Finding strength, success after trauma

This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business leaders to learn everything from how they got where they are to what gets them out of bed in the morning. to their daily routines.

Ann Mukherjee ponders one simple question every day: If you had the chance to change the world, what would you do?

Mukherjee, 56, is the North American CEO and chairman of Pernod Ricard, the world’s second-largest seller of wines and spirits, which means she is in charge of famous premium liquor brands like Absolut, Jameson and Malibu. . And she understands first-hand how alcohol can change someone’s life, as it nearly ruined hers – twice.

She says her earliest memory as a child is of an assault she suffered at the hands of two drunk teenagers. And when she was 14, her mother was killed by a drunk driver. Her work today, she says, is helping turn her pain into “positive and meaningful change.”

“We should never accept bad things happening,” Mukherjee told CNBC Make It. “As a leader, I feel a strong sense of standing up for those who have gone through similar experiences to mine and doing whatever I can so others never have to go through this.”

Mukherjee’s first act as CEO in 2019, for example: launching an Absolut Vodka advertising campaign on sexual consent. Under its tongue-in-cheek tagline, “Drink Responsibly,” the ads promoted a new hashtag: “#SexResponsibly.”

“Our products are meant to unlock magic, not to be used for harm,” said Mukherjee, who sits on the national board of directors of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). “If you’re going to use these products as a weapon, don’t buy them.”

Here, Mukherjee talks about how the trauma affected her ability to lead, the person who permanently changed the trajectory of her career, and a lesson she learned as a female CEO in a male-dominated industry. :

On the moment that made Mukherjee a leader: ‘I couldn’t accept that his death was senseless’

I was five years old when my parents immigrated from Kolkata, India to Chicago. I was an only child and my mother was my best friend. My father was always more distant, so she instilled in me the importance of being independent and how to deal with life’s difficulties.

When she died, I went from a smart kid to a capable adult in minutes. After the doctor pronounced him dead, I saw his body. I kissed her. Then I sat very quietly in the hallway of the hospital and immediately started thinking about how I was going to arrange the funeral and prepare his body for burial.

I couldn’t bear that his death was senseless. I had to make sense of it and keep moving forward. My life has always been like this: when a tragedy or a challenge strikes me, I immediately think, “What am I going to do?

Life is not what happens to you. It’s about how you react when things get tough. I learned this lesson very early.

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[My husband] Dipu and I met in an online chat room in 1995. The winners for [1994] Miss Universe and Miss World were both from India were announced a few months earlier and he said, “Shouldn’t we be proud?”

I called him a moron. I said, “We’re supposed to be proud because there are two recognized beautiful women? Did they find the cure for cancer?” and he asked me out on a date.

He’s a master mixologist. When we moved in together, his boxes of bar utensils took up half the house. He was the one who reintroduced me to alcohol and showed me that if done right, it can be fun. When I was asked to interview at Pernod Ricard, it was Dipu who told me: “Don’t waste it!

I wasn’t sure I could work for a liquor brand, after all I had been through. He said, “Don’t you understand? The universe is talking to you and telling you this is your chance to right the wrongs. How could you say no?”

Part of being a great leader is having people around you telling you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear. Dipu showed me that if you can be a lifelong learner, vulnerable enough to listen, it could lead to great things.

I realized that you can either step away from the fire or step into it. I walked into the fire. If I’m in this role for five or seven years, am I going to solve everything before I leave? No. What I hope to leave behind is a legacy of inspired people who believe they can make a difference.

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