Umran Beba is the Dubai-based chief HR officer and senior vice-president at PepsiCo Asia, Middle East and Africa. She manages the strategic talent agenda and change and transformation for the region, where PepsiCo has 30,000 employees working in 90 countries. On a recent visit, Beba talked to AHRI chairman Peter Wilson about her international career.
Peter Wilson: What attracted you to an international business and HR role?
Umran Beba: I started in marketing, and at that point I didn’t have an idea of going into HR. But as I was getting ready for a general management role, the company suggested I take over HR.
After many years in Turkey, it was a period of change for me, to learn and develop into a good general manager. It was a great experience moving into international business, learning about different cultures, working with different partners and driving an agenda in tough countries in terms of the security environment.
We had excellent results during this period, so it gave me the confidence to move forward in the international arena.
PW: What were the most difficult challenges in taking on a role with increasing geographic scope?
UB: It was a year full of great and difficult news in 2001. I became a mother for the first time, and I was promoted to the general manager role at Frito-Lay Turkey. The same year, Turkey went through an economic crisis and we had a serious currency devaluation. I had taken about three months’ maternity leave, but I was connected with the company and getting a lot of support from my manager, peers, team and family.
In 2004 I was pregnant with my second child when I was promoted to the position of business unit general manager for east Mediterranean business – a unit covering Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Syria. After I had the new baby, I began to travel to all those countries.
PW: You’ve mentioned handling business in countries with security issues. How do you manage working in a risky environment?
UB: It’s difficult to predict where things can happen. As a company, we are increasing our security focus, measures and training, but there are countries where you must take extra caution. In these situations we get advice from our global security team, and we work with local partners. If I receive guidance from the global security team to postpone or cancel a trip, we have to take it seriously.
I never feel like I’m going out on my own. I know there’s always going to be a supportive leadership team and partners in these markets who will take care of me in a difficult situation.
PW: PepsiCo Turkey was named the top company for fastest female advancement in 2010, where the ratio of female executives on your management team was 53 per cent. Nevertheless, gender diversity remains an issue. What are some of the challenges that you find women face in forming management careers?
UB: I wish it wasn’t an agenda topic anymore. The difficulties are about balancing life in the corporate world and the life cycle a woman goes through. I see several factors that need to come together so a woman can succeed and continue her career.
The first is how you were raised, how ambitious you are, where you want to go in your life. The second is family – how supportive your partner or spouse is in this kind of career progression. The third element is the company culture – if we have the right culture, we can also support life events in a productive way. Fourth is how persevering we are, how resilient we are and how we want to progress our careers. The last is about childcare and domestic help.
If one of these elements is missing, the woman has to take a career break or completely exit the workforce.
PW: How is PepsiCo working to support women in the workforce?
UB: It is changing from country to country, driven by the culture.
Our objective is really to understand the cultural elements in each country where we operate and to have tailor-made solutions based on a global framework. For example, we have countries such as China where women make up more than 50 per cent of executives, and Australia is also in good shape now, in the range of 30 per cent. In Pakistan we have a childcare centre that helps to attract more women, and in Saudi Arabia, after several years of working on the idea, we now have women employees both at the front line and in the office.
There are still places where we need to work harder. In India we put a lot of focus on attraction and retention. It’s a critical environment in which, to retain women in the workforce, we must provide the right working conditions to attract good talent.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the May 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘On the front line’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.