Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. – Coca-Cola’s efforts to empower women both within and outside its four walls are delivering solid results, yet chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent insists the company is far from satisfied.

“The numbers are moving in the right direction, but this is a journey,” he said last week at the Network of Executive Women (NEW) leadership forum, held just outside Los Angeles.

During a keynote interview with Trudy Bourgeois, founder and president of The Center for Workforce Excellence, Kent explained how, in 2007, he noticed a glaring mismatch. Women – who control $20 trillion in annual spending globally and account for seven in 10 purchases of Coca-Cola products – held a much smaller percentage of senior positions at Coke.

“I found a disconnect between our percentage of women in leadership roles and young women executives coming into the company, and the people buying our products,” he told an audience of 300 executives in the consumer products and retail industry. “I said, ‘we cannot be successful if this disconnect continues.’”

Later that year, Coke launched its Global Women’s Initiative to accelerate the development of female talent. The program’s cornerstone, the Women’s Leadership Council, is tasked with developing strategy, initiatives and metrics around increasing women leadership roles at Coke.

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Muhtar Kent with a group of women leaders from Coca-Cola at the NEW summit.

And their work is paying off. Women currently hold more than 30 percent of senior roles at Coke, up from 23 percent in 2008. And earlier this month, the company elected Ana Botin as the fourth director on its board. "But why would we be satisfied until we get to at least half of our board being women?” Kent said.

When companies focus on developing and advancing women in leadership roles, "your brands are healthier and morale improves,” he added.

Coke’s commitment to women's empowerment also extends into the local communities it serves in 207 countries worldwide, with a focus on entrepreneurship. Through the ambitious 5by20 initiative, the company aims to support the economic empowerment of 5 million women entrepreneurs across its value chain by 2020. The program launched in 2010 and has since reached 300,000 women entrepreneurs in a dozen countries with access to business skills training, financial services and support networks.

Investing in women is one of the most powerful ways to spur sustainable economic growth and development, Kent said.

“We have a responsibility to those communities,” he explained. “Not only because they have embraced us and invited us to come and unpack our bags and do business, but also because if we are to repeat success and have a sustainable business, then those communities have to be sustainable, too – from the smallest villages in the Amazon to neighborhoods in large cities.”

And what produces a sustainable community? “Economic empowerment for women… it’s that simple,” Kent said. “Towns and villages flourish because these women use the money they earn to hire more women and allocate to their children’s education… and the same thing goes for urban communities.”

Kent explored a range of business and leadership topics. Here are a few highlights from the session:

Connecting the Dots

“We need to make everyone more aware of the benefits of empowering women. Then I think we can succeed faster. Because it’s one thing to achieve success, and another to repeat success. That’s the job of a leader. Promoting women leadership and creating a more level playing field is a huge enabler to repeat success.”

“Early on, I decided to call out women’s leadership and gender equality as a completely separate challenge and opportunity apart from diversity, with separate metrics tracked by our executive committee and operating team. Then we made it part of our short- and long-term rewards system. When we did that, everything started to change.”

Staying Connected to the ‘Point of Impact’

“In business, you should never lose sight of where the dollar changes hands. Otherwise, you very quickly can become arrogant and lose the notion of being ‘constructively discontent.’ For the first nine months of my career at Coca-Cola, I worked on trucks in Massachusetts, Texas and here in California. I understood well where that dollar changes hands by getting up at 4 a.m., loading the truck and delivering our products to stores. In fact, on the way here today I stopped at a few stores to see what’s going on. It’s what I enjoy most.”

Leaving a Legacy

“It’s terribly important for everyone in their power to play a role in helping transfer a better world – from a socioeconomic, political and environmental point of view – than what we’ve inherited to the next generation. And it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to do that. If current trends continue, it may be the first time in the history of this nation that the next generation will not have the same economic opportunity as the previous generation.”

Tackling Youth Unemployment

“Youth today need to see a light at the end of the tunnel. They need to be able to see a path forward… and they can’t right now. The numbers are staggering – 30 to 45 percent youth unemployment rates around the world for 20 to 26 year-olds. Everyone is talking about it, but no one can do anything. One thing we embarked upon at this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Switzerland is to bring together 35 mayors from the largest cities in the world with 50 CEOs and 40 heads of NGOs… and to not let them out of the room until there’s a multi-year manifesto for dealing with youth unemployment.”

Listening to the Millennial Generation

“In the consumer business, if we are not connected to the minds and psyche of young people, then we’re going to lose the plot. It’s no longer enough to produce great products and brands; the character of your company has to match the expectations of young people.

"That’s why I love to talk and listen to young people, including my 28-year-old daughter, to learn about what they think and what interests them. At the World Economic Forum, we have something called the Global Shapers, a group of young women and men between the ages of 22 to 28. Global Shapers now sit on panels alongside presidents, CEOs and NGO heads. Listening to those young men and women changes the dialogue on world affairs.”

About NEW

Founded in 2001, the Network of Executive Women (NEW) is the consumer products and retail industry's largest diversity organization, with more than 7,000 members representing 700 companies. Julie Hamilton, Muhtar Kent’s chief of staff and executive assistant, serves on the organization’s board of directors. Deana Bishop, VP of central region warehouse sales for Coca-Cola Refreshments, serves as Coke's ambassador to NEW, and Kelly Iacobelli, director, industry communications, Coca-Cola Refreshments, serve as as co-ambassador.