General Mills Asian Heritage Network and South Asian American Network members, from left: Shining Zhang, Ken Charles vice president of Diversity and Inclusion, Hyun Mee Graves, Alyssa Buckalew, Serena Yue, Cherryl D’Cunha, Vikram Ghosh, Prerna Maheshwari, and Chinthu Udayarajan. (AAP staff photos by Tom LaVenture)
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. (February 18, 2011) – Asian and Pacific Islander employees of General Mills came from around the country last month to attend Asian Leadership Day at the company headquarters in Minneapolis.
The first Asian Leadership Day was held in 2008, and the event has now grown to include a two-day schedule and broad program. More than 200 employees, members of either the General Mills Asian Heritage Network or its South Asian American Network, collaborated on the event that included the presence of company officials and an address from Ken Powell, Chairman and CEO of General Mills.
Prerna Maheshwari, a chemical engineer in the Research and Development Division, chair of the South Asian American Network, and event vice-chair, said the conference is a major annual event in collaboration with the Asian Heritage Network.
With more than 200 Asian Network members and about 150 in the South Asian Network, Maheshwari said it is important to have distinct organization or risk diluting the purpose of the mission and programs.
“General Mills is one of the few companies in the Twin Cities area that has a separate South Asian network and an Asian network,” said Maheshwari. “I think there are cultural nuances that are different enough that present ourselves.”
The Keynote Address was given by Marilyn Tam, whose Fortune 500 past includes positions as CEO of Aveda, president of Reebok Apparel & Retail Group, vice president of Nike, May Department Stores, Britannia Sportswear and Miller’s Outpost.
Tam is now director of Us Foundation, a global non-profit organization devoted to youth issues, education, environmental issues and conditions for peace. She is also a consultant and motivational speaker on leadership, diversity, globalization, change management, and the integration of social and environmental concerns into business profitability.
Tam comes from humble beginnings as the second daughter of a traditional hong Kong family who worked her way from factories to America and graduated from Oregon State University with an MS is Economics. She started as a clerk in a department store and overcame “glass ceilings and glass walls” by learning how to achieve the best for the company with long range vision.
She began an extraordinary climb up the corporate executive ranks of the international business world and has since become an influential corporate leader, speaker, corporate consultant, author and respected humanitarian. She has several honors and an honorary doctorate from Old Dominion University.
Tam scanned the crowd and said the mostly “1, 2, 3 generation” immigrants share something in common – that someone had decided to leave home and start a new life in America, which takes courage, fortitude and faith.
“That is the biggest, scariest thing you could ever do,” she added.
She said that by speaking another language at home the immigrant has an additional strength with multiple influences about how they think and perceive the world. This is no small matter when you consider many language translations can be almost the reverse of what is said in English – particularly with Chinese.
“Multilingual people are sometimes embarrassed by their own culture and want to forget all about what they are in desperation to belong – when it is from this authentic self that is where we grow and advance.”
She went on to discuss cultural reference points including time, gender and other factors that impact how we work together in groups. When we are self-aware and aware of the background of others in the team then this is a useful knowledge base that makes it a more production process by knowing how to moderate presentation styles.
“Not everyone wants to get to the bottom line at that moment, but some do,” she said.
She talked about mission in terms of company and individual. If your work is fulfilling your life purpose then you are better committed to participating and contributing to the company mission.
Tam connected with employees on the common challenges of the workplace. She talked about overcoming the reluctance to speak out in meetings and presentations. Some people feel that meetings are a waste of time, and that they would rather be working. She said it is important to have a sense of dynamics so that ideas can connect and grow.
Culturally, this will require an atmosphere where all members feel able to defend a position to others and in situations where there is disagreement or competing ideas.
Maheshwari said Tam resonated with the group with valuable life lessons to anyone even if they are not Asian. There were other event speakers but she said Tam’s background and what she accomplished resonated with anyone.
“She just had some really good general advice for the audience and I took some really good notes,” she added. “The thing I liked the best were the action plans. She had things that you can take back to your own life and actually use. Oftentimes you hear the inspirational speakers and you just don’t know how to apply it.
General Mills has seven employee networks, which also include the American Indian Council, the Hispanic Network, Betty’s Family (for GLBT employees), the Black Champions Network, and the Middle East/North African network.
Asian Heritage Network President Alyssa Buckalew noted that the event is about building personal relationships and becoming leaders. They have networked with the longer established Black Champions and Hispanic Networks and they invited leaders form each to their events.
“We are newer and I think events like this help us to become more of a community and for others to see that as well,” said Buckalew.
Ken Charles vice president of Diversity and Inclusion, said Tam comes from a very authentic place. He said her personal journey through child labor and immigrating to the United States gave people the reason to believe that she has been there before achieving such great heights.
“The successes that she’s had in corporate America and philanthropy gave her the voice of somebody who’s ‘done it’,” said Charles. “She shared the wisdom of that journey and gave people the tools that they could use so they could be more effective.”
Charles said the key message he took from the talk was that by being open to the universe, by opening your arms wide to those that are around you and then ultimately giving to others, is a model that I think everyone can aspire to and really create value from.”
Charles said that as a global company General Mills wants an environment where they recruit, retain and develop talent representing the various perspectives of society and the world. The challenge, he added, is the ensure that once great people are in place that they continue to feel included and valued so they will stay with the company for the long hall.
“From that we get great folks that make a contribution to the organization, great ideas that drive the business forward and great insights that allow us to connect with communities and customers in a new way,” said Charles.
He said its important to ensure people are valued for performance and merits and not the color of their skin or their economic origins, but to work there needs to be a business rationale that recognizes the company does business in all communities and that these consumers bring great ideas and capabilities to the organization.
“It really is a virtuous cycle,” he added. “At the end of the day the proof is in the pudding – so when people see the value that folks bring to the organization its very easy for them to appreciate and to understand.”
He said that the demographics of the nation is changing and so its no longer a matter of choice about whether people believe it’s the right way to think or not. It is also a matter of globalization and embracing new realities to be an effective business in the future.
The Midwest presents a unique scenario where the building blocks need to be put in place to ensure people that may have not experienced people of other cultures or backgrounds than their own will understand and appreciate the differences. The cultural days and workshops events increase the comfortable level by getting people to know each other and they learn about one another.
“Every one of us has something different about us, whether its from our experience, whether its from our culture, whether it’s a physical capability – there is something unique about each of us,” he added. “We look at the world a certain way because of the experience that we have.”
Charles said once the foundation of mutual value is reached then it is easier to get to a place where people need to value the uniqueness of others as much as their own. Its about getting over the sense of ‘my way is the right way and your way is wrong’ in a more natural and holistic approach.
“It’s a journey and you have to focus on the organization,” he added. “So diversity inclusion training, great management training, these cultural events, they help the environment – but you have to also focus on the individual, and not just the people of color, but everyone in the organization so that they understand how important this uniqueness is and how to value it in themselves and other people.
When leadership follows this commitment then he said it is real and sincere.
“If you do both of those pieces then you create an environment where good things start to happen,” he added.