Social Impact

Dare to be: Empowering dreams, one smile at a time

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Zulekha Ebrahim’s journey from a small town to a position at PepsiCo in the heart of Hyderabad, India, reflects the transformative power of education and determination.

Increasing the number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) matters. Gender-diverse teams produce more novel and higher-impact scientific ideas. Gender-diverse businesses also do better. Research from McKinsey & Company reveals that companies with more women at the executive level are over 20% more likely to experience above-average profitability.

But empowering women isn’t just about ideas or business success. For Zulekha Ebrahim, a Senior Transition Manager at PepsiCo, it’s personal.

Zulekha grew up in Ooty, a resort town in southwestern India. “It’s unforgettably beautiful,” she says. “But I wanted more. I literally had to fight to get an education, and then I wasn’t allowed to pursue a career outside of my town.”

If I could reach out to every girl to help her get an education — no matter what field — I’d do it.

Traditionally, Zulekha explains, there are societal expectations for daughters to get married and for sons to take care of their elders. “I don’t have a brother,” Zulekha says. “I wanted to support my family and not have the education I fought so hard for go to waste.”

One Smile at a Time: Global volunteer program cultivating change

In India, 90% of women do not participate in the workforce. That number is further underrepresented in STEM fields. Although almost 43% of women in school major in STEM fields, only 26% make it to the workforce.

But these numbers also represent a collective opportunity. “If I could reach out to every girl to help her get an education — no matter what field — I’d do it,” Zulekha says. “That’s how I dare for better.”

To build a better world, we need everyone involved. And Zulekha realized that one of the easiest ways for PepsiCo associates to make a direct impact on their communities is through One Smile at a Time, a global volunteering program that creates connections that matter.

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One Smile at a Time supports associates by giving them access to local and micro-volunteering opportunities that leverage their talent and skills. It also encourages associates to partner with NGOs to make a positive impact on their communities.

“One of our goals with pep+ (PepsiCo Positive) is to inspire people and create more smiles,” she says. “One Smile at a Time does that beautifully. Anyone can publish events on the OSaaT portal, and people around the world can access it.”

In 2020, Zulekha and her team in Hyderabad partnered with the Nirmaan Organization, an advocacy group that empowers the youth of India, and Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV), a residential girls’ secondary school run by the government of India for underserved populations.

Together, they identified tribal girls who displayed an interest in STEM across Telangana, a state in southern India. “We understood that these were first-generation learners who showed an interest in STEM,” she says. “They were approaching graduation but totally unaware of their career options.”

The GBS team realized they could mentor these girls and show them the power that STEM can have in their lives. Eventually, they were leading eight to 10 Zoom sessions every month for 150 to 200 students. Though it wasn’t without obstacles.

Overcoming barriers: The digital divide

“We literally couldn’t go visit them,” she says. “That’s when PepsiCo leadership stepped up. They gave them digital devices to help with access to the internet and Zoom.”

Zulekha and her team began mentoring girls through virtual sessions at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

Conducting one-hour virtual sessions, they helped the girls understand everything STEM entails and the careers available in STEM fields.

The biggest challenge, she says, was conducting these sessions during the pandemic with technology barriers. “Even before the pandemic, they did not have the technology to connect with us,” she says. “They did not even have access to the internet, and they weren’t aware of all of the possibilities outside of their school.”

I believe when you teach one, you teach many.

A second challenge was upscaling technology skills. “Technology, at the time, was a hurdle,” she says. “We were on a lot of calls and had to train people. There was so much compassion — we had a lot of volunteers come forward.”

Eventually, when it became safe to meet in person, Zulekha and her team had an idea: “What if we facilitated in-person speed mentoring events? The girls could come to PepsiCo, see what a corporate office looks like, and do a few mock interviews.”

Building futures: A vision for tomorrow

Zulekha recalls her first office job in Bangalore, one of the largest cities in India. “I was thrilled to see such huge buildings,” she says. “But I didn’t even know how to operate the elevator. I didn’t even know how to use an ATM.” Almost everything felt like a puzzle. However, the sense of excitement outweighed her nervousness.

So, when 100 tribal girls visited PepsiCo’s Hyderabad office for the speed mentoring event, Zulekha saw herself in them.

“Our office is located on the 15th floor of a skyscraper,” she says. “The girls were gazing out of the window in amazement. They realized the world can look different. It changes your perspective — and those moments touch the soul.”

After an office tour, the girls were introduced to local leaders, including Priyaranjan Jha, Head of Global Operations; Deshant Kaila, Managing Director; and Avantika Susan Nigam, Senior Director and Head of HR at PepsiCo’s office in Hyderabad.

Likewise, 120 volunteers from a variety of functions and backgrounds met with them, helped them understand their career options, and provided constructive feedback on their resumes to meet industry standards.

“We also had 10 panels that included our talent acquisition teams,” Zulekha says. “Our hiring managers conducted mock interviews to show them what to expect in the real world.”

Today, 13 out of the 100 tribal girls have corporate jobs. Others have secured internships.

Enduring impact: A journey of transformation

PepsiCo leadership also recognizes the success of the speed mentoring program. “PepsiCo looks at the amount of volunteers we have and the direct impact we’ve achieved,” Zulekha says. “In return, the PepsiCo Foundation gave back to the organizations we work with, which allows us to make even more of a sustainable impact.”

To date, Zulekha and her team have raised roughly $150,000 USD to empower women in STEM, with the help of more than 3,500 volunteers.

“Because of this, we’ve been able to establish four digital labs and two STEM labs in Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) schools,” she says. “The girls are introduced to the internet and can improve their digital literacy skills.”

Additionally, they raised $110,000 USD for COVID relief, enabling them to provide medical supplies to affected beneficiaries, furnish hospitals with medical equipment, and provide food to orphanages and assisted living facilities.

Zulekha reflects on the journey: “I believe when you teach one, you teach many,” she says. “These girls will go back to their communities, possibly with a job secured, and inspire more girls to step out of their comfort zones and possibly pursue careers.”

Dare to be

In this story series, we champion PepsiCo associates who dare to take risks, think differently and have the courage to build something better, whether at work or in their personal lives.