After being nominated to become a Coca-Cola director, Caroline Tsay took on the sizable task of quickly learning the ins-and-outs of a new company and an unfamiliar industry.
Her first teacher? Coca-Cola Chairman Muhtar Kent, who recently met with Tsay for a whirlwind tour of stores in Denver. They visited a 7-Eleven, a Walmart and even a Home Depot. Along the way, they met with local representatives from the bottler in the region, Swire Coca-Cola USA.
“I just didn’t think they sold refreshments at Home Depot,” Tsay said. Now, she knows, along with plenty of other things about the beverage business. She even picked up a habit that’s common among people who work for the Coca-Cola system.
When she visits a store, she said, “I’m moving the labels around to make sure that we get properly featured.”
Bringing Digital Experience to Coke
Tsay, CEO and co-founder of Compute Software, was officially elected to the Coca‑Cola board on April 25. She brings a far different background to the board than any other current member, from her work in technology to her perspective as the youngest member. She’s also the first Asian American to serve on Coca-Cola’s board.
Tsay, 36, is a native of California’s Silicon Valley. She went to high school in San Jose and attended nearby Stanford University. After earning degrees in computer science and management science and engineering, she went on to work as a consultant at IBM and then for Yahoo.
Before starting her own company in early 2017, Tsay was vice president and general manager, software, for Hewlett Packard Enterprise. She also serves on the boards of Morningstar and Rosetta Stone.
Some of Tsay’s experiences overlap with the Coca-Cola system, including supply chain and customer relationship management. But she largely comes with a very different background.
One of Coke’s big opportunities, Tsay said, is to use technology to connect the dots between consumers and the company.
“How do you bring in all of that data and information from the end consumer so that you can adjust and adapt and incorporate that into product development, into marketing, into the sales efforts?” she said. “Technology can absolutely address this, whether it’s through social media, through technology platforms. Knowing what to do with that information from advanced analytics is really important.”
Coca-Cola President and CEO James Quincey has often talked about digitizing the way the company does business, especially as consumers change how they shop. “The digitization of the whole experience is ongoing and fundamental, and we need to participate in that in a very different way,” he said at a recent industry conference.
Tsay has already spent a little time talking to Quincey, a fellow board member who served as CEO since May 1, 2017. She describes him as “incredibly measured, incredibly thoughtful.”
“He’s got a strong framework in mind for what he wants to execute and accomplish,” Tsay said. “That brings some clarity to what the company needs to do. And I think that’s important, especially with the CEO transition.”
Tsay’s experience on corporate boards helps her appreciate the need for speed in making changes at a business. “As a company, you cannot sit still,” she said. “As soon as you think everything’s going well, shareholders will probe and ask questions. It is something that’s been prevalent across all of the boards that I’ve been a part of.”
As a director on other boards, Tsay has worked closely with senior management. “They’ve been looking for more engagement between board members and members of the management team beyond the CEO,” she said. “I’m not trying to step into anyone’s shoes and do their job, but we often are giving feedback, advice and counsel in a number of different areas – deep topics like product development, marketing, technology enablement. We can share our experiences with members of management, and they can take away whatever is helpful.”
As an executive herself, Tsay’s board experience has been personally valuable. “It gives me a better view of how I’d like to manage investors,” she said. “They’re such a key part of keeping the business alive and supporting it long-term. It’s really important to understand their perspective and how to communicate and address things with them.”
How She Got Here
Tsay has had a remarkable start to her career, from her days at IBM, Yahoo and Hewlett Packard Enterprise to her current leadership role at Compute Software.
She’s the oldest of four children. Her mother and father are originally from Taiwan and emigrated to the United States in 1977 and 1976, respectively.
Her mom went to graduate school and within a few years of Tsay’s childhood began staying at home to raise the family. “My dad has always been an entrepreneur,” Tsay said. He was a CPA, ran a computer company, and most recently managed a closely held global pharmaceutical business. He is now semi-retired and a member of the Civil Air Patrol.
Tsay’s three siblings all work in Silicon Valley – and all in technology.
At 36, Tsay is the youngest member of Coke’s board by 16 years. She said diversity is important on a board, which includes age. She also brings a viewpoint based on working in Silicon Valley.
“You’re exposed to certain new ways of developing products, going to market, and selling or thinking about digital marketing,” she said. “Those are the kind of experiences I can bring to the board.”
She’s also the fifth woman on the Coca-Cola board, which now has 16 members. “I’ve been lucky in the sense that I’ve been on boards where there have been a number of women,” she said. “I actually haven’t been in a situation where I’ve been the only one, which has been surprising given the statistics.”
She’s also been a part of a number of organizations that promote gender diversity on boards, including the Athena Alliance and theBoardlist.
In the past – when Tsay had more spare time – she loved to play tennis, dating to her days in high school. She was ranked in Northern California by the U.S. Tennis Association. But her busy schedule eventually forced her to largely give up tennis.
Tsay is married to Mark Erickson, who is also a business partner in Compute Software. They have a daughter, Elise, who was born in November.
The demands of a baby have changed Tsay’s perspective. “I used to plan my life to a T,” she said. With a baby, she’s adjusted to uncertainty. “I take it step-by-step, day-by-day now, rather than stressing out about how to plan my entire life.”
She has also found that it’s good to ask for all the help you can get. “That’s something that I still need to continue to learn,” she said.