How She Leads: Beth Sauerhaft of PepsiCo

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz spotlighting the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, Maya Albanese interviews Beth Sauerhaft, Ph.D., Director of Global Environmental Sustainability at Pepsi Co.

Beth works at the nexus of several important sustainability initiatives at Pepsi that include environment, agriculture, energy, health, and nutrition. She has a wealth of experience in the public and private sectors as well as a robust educational background in this field. In addition, she represents Pepsi on the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture Project Board. Beth recently presented at World Water Week in Stockholm where Pepsi Co received the Stockholm Industry Water Award in recognition of the company's innovative and outstanding water stewardship initiatives. 

PepsiCo, Inc. (NYSE: PEP) is a global food and beverage leader with revenue of more than $65 billion and a product portfolio that includes 22 brands that generate more than $1 billion each in annual retail sales. Performance with Purpose is PepsiCo's promise to find innovative ways to minimize impact on the environment by conserving energy and water and reducing packaging volume, and respect, support and invest in the local communities where we operate.

In today’s interview, Maya asks Beth about the focus of sustainability at one of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies, and examines what goals have been achieved and which remain challenges in a complex role that covers global, corporate-wide territory.

MA: Could you start by explaining how you moved into your current role at PepsiCo?

BS:  It’s a great story that starts in the late 1980s. I was working on my Masters in Environmental Management and trying to decide what kind of work I wanted to do. I ended up going for a doctorate in Rangeland Ecology and Management and then working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I enjoyed the challenge of working there with farmers to combine our resources and ideas and improve environmental practices -- leveraging their knowledge of farming and my knowledge in environmental conservation and management. When I went to Washington, I started doing national policy work at USDA-NRCS (U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service), and then ended up moving across the national mall to work for the Environmental Protection Agency. I was one of the sole people at that time whose job was to focus on the nexus of environment and agriculture. I really enjoyed bringing people together to solve problems, but I had an itch to see what the private sector was like. In 2007, I saw a press release about PepsiCo’s renewable energy credit purchase to offset carbon and energy usage. It was a global company where I could move from focusing on national issues into a role focused on global sustainability issues. What happened next was an unusual and wonderful turn of events starting from a single cold email. I sent my resume to two men mentioned in that press release. There was no position open, but I managed to get in touch with them and was hired within Pepsi Cola North America Beverages as a sustainability person. That was five years ago, and a year-and-a-half ago, I moved into my current role, which focuses on the connection between environment, agriculture, and health and nutrition policy.

MA: What are some of your main responsibilities?

BS: My team is like a small think tank within the company that assesses risk and opportunity. We build internal and external relationships to help mitigate risk and pursue opportunities. I focus on the part of our sustainability program that works to bring our agricultural suppliers on a journey of continuous improvement. I am also focused on a number of dairy issues, because I have a lot of experience with dairy farmers from my work at the Department of Agriculture -- and through my representation at the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture, where I am part of global food security discussions.

MA: Was there an "Aha! moment" when you decided you wanted to work on environmental sustainability?

BS: Funny story -- I grew up in Westchester County and am probably the only person from my high school graduating class who now knows how to calibrate a manure spreader! But I’ve always loved being in the outdoors, hiking, and exploring rural areas. I think my sort of "Aha! moment" was the realization that I wanted to bring together all the different things I liked to do. When I finished up my master's (degree), I became a bit more strategic and started to do things that would open as many career doors as possible.

Next page: Working in the Madagascar rainforest