Coca-Cola recently launched an employee exchange program between Japan and South Africa to train the next generation of global leaders and provide an immersive cultural and workplace experience.

We spoke with the two participating employees, Masako Takagi of Coca-Cola Japan and Ramona Sewlal of Coca-Cola South Africa.

The Shelley De Villiers Memorial Talent Development Program, a Coca-Cola employee exchange program that started in 2015, was established to commemorate the wish of a woman who struggled to foster friendship between South Africa and Japan and to open the path for her wish to come true.

De Villiers, from South Africa, passed away at the height of her career. She was in charge of brand Coca-Cola for Coca-Cola Japan and won the respect and admiration of employees from diverse backgrounds. 

“Shelley talked loudly and laughed a lot," reflects Takagi, who worked under De Villiers at Coca-Cola Japan. "She exuded passion toward work and made everyone happy. She was loved both in South Africa and Japan and was working to build mutual friendship between the two countries. This program started in the hope of developing more global leaders like her.”

Sewlal adds, “I had not met Shelley but she is a reminder to live life to the fullest with the time we have."

Ms. Takagi

Ms. Takagi joined Coca-Cola Japan in 2004. After working in marketing for still beverages, she is now responsible for marketing and product development of Coca-Cola brand beverages.

The six-month program, the first of its kind for Coca-Cola, drew a large number of applicants from both countries.

“At Coca-Cola Japan, I worked in the field of product development and marketing. After being assigned to the Coca-Cola brand team, I realized the importance of a more global perspective in understanding markets. However, I had no experience living in other countries and didn’t know about any markets other than Japan. It was at this time that the program was established. I felt that it was a prime opportunity for me to gain firsthand experience of cultures and markets outside Japan,” says Takag, who is working in South Africa's franchise departent, working closely with local bottlers.

"I knew that this assignment would allow me to immerse myself in another culture but this time in a business environment. It is an opportunity to see how I would cope with the change that comes with out of country assignments. Understanding the bigger picture of Coca-Cola globally and being able to see how Japan localizes initiatives will help me to contribute in a more effective way.”

Ramona Sewlal joined Coca-Cola South Africa in 2012 after working as a Nationa Account manager at a bottler in South Africa. She currently works as an Operations Marketing Manager for bottlers. 

The reason why the people of South Africa are so kindhearted

Takagi was the first to leave in the exchange program. Starting in December 2015, she lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, for six months. She now says she loves South Africa, but confesses she didn’t have a positive image of the country before visiting.

“I did some research in advance and only found out about social issues such as apartheid and poverty in the country. I was also warned by friends that I ‘should be careful because it’s a dangerous city for Japanese women.’ I worried whether it would be okay for someone like me with no overseas experience. But when I started working for Coca-Cola South Africa, all my concerns disappeared quickly.”

The streets were safer than she imagined they would be, and her colleagues at Coca-Cola South Africa welcomed her warmly, sweeping away her concerns.

South Africa is a multicultural country with 11 official languages, and a population that consists not only of black and white Africans but also people from Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and Malaysia, as well as people of mixed heritage. This was also true inside Coca-Cola South Africa.

Takagi wondered how these people could be so kindhearted. While impressed by the friendliness of her colleagues, she wondered how they could be so kind to a stranger from Japan. This question was resolved when she found the answer in the words of Nelson Mandela, who fought for the eradication of apartheid.

“Mandela spoke to the effect that ‘hating the past is futile and we should work together to build a better society.’ In fact, South Africans are very optimistic in outlook. They love humor, music and dance. They actively exchange opinions while working and laugh a lot loudly. What surprised me is that, when a meeting comes to an end, everyone starts to sing a song. I didn’t feel that there were boundaries between job ranks. There was a sense of family that ‘all of us together make up Coca-Cola South Africa.’“

Through her interactions with the people there, Takagi began to feel she needed to change as well. Since they had opened their hearts to her, she had to do the same to them. She then decided to make use of her skills in fishing, which she pursued as a hobby in Japan.

“South Africa actually has one of the world’s largest bluefin tuna fishing grounds. So, I thought it would be good if I prepared Japanese dishes for them with tuna that I‘d caught, since the locals aren’t used to eating raw fish. But turned out that I couldn’t catch a tuna (laughs). Instead, I brought back tuna from Japan when I returned home briefly and prepared marinated tuna served on rice at the office cafeteria. They told me in surprise I was the first person to do such a thing, but they loved it.”

Not only that, she chose to change her hairstyle and wear dreadlocks like the locals. It took 11 hours to braid her long hair that way. When she was invited to a Zulu wedding, she attended dressed in the traditional costume, eating the same foods, and participating in their dances.

“I felt that, in assimilating into another culture, I shouldn’t wait to be accepted but approach it myself and try to adopt their culture. Just by changing how I look, children came to talk to me at the wedding, and the reaction of others changed dramatically. I felt I became a friend with them in a true sense,” she says.

South Africa can learn about innovations and maximizing the stills portfolio from Japan

Ramona Sewlal arrived in Japan in August 2016. At the time of this interview, she had only been there for two months. Still, she says that she has found Japan to be mesmerizing with its ancient culture and divine food.  “Everyone is so kind. Even when you are lost and don’t speak the language, people go out of their way to get you to the right place. The concept of always considering the impact of your action on another is also an endearing one”.

Mrs. Sewlal loves Japanese history and culture. This photo is from her trip to Kamakura.

“Masako-san experienced our very warm and welcoming hospitality in South Africa because we are 'The Rainbow Nation'. I have experienced the kindness of the Japanese people. My team have enabled me to see different aspects and places in Japan and I have gained valuable insights personally as well as learnings with Japanese business practices” 

“Learning about the culture and its foundation has been fascinating for me. Especially such concepts as Honne and Tatemae, Nommunication, Nemawashi and my favorite: Kaizen (making small incremental changes for improving productivity and minimizing waste both with tasks and oneself.)

“Some practices in Japan seem rigid at first and time consuming to a foreigner who may think that this will only lead to indecision or innocuous compromise but now that I have taken the time to understand them I have found that the rationale to some of these methods if executed in the intended way can create great results.”

At the Summer festival. She quickly made friends with her coworkers at Coca-Cola Japan

Sewlal enjoys life in Japan and has become accustomed to the marketplace as a consumer. But as a marketer, there were a few things she has noticed about the Japanese market where Coca-Cola products are sold.

“Our sparkling soft drinks have a strong share of the market in South Africa. Everyone drinks Coca-Cola. In Japan, however, still beverages dominate the market. Although Coca-Cola has an overwhelming market share in South Africa today, growing this share will have its limits in the future. Japan moved from a 30 percent contribution of stills in 1985 to 72 percent currently and we could certainly adapt some of the learnings to our market," she says.

In Japan, she has been assigned to two projects with leading retailers focused on developing and commercializing new innovations. 

The more she learns about the Japanese soft drink market, the more she is surprised by country's innovation capabilities, where new products are launched one after another. 

Of the many new soft drinks developed, she was particularly interested in those in the FOSHU (Food for Specified Health Uses) category and in hot drinks.

“Obesity and lifestyle-related diseases have become social issues in South Africa in recent years. There is much that we can learn from Japan’s experience in development of FOSHU. FOSHU products or RTD hot drinks are not available in South Africa, but they present opportunities for business growth. 

Mrs. Sewlal and Ms. Kobayashi in a commemorative photo at a Coca-Cola Japan office.

Important things the program participants learned

Just as Takagi says she was influenced greatly by South Africa and calls the country “a special place” for her, Sewlal also gained new business inspirations and a “deep appreciation for this beautiful country and its culture”. 

“As a marketer, getting a change in thinking about the company’s contribution to society is a great benefit. In South Africa, Coca-Cola is conducting a program called Project Last Mile aimed at using Coca-Cola’s distribution network reaching into every corner of the region to deliver medical supplies to people in areas where medical care infrastructure is underdeveloped.

I think this project was created because of the presence of people in need of medical services. Ideas that link everyday business operations to social contributions are created when the people at Coca-Cola South Africa think of how to make society better as they work. Donations and volunteer work are important, but I believe this is what social contribution really means. The business approach of making society happy by working hard is something I hope to do in Japan as well.”

Both Takagi and Sewlal say they learned from other cultures and gained business ideas. In concluding the interview, the two were asked what is most important for human growth. Their responses were surprisingly simple. It means “making the leap and not being afraid of interacting with other cultures,” says Takagi. 

Coca-Cola is a global company with the same business systems in operation in each country. Employees are able to work in any country as long as they can communicate in English. That is why whether or not you can work overseas only depends on whether or not you want to. If you are hesitant to interact with people who differ in values and lifestyles, you are willingly stopping your own potential from developing, regardless of whether you have the skills or not. I never thought of working in other countries before. Now, I intend to leave my comfort zone willingly to achieve further growth,” she says.

“In South Africa, the criteria included matching career goals, development areas and strengths," Sewlal adds, “Exposure to different cultures and experiences expand your frame of reference. As a result, we need to be aware of perspectives and be sensitive enough to see things from both sides. That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t have differing opinions or recommendations, it just means you can position it with awareness. This works both ways. 

For this reason, I strongly recommend that associates embark on cross-cultural training and programs.

This quote by Maya Angelou encapsulates my experience overall “I came as one but I stand as 10,000” because I represent so many women that believe an opportunity like this is impossible due to other commitments. I play many roles as mother, wife, associate, pillar in my community, yogi, etc. and this experience has cemented my belief that I can never be defined by just one role."