In June, I will celebrate 28 years with The Coca-Cola Company. I know first-hand how far we’ve come with the empowerment of women.

While I didn’t really understand the concept of a company’s culture at the time, I remember my marketing professor at Boston College (also head of our School of Management Honors Program of which I was a member) working hard to convince me that Coca-Cola was not the offer I should accept.  He did not believe the culture was a great fit for woman like myself.  Fast forward to today and I undoubtedly believe I made the right decision. While the early years may have had some bumps, the company has continuously worked to improve the community and empower our women associates. I am proud to say that I have had a hand in influencing this evolved culture and will continue to have a role in shaping our future. 

Coke’s goal is to be a great place to work and we work every day to attract, engage and retain the best talent.  If we were not focused on empowering women and therefore not seen as a great place for women to work; we would miss out on 40 percent of the global workforce, we would be ignoring 50 percent of the population, and we would not mirror the marketplace that we serve (70 percent of global household purchases are influenced by women and 20 trillion dollars of spending worldwide is controlled by women).  Our company must create an environment that provides a license of empowerment.  What is done with that license is up to each associate. 

One example that brings this to life is our Women in Leadership Program.  The women I know who joined this program, like most, needed to feel 99 percent ready before raising their hand for their next role.  After a week in the program, their minds opened to the concept of growth and stretch vs.  perfection.  Each of the associates I personally know emerged more confident and bullish in their readiness for the next career step. Each are now successfully performing in roles that they would have previously viewed as being out of reach.  Bottom-line, if The Coca-Cola Company is to be competitive and achieve our goal of being a great workplace, we must have access to 100 percent of the available global talent.  We need the Professor’s of the world to be saying, “take the Coca-Cola offer”. 

Coca-Cola has gone beyond our four walls with this initiative.  At the core is a belief that investing in women is investing in children, families and entire communities.  Our 5by20 initiative allows us to do just that.  I had the opportunity to witness this first-hand in the Philippines.  We visited the training center where women were lined up around the building, with their children in tow, for just the chance of being accepted into our program.  In classrooms, we saw top-rate instructors walking them through the key levels of a profit and loss statement, teaching them the skills they would need to lead a thriving successful business.  We then visited the operations - owned by women - which we helped make a reality.  I will always remember the passion, pride and determination of the women we met.  They were beyond inspiring.  I could not help but think that what I was seeing was so much bigger than myself and so much bigger than Coca-Cola, yet collectively, with help from others, we made and can continue to make a huge difference. 

We have much work yet to do and recognize that this is a journey on a very long road.  We are so honored to be a recipient of the 2013 Catalyst Award and see it as a “sign” along the road.  A sign that reinforces we are driving in the right direction – and to keep going.

Kathleen Ciaramello is Vice-President of East Zone at Coca-Cola Refreshments.