Alcohol has had a devastating impact on Ann Mukherjee and her family, which is why many are initially shocked to learn after hearing her background that she is CEO of Pernod Ricard North America, which owns brands including Absolut, Jameson, Malibu and more.
As a young girl, Mukherjee was sexually assaulted by two drunk teen boys, and when she was 14, her mother was killed by a drunk driver after the family moved from India to the U.S. She also survived an abusive first marriage in which she believes alcohol was a factor.
But for Mukherjee, 56, her job makes perfect sense.
“That pain was so acute for me,” she told Know Your Value founder and “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski in a recent interview. “I didn't want anyone else to go through it, no one. And so [I thought,] … I can run away from it or I can walk into the fire.”
That has meant spearheading campaigns that focus on drinking responsibly and addressing the issue of consent and the role that irresponsible drinking can play in sexual assaults. She has also partnered with organizations like responsibility.org in effort to reduce binge drinking and drunk driving.
“It's a real responsibility to have this role and I want to do right by it,” said Mukherjee, who after 30 years in marketing and sales experience assumed her current role as CEO in 2019. She is also the first industry outsider and woman of color to head the company. “…You have got to turn pain into positive power. And that's what this job allows me to do … Alcohol isn't going away. It’s going to be here, so let's make it right.”
Mukherjee chatted with Brzezinski about her leadership style, navigating her career in her 50s, taking charge during a pandemic and more.
Below is their conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Mika Brzezinski: Describe your leadership style to me.
Ann Mukherjee: “Rebel with a cause” is probably the best description. I'm one of those people who believes I've been given a huge responsibility, and I feel that I need to do good and do right by that responsibility. So, I'm a person who I think just intrinsically pushes for positive change.
I'm not a really good CEO in terms of keeping the trains running on time. I'm more one that will push the boundaries and try to get a better share of the future for everyone.
Brzezinski: Wow, there are a few attributes in there that I usually only hear from men. Is it fair to say that you're not afraid to take a risk?
Mukherjee: It’s only in risk taking that we learn, grow and can create a better tomorrow. I think most of my successes have come from when I have failed ... And if we don't take risks, we'll never understand what is possible. Now we have to be smart about it and be calculating, but risk taking is key.
Brzezinski: Exactly. If you don't put yourself out there, how do you know what's going to happen? How are you rebellious and tell us about the cost?
Mukherjee: There are a lot of people who are looking to be heard in the world. And as a person in charge who has resources, or has the ability to give people a voice, you have to be thoughtful about it.
…[For example], we have a brand, Absolut, that has always been about giving those who don't have a voice the limelight [like] gay rights back in the 1980s. It's always been a brand of provocation … Today, a lot of people that don't feel they have a voice, as we've seen in the Me Too movement. And as a person with my own personal background in sexual violence, a risk was having Absolut tell that story [through our #SexResponsibly campaign] …about victims where alcohol is used as a weapon of violence.
For a brand to speak up and say, "you know what, if that's why you're buying the brand, don't buy it. We don't want your business.” … it was a big risk … But only a yes to sex is a yes and no means no.
Brzezinski: Switching gears, I have a really exciting 50 Over 50 campaign with Know Your Value and Forbes, which celebrates women who have achieved significant success later in life, often by overcoming significant odds or barriers.
At 56, you fit right into this pocket. There were just so many women well over 50, who are just flourishing and who are just so confident.
Many of us are not just more accomplished, we’re comfortable in our skin. We’ve seen the positive impact you can have by being authentic. Our confidence is developed. I feel like this stage in our lives is the most productive. What do you think?
Mukherjee: Our power is booming. I think it’s because we're past the point of what caring about what others say about us. We're more concerned about what are we going to do. To do right by the gifts that we've been given … And it's a wonderful age because we're finally getting comfortable about who we are.
Brzezinski: I’m curious — did you ever imagine your career after 50? Did you plan for it in your 20s?
Mukherjee: Oh gosh, no … People ask me what's next. I'm like, “I don't know.” It's wherever the next opportunity takes me. And … the next opportunity is going to be based on "what am I going to do? What impact am I going to make? What change am I going to create?" …
Brzezinski: It’s interesting. Every woman that I've interviewed for 50 Over 50 has answered "no." They did not plan their careers after 50. They never even thought about it. It was like white space. It did not exist.
Mukherjee: I agree. And I think when people ask me, “Oh Ann, how should I plan my career?” I'm like, “don't plan.” For me, if I ever wrote a book, it would be about succeeding with no rule books, because I was never meant to be here, right? I didn't have the credentials, so I didn't have a rule book to follow. So I just made it up as I went. And I think that's what women do so well.
…You can have it all, because you can have it over a lifetime. But if you think you're not doing it at 30 or 40, don't worry. You'll do it at 50. You'll do it at 60 … The message is you can have it all over a lifetime.
Brzezinski: What did you learn about leading during the pandemic? Was there any really big surprise or really big challenge that you confronted along the way, or just something that you learned to do differently? The pandemic has just been an out of body experience for all of us.
Mukherjee: I think, one, is that we are still working through it. I mean, it is pure PTSD. I think people are really suffering.
A couple of things that really hit home to me, one was vulnerability. And not being scared to show your vulnerability … In my vulnerability, it made it OK for [my employees] to say, "OK, I'm vulnerable too." In sharing that vulnerability, I think it brought us together, it helped people cope.
[Another thing I learned] was "advancing through ambiguity." Because every day was going to be ambiguous. And I said, "folks, let's just focus on those things that we know matter. And those things that are in our control." And it's in that intersection that we're going to be able to advance and not feel like everything is coming against us and we're losing.
And I think the third one is, and we don't like to talk about it in this country, but mental fitness … That's now been a core part of us thinking about people development, not just their physical safety, but their mental safety
Brzezinski: Millions of women have left the job force during this pandemic. At Know Your Value, we have these great conversations about meeting these women where they are. Some of these women just have young kids or have struggled to find childcare ... Some of them just might need time off or are taking care of their parents. Sometimes women need to take time off, even five years, and come back. And that should be OK.
Mukherjee: After those five years when they're ready, we need to bring them back and find a way to bring them back. But that's so important because you can have it all over a lifetime. [We need to say to these women] “this is your time, stay home, take care of the kids. And then when you're done, come back.
Brzezinski: I do think that somewhere in the future, companies have to start doing an off ramp/on ramp type of thing — when you can't do everything but you don't want to lose everything. It's a tough conversation, because I think women are led to believe they can do everything at once.
Women need to take a career break and get back in the workforce and not have to take a huge step back after raising kids. A lot of these women are starting all over in 40s and 50s are starting unnecessarily at the bottom. This to me is one of the answers to why we can't we retain strong female talent.
And it's just that sometimes these women actually need to do something else, like have children and take care of them. Some need five years. I don't see a problem with it.
Mukherjee: Let's think about this, right? You're pregnant. You want to go offramp for five years. Is there a way that five years from now employers are going to have a round trip ticket for you and you plan accordingly? We can do this if we plan for it. I agree with you.