Svetlana Obruchkova (SO) is a force to be reckoned with, in all senses of the expression! After completing her Engineering Degree at Sevastapol State Technical University she went on to build a successful career in the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) sector.  During her thirteen year run at Nestlé, she held several leadership roles in market and sales development, including the role of Managing Director for the company’s East Africa division, from a Nairobi base.  Today Svetlana is based in Moscow, where IE’s Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia Joël McConnell (JM) recently caught up with her to talk about her current role as General Manager of Royal Canin (a subsidiary of Mars, Inc. – one global manufacturer and one of the largest privately-held US companies).  In addition to being a graduate of the IE Brown Executive MBA program, a joint degree offered by IE Business School and the Ivy League school located in Providence, Rhode Island, she has also completed courses at Singularity University and Skolkovo School of Management. Below is the transcript from their interview.

JM: You have worked for two global leaders in the FMCG sector, in both Russia and Africa. What are some the your most important insights on these two regions – from a market development perspective, and what are some of the opportunities you see in East Africa in particular for global FMCG players?

SO: These two regions are completely different. Africa was very high on the agenda for majority of big multinationals in light of the population growth and last frontier to get the growth through geographic expansion. Some came there around 30 – 40 years ago, some in the last decade. The biggest challenge of that region is consumer disposable income. Consumers cannot afford to pay premium, so the winner is the player who can provide products in affordable format and price. Local manufacturing is only partially solving the cost element due to relatively high cost of labor and limited availability of locally sourced raw materials.

Russia was booming in growth in the last 15-20 years for various FMCG players and in the last few years this trend is slowing down due to low inflation and low GDP level. Everyone is interested now how to reduce level of consumer promotion and grow at the same time.

JM: You have studied at several leading academic institutions, why did you choose to study the IE Brown Executive MBA, a joint program between IE Business School and Brown University? How did your other training programs complement your EMBA?

SO: My years at Nestlé were characterized by a change in responsibility about every three years, and while I knew I wanted to do an EMBA, it was something I had to wait for until I joined MARS.  The IE Brown EMBA helped me prepare for my next phase of leadership development, and gave me a formal way to think about how to develop my leadership approach, and how to help other women access to leadership positions as well.  I’ve also been quite fortunate to complete other executive development programs over my career, but none has been so transformational as the experience I had during the IE Brown EMBA program.

JM: Your Reflection Project in the IE Brown Executive MBA focused on women in leadership, and you recently attended one of Google Women training programs, with 15 women leaders from MARS.  What are some of the practical solutions you think will help more women reach leadership positions at top organizations? How is MARS diversifying its leadership pipeline and helping more women have equal access to top positions?

SO: One of the reasons I joined MARS was due to their commitment to sustainability and promoting diversity in the organization  At Mars we strive to unlock opportunities for women in our workplaces, marketplaces and supply chains. Our senior leadership is committed to advancing inclusion and diversity across our business, and is focusing first on women’s advancement as part of this journey. In particular, we’re looking at women’s representation in roles where they’ve historically been underrepresented. Leaning into potential barriers, mentoring high-potential women, and ensuring that all interview panels include women are just a few steps we’re taking to advance women in those roles.

Right now, I am using my EMBA experience in mentoring program for high potential women at the company, something that will help get more women into senior decision-making roles.

As part of the process, I have sought out other companies that are doing particularly good work related to supporting women and decided to build our own community of Mars Russia Women to provide a local forum, which encourages professional growth, fosters the advancement of women and develops work life balance solutions.

Recently I took a delegation of 15 MARS women to the Google Women training program called: “I’m remarkable” where we were able to learn about practical strategies for getting women better prepared to take on leading roles. What are some of the most impactful tools that can be used to support women who are committed to attaining leadership roles? My experience was that companies need to give equal opportunities and training to all employees, that’s key of course. Buddy systems and mentoring relationships are helpful tools as well for helping high potential females advance. At MARS one of the things I think is particularly helpful is transparency around career advancement; setting clear paths and then helping high potential leaders – both women and men – reach and even exceed their career goals. So, context and organization culture are key too.

JM: What are some of the other leadership activities you have been involved in, and how have you kept in touch with IE and fellow alumni after graduation from the IE Brown Executive MBA?

SO: Apart from my recent award from EY for Female Leadership in Multicultural Teams, and the various roles I’ve held at both Nestlé and today at MARS, I’ve been actively participating in mentoring program for high potential and general manager pipeline men and women leaders at MARS. Finally, I would also mention that I was recently invited to Madrid for an executive retreat where I had the chance to meet Pilar de Zulueta de Oya – one of Mas Movil’s board members, and we discussed what skills are most important to be able to access to these senior decision making roles. Ah! And I’m also in the process of becoming a member of YPO, and hope to better support the organization as a member in the coming months.

JM: And to close, what in your mind is the big challenge for leadership now?

SO: Understanding, staying on top, and upskilling for technological innovation and transformation.  I recently completed a course at Singularity University in California and it was very inspiring.  It was also a good reminder of how much work leadership has to do to keep up with technological innovations, and how to deploy them at their organization, so as to be able to compete successfully in global markets.