Debra Sandler: Best of the Boardroom

“Debra is current president and CEO of La Grenade Group, LLC, a marketing consultancy that serves packaged goods companies operating in the health and wellness space. She is also a budding entrepreneur, founding Mavis Foods, LLC, a startup of Caribbean sauces and marinades. Previously she worked for more than thirty years in senior leadership roles at PepsiCo, Johnson & Johnson, and most recently as chief health and wellbeing officer at Mars, after serving there as chief consumer officer and president of Mars Chocolate North America.” Guest Editor Patricia Salas Pineda

From growing up in Trinidad amongst a large extended family, to helping launch Splenda, to starting her own food company inspired by her aunt’s recipes, Debra Sandler knows the significance of what’s on the table as well as who is sitting around it.

“We’re an immigrant family. When we get together, food is so important,” explains Sandler, who was born in Venezuela and also has Ecuadorian ancestry. “That is what is at our core, what we enjoy, and the way we hold onto our roots.”

Sandler has threaded those roots throughout her career, which spans more than thirty years managing some of the best-known brands at PepsiCo, Johnson & Johnson, and Mars.

Debra Sandler Mavis Foods
Photo: Pete Byron

At PepsiCo, she drew on her cultural background to drive the business, becoming the ethnic marketing leader across all the beverage brands and helping the company expand its customer base, particularly into the Hispanic market. She also realized her dream job as vice president of marketing for Latin America and the Caribbean, which allowed her to fully draw on her background.

Today, serving on three corporate boards—ADM, Gannett, and Pharmavite—Sandler is working to bring more diversity to the boardroom, and she finds her involvement with Latino Corporate Directors Association helps her stay connected to and reaffirm her heritage. “It’s important to me for people to know who I am in my entirety,” she says.

A self-described planner, Sandler always knew she would make her way into corporate governance, the question was only when. After thirteen years at PepsiCo and having her daughter, she decided to increase her focus on wellness.

“What can I do with my skill set to make the world a little bit of a better place?” she asked herself. “I’m not a NASA scientist, I’m not going to put someone on the moon, and I’m not going to solve world hunger, but I can use my marketing skills to make a difference in some way.”

Sandler joined Johnson & Johnson, which was just getting into the nutraceuticals business.

“They had devices and pharmaceuticals to help people with their health, but it was all in treatment and cure,” she explains. “The thought at the time was, how can we get into prevention by helping people with what they eat?”

While there, Sandler helped steer the launch of Splenda, which she calls the greatest experience of her career. She was excited by launching a brand with meaningful purpose, the opportunity to help people live healthier lives, and the use of food as the vehicle.

“It spoke to my core,” she recalls. “It’s nice when you can get that sweet spot: when what you’re doing fits with who you are and your personal mission.”

What advice would you give to Hispanic executives aspiring to corporate board positions?

“Know what value you can bring to a board. I was hired onto boards primarily because of my marketing experience. Know what it is you have to offer and hone your skills in that area to make you stand out as someone who can add value.

Start to prepare yourself for board work. When the companies I worked for would not allow me to sit on a public board, I sat on noncorporate boards. I am a trustee at my undergraduate college and a board member at a number of smaller nonprofits. You start to understand how boards work, and you make excellent contacts. Also, take the initiative to attend meetings and conferences offered for prospective board members.

Build up your network. The Latino Corporate Directors Association now has an associate membership for Latinos looking to join boards, and the National Association of Corporate Directors has conferences and events to look into, as well. Start going to those; it will help you build up your network of people who will help you once you re ready to get started. And when you are ready, tell everyone. Tell every recruiter, even if they re calling you for something else. Tell every friend.”

It was during her time at Mars, where she eventually became chief health and wellbeing officer, that Sandler got the call from Gannett to join the company’s board. She had received other invitations over the years, but her previous employers didn’t allow executives to serve on corporate boards, and she also hadn’t been ready to make the leap. This time, she says, it felt right, and before long her board portfolio tripled.

“The next year, ADM called, and they are focused on providing nutrition to the world—can’t say no to that,” she explains. “And, after that, Pharmavite called, giving me the opportunity to work with a highly ethical Japanese-owned company.”

For Sandler, board work is an opportunity to be involved in businesses, provide leadership, and continue to grow and develop herself.

“To help companies address some of their key issues has been absolutely fabulous,” she says. She points to Gannett’s evolution to include digital services and ADM’s focus on providing better food ingredients as some of the initiatives she’s been excited to be part of as a board member. And Pharmavite, which produces NatureMade supplements, brings Sandler back to her healthcare focus.

“I can’t speak enough about the need for good and healthy supplements to our diets,” she says.

“Debra’s breadth of experience in the wellness industry brings sharp, fresh views and a unique perspective to Pharmavite’s board,” says Pharmavite CEO Jeff Boutelle. “She has proven to be a tremendous asset and trusted advisor to me since I started as CEO, and her insights and contribution are invaluable for our company’s future growth.”

Sandler is also proud to chair the nominating and governance committee at Gannett, through which she hopes to continue bringing diverse candidates into the boardroom, though she is quick to point out that this is every board member’s role.

“You want a board with diverse people who all feel like diversity is a priority,” she says, adding that she’s been pleased to encounter this conviction on her boards. She also cites research which has shown diverse boards are better for a company’s bottom line. “Having people around the table who look and think differently from each other will drive greater financial growth for the business,” she says. “It’s that simple.”

The biggest surprise for Sandler in serving on boards is how different sitting in the executive suite running a P&L is from sitting on an audit committee. Realizing she’s not running the day-to-day business anymore has challenged Sandler’s “Type A” personality but in a good way.

“I like to continue to learn and grow,” she says. “Every year I’m doing some training and attending conferences to make sure I’m on my game and able to add value and to steward.”

Her new venture, Mavis Foods, named for her aunt, is also a learning opportunity for Sandler, albeit one that builds on her extensive food and beverage experience. The company produces marinades and sauces that have been in Sandler’s family for generations, and it’s giving her insight into direct-to-consumer sales, an area Pharmavite is looking into, and another skill she can bring to the boardroom.

And, once again, it brings Sandler, the company’s CEO and “Sauce Boss,” back to her roots, paying homage to her family, her culture, and its food.

Sandler is thriving on what she calls her “smörgåsbord life” and is even considering joining a fourth board, as long as it’s something really interesting.

Every day is something totally new,” she says. “I am really enjoying it to the fullest.”

Gannett | USA TODAY NETWORK is the largest local media and marketing solutions company in the United States, focused on empowering people, communities, and businesses to connect, act, and thrive. We congratulate Debra Sandler, who always brings the needs of consumers to the forefront, on achieving this well-deserved honor.