Growing up in Canada, Irene Chang Britt had no way of getting a hold of tasty Pepperidge Farm products, but since moving to the U.S. in 1992, she’s made up for lost time with her favorite snack – Milano cookies. So perhaps she was destined to be part of the Pepperidge Farm family.
According to USA Today last year (10/26/11), female CEOs represented about 3% of Fortune 500 company heads. And that number increased this past August when Pepperidge Farm, one of Campbell Soup Company’s North American Brand leaders, promoted Irene Chang Britt as President.
Irene has moved up the ranks steadily: she spent 12 years at Kimberly-Clark, 8 years at Kraft Foods and joined Campbell in 2005 as Vice President and General Manager-Sauces and Beverages where she delivered three consecutive years of outstanding growth. Now Pepperidge Farm products can also be found in many Asian countries including: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Cambodia, Guam, India, Korea, Philippines, Singapore, Tahiti, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Irene earned her BA from the University of Toronto and her MBA from the University of Western Ontario. Today, she lives in New Jersey with her husband of 26 years and two kids: her daughter is sophomore in college in Ohio and her son is in middle school. She speaks English, Chinese and French. She chats with AsianWeek about how running a bike store got her started in business and shares what it takes to make it as a president of a Fortune 500 company.
Can you give us a brief personal history?
I was born in Taipei, Taiwan. My mom is from Shanghai and my dad is from Taiwan. I have three older siblings: 2 sisters and 1 brother. We were raised by my parents and my maternal grandmother, who was born and raised in Guangzhou, China. My family came from extreme poverty in China. So, compared to what my mom and popo (grandmother) went through, I have no complaints, no stress and no hardships. I find that as I keep that perspective and outlook, everything is ok.
I can say that my professional life has been amazingly fulfilling, and there have been very few “net sacrifices”. Yes, I’m away from my family a bit more than I’d like. But, they are also deeply involved in my work and my career, and we have deep discussions on products, advertising, business, human dynamics, economics, etc. My work and their personal interests have kept our relationships fresh and interesting, and my kids have grown to be curious and adventurous young adults. I am so proud.
In Asian households our parents play a very strong role in shaping our education and sometimes even our careers. Were you brought up this way? What do your parents feel about your accomplishments today?
My parents and grandmother were always academic and achievement-oriented. However, they were also very progressive, sophisticated and well-traveled. So, we had an incredibly inspiring mix of high expectations and encouragement to explore non-traditional interests (i.e. competitive cycling, travel, art, languages) in addition to the “normal” Asian activities (music, Chinese language).
My parents, sadly, have passed away. But, their support and approval have always been important to me, and continue to be so to this day. Before my dad passed last year, I had made it to President, and he was very proud of me…as was my mom before she passed five years earlier. That meant the world to me. I keep an altar to honor my parents and grandmother in my home. My kids and I (and even my non-Chinese husband) run to the altar to give my beloved parents and grandmother the news of any accomplishments, before we do anything else. All achievements (promotions, school grades, news articles, etc.) get placed at the altar, with love and deference.
How did you start your career in business? I read you operated a bike store in college. What did you learn about bikes that some of us (non bikers) perhaps don’t know about?
Like a good younger sister, I adored my big brother. So when he became a competitive cyclist, I followed! And, when he came up with the idea to open a store when we were both undergrads, I was right there with him. I learned the finer points of high-end bicycles, and the precision of top-flight European and Japanese equipment. We also started a racing club, which was a total blast. This was in the 80’s, all before the cycling craze took hold, so I guess we were pretty early in the curve.
My primary goal was never to “make it up the ranks”. I fell in love with business by running my own company. So, when I decided to switch gears, get my MBA and go into big business, my end goal was always to build and run great businesses. To create something that would stand the test of time and develop the next generation of leaders. It was for the love of the business and performance, rather than for the title.
Advice for young women today hoping to be the President of a major Fortune 500 Company?
Be intellectually curious. Be courageous. Develop incredible resilience. Do what you love, and throw your whole self into your (professional) life’s mission. Help others grow and succeed…you will have that positive energy returned to you in spades. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
What do you do in your free time?
Well, I cook! All cuisines. And I read, walk, practice tai chi chuan, kayak, ride my bike, and go out to restaurants and shop. But mostly, I spend time hanging out with my kids and husband. Personal time is very precious to me.
What is something the public doesn’t know about you?
Last year, I started to learn tai chi chuan, Chen style. I always watched my dad practicing Yang style as I was growing up. He practiced all his adult life. But, I was never ready– intellectually, culturally, in patience and in devotion. As I have grown older, and have lost my greatest connection to my Chinese heritage — my parents — I find that I have turned to tai chi chuan to ground me to who I am and who I want to be. It is both comforting and liberating.