retail and consumer goods industry through dynamic online learning, community building and mentoring, and robust reporting and analytics that are aimed at helping companies achieve their talent management goals.

The NEW Future Fund is needed because female senior leaders like Indra Nooyi still are exceptions in the industry. According to a recent study by Grant Thornton, only 27 percent of senior management roles in the global food and beverage industry are represented by women. That compares with 41 percent in healthcare and 33 percent in hospitality (and just 22 percent in retail).

Under Nooyi’s leadership, PepsiCo has invested in programs that give women and men equal opportunity to advance in their careers. Through the Pinnacle program, a senior-level female executive mentors five high-potential women, while another program, Lift, pairs senior leaders with young, high-potential female associates.

The female factor

Last fall, another woman stepped into a high-profile role at a beverage company that recognizes the benefits of women’s leadership. As president of Diageo North America, Deirdre Mahlan oversees a business that accounts for one-third of Diageo plc’s net sales and 45 percent of its operating profit.

By industry standards, Diageo’s gender diversity goal is ambitious — women will make up 35 percent of the leadership team by 2020. As of now, seven of 16 executive committee members (44 percent) and five of 12 board members (42 percent) are women.

Recognizing Diageo’s place on the National Association of Female Executives’ “Top Companies for Women Executives” list for the fifth year, Mahlan notes that the spirits and beer company strives to create an environment where talented women feel professionally and personally fulfilled. “Many of Diageo’s successes can be attributed to the contributions of women who craft our products and drive our business forward, and we strive to inspire, nurture and advance women throughout our organization,” Mahlan said.

Driving diversity

The company is powering gender diversity and inclusion on many fronts, from hiring to succession planning. Diageo’s Spirited Women’s Network hosts networking receptions and career talks by women executives, which are designed to inspire emerging female leaders and encourage diversity of thought. Its development programs consider gender when selecting participants and its accelerated leadership initiative develops women in line for the company’s Top 200 roles.

 A recent effort, the Transcend Leadership Mentoring program, readies women at the manager level and above for positions at the vice president level and up by providing a year of career counseling from senior executives. Melissa Woodbury, director of on-premise, customer planning and activation, characterizes her participation as “a wholly positive experience, helping me reach my long-term goals while gaining greater exposure to those outside my function.”

Diageo also is tackling one of women’s greatest career hurdles — motherhood — with work options and benefits that support parents. The company offers job share, flextime, compressed hours and work-from-home opportunities. It subsidizes back-up daycare and adult or eldercare and matches employees’ flexible spending accounts for dependent care. New moms and pregnant women can tap into nutrition and smoking cessation programs, and nursing moms have access to private pumping rooms.

For employees with older children, college prep and placement assistance is offered, and parents often use their five days a year of paid-time-off for volunteer work to be active in their children’s schools.

Diageo, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Co., Nestlé Group, Brown-Forman, HEINEKEN USA, Starbucks, MillerCoors, Ocean Spray — these NEW partners are among the industry’s strongest, most innovative companies. They share the belief that investing in gender diversity and inclusion helps them attract the best talent and gives them stronger insight into their customers.