Between 1978, when Kent joined the firm, and 2019, Coca-Cola’s market capitalisation grew by over $200 billion. But Kent was more interested in talking to students about the ‘Three Ws programme’ he initiated – focusing on water, women, and wellbeing.
‘When I first became CEO I sat down with all my colleagues and said, “who buys the brands of the Coca-Cola Company?”. And they brought out a statistic that said 68% of our shoppers are women. And I said but we don’t have even 15% of our leadership team as women. We’ve got to do something about this.’
Coca-Cola’s response was to create goals, aiming for 50% of its leaders to be women. At the point that Kent left, the figure was 40%, and Coca-Cola is in the top 10% of Fortune 500 for gender equality. Further, the 5by20 programme committed to empowering five million women entrepreneurs by 2020, implementing programmes across the world which address the most common barriers women face in the marketplace, and giving women access to training, financial services, and mentoring.
Another goal was to become water-neutral by 2020, becoming more efficient in water usage, recycling waste water, and replenishing water. The goal was established in 2010 and achieved in 2015, five years ahead of schedule, with additional benefits: ‘What happens when you save water? Your production costs come down,’ said Kent.
‘The key is to integrate your sustainability goals with your business goals,’ he said. ‘Most people announce sustainability goals but they stay in one corner, they keep it separate. [But] if sustainability goals don’t have an economic calculus they are not sustainable. … There’s a calculus between loyalty and good business. There’s a calculus between strong communities and strong business.’
Inevitably students addressed the issues of wellbeing with some questions about the role that drinks such as Coca-Cola play in the growing problem of obesity and increasing rates of Type 2 Diabetes. Kent answered by pointing out that the Coca-Cola Company markets many more drinks than the brown, sugary, fizzy one that bears its name, including fruit juices, smart water, low sugar fizzy drinks, and, thanks to a recent acquisition, coffee.