As our celebration of Black History Month comes to a close, I take special pride in recalling the pivotal role that PepsiCo has played in opening the doors of corporate America – and new opportunities for economic prosperity – to African-Americans.
More than 70 years ago – long before diversity was the widely accepted priority in business that it is today – Pepsi was attacking the color barrier. In the 1940s, we broke new ground by granting franchises to people of color. Also early that decade, we became one of the first corporations to hire African-Americans for white-collar positions, creating an all-black “Special Markets Team” (pictured at right) to sell Pepsi to what was then called the “Negro” market.
In doing so we, Pepsi, were the first large American business, and arguably the leader, in recognizing African-Americans as valuable employees and consumers.
I can’t help but think of what it was like for those 12 black salesmen on the Special Markets Team. Their mission was simple: boost profits. Can you imagine the pressure they felt? But they were up to the challenge, delivering results over the following decade and beyond. That extraordinary sales team also advanced the notion of workforce diversity and revolutionized the image of African-Americans in advertising as typical middle-class consumers – a revolution at the time.
Even though the team was dispersed in the 1950s, its legacy was evident. African-American professionals started to join corporations in growing numbers and the strength of the black consumer was finally recognized.
One member of that early team was a promising young executive named Harvey C. Russell. A talented leader and marketer, Mr. Russell continued to advance his career at Pepsi: by 1958 he was manager of Pepsi’s ethnic marketing department, which by then also concentrated on Hispanic consumers.
It was in 1962, however, that Mr. Russell achieved a permanent position in the history of American business becoming the first black man to be appointed vice president of a major American corporation.
Although Mr. Russell retired 30 years ago and passed away 15 years ago this very week, I’m proud that we honor his memory in our annual diversity and inclusion global awards program. I see him as a mentor.
Today, diversity and inclusion remains a treasured value at PepsiCo. We know that diverse strengths and talents make our company successful. We take great care to weave diversity and inclusion into the very fabric of our culture to improve as a global, multicultural and multigenerational company capable of serving the world’s communities effectively.
Please take a minute to learn and celebrate Pepsi’s history of diversity and inclusion. For more on the original all-black sales team visit RealPepsiChallenge.com. To learn about our annual diversity and inclusion awards program, please visit PepsiCoChairmansAward.com and, while you’re there, read a short biography of Harvey C. Russell. And finally, I invite you to learn more about our commitment to diversity and inclusion on our corporate site.
Even though the business world may have caught on to diversity and inclusion, we continue to stand out. I’m proud that Black Enterprise magazine recognized PepsiCo as one of ‘40 Best Companies for Diversity’ in 2012.
Our recognition of African-Americans as both talented leaders and as important and influential consumers is as much a hallmark of our company today as it has ever been. It’s core to our corporate DNA and a major reason that I’m thrilled to call PepsiCo my work home.