Women in Business with Carol Van Den Hende

August 04, 2023

by Management Dynamics

Discussing the importance of letting your purpose drive your career and why we should strive for a diverse workforce with Mars’ Global VP transformation Carol Van Den Hende.

Carol is an entrepreneurial, inspiring leader who unlocks optimism and opportunity through her creative hats in global business and in the community. She has a mission to deepen audiences’ empathy for people and planet through her writing and speaking and has won over 30 literary awards for her ‘GOODBYE ORCHID’ series.

Emma Lane:

Thank you so much for taking the time to join. Why don’t you give us a short introduction to your role and the career journey that got you there.

Carol Van Den Hende:

Great to see you today, Emma. I am currently governing our digital transformation at Mars Incorporated, and my career journey is varied and interesting. I often say I wear multiple hats in life, as I’m sure you do, and many of our audience members as well. I’ve had multiple careers here at Mars. I started with my engineering undergraduate degree in digital technologies, then was so drawn to consumer and marketing that I got my MBA and moved into marketing. I’ve spent multiple years running amazing brands you may have heard of like M&M’s, Twix, 3 Musketeers, Milky Way, Dove chocolate in the US and in Asia where I was based in China for a few years. Then my 3rd career has been in strategy and insights. So, I really love diving into competitive intelligence, trends, foresight and currently have spent the last 6 plus years in corporate strategy, strategic initiatives, as well as on our digital technologies leadership team really working on digital transformation and the ways that that can really enhance our business, enable aspects of our business, as well as drive culture change. All of it’s been incredibly innovative. I think that’s the thread when I look back through my careers in my life, really the thread has been that I’m very much a purpose driven and entrepreneurial, inspiring, innovative leader. And, outside of work as an author, a speaker, trained as a climate reality leader with a huge passion for sustainability and having served on boards of directors, most recently for a school for kids with special needs. These are areas that are very near and dear to my heart and really, I think make a big impact in the world.


Having done an engineering degree, how do you feel that the opportunities are slightly different for women in STEM versus women in business?


That engineering degree coupled with my MBA, I think those two are a really nice combination for both teaching critical thinking skills and problem-solving skills. I think when it comes to opportunities, there are many opportunities for women in business and engineering, especially at the starting out points. Over time as you move up, that’s probably where it gets a bit tougher, and you can see it in the numbers. There have been studies, MIT has done a study, the Equal Opportunity Commission here in the US has done a study that shows that within STEM it’s probably hovering around 30% of STEM professionals are women1. So, we are not at gender parity, we’re not at gender equity. MBAs are, if you use that as a proxy for business, are starting to close that gender gap. So, it’s a bit higher. I think there was a Fortune article recently that looked at the Top 14 business schools and found that 45% of the MBA candidates are women2, so really starting to research gender parity.

Today what I see is that there are a lot of amazing efforts to create opportunities here. Mars, for instance, we have a group called Women of Digital Mars that is open to women, allies, really open to everyone who wants to build their digital capabilities, build their digital skills, express their interest in that aspect of STEM. And so, I think there are opportunities there. It’s just that the higher up you go, and you can see it in the numbers when you look at percentage of C-Suite spots or percentage of CEOs, that’s where we start to be lacking. Last year I was part of a programme at Yale for Women on boards, at that time, we had Julie Daum from Spencer Stuart join us, she shared with us that companies are actively trying to close that gap at those higher levels. So, when it comes to board positions, when she spoke last year, she said the year before, they had found that 70% of the open positions that were being filled on boards were being filled by women or people of colour. So progress, and she also shared at that time that for the first time ever, every single S&P 500 company had a woman on its board now. On the one hand you could say maybe that was a long time coming, but on the other hand, clearly there’s progress and there’s more work to be done.


I watched an interview the other day where they said that only 1% of venture capital funding is given to women (founders) at the moment3. So, I think it’s great there has been so much progress and it’s lovely to see people actively doing something about it, but I think there’s always more to do and more things to try.


That’s an interesting stat, and it just goes to show that we can’t rest on our laurels even when we see the progress, we need to continue to find ways to open doors, to pay it forward, to help give more people, more people everywhere really, opportunities.


Who’s been your biggest female inspiration?


It’s such a great question and I reflected on this during International Women’s Day a few years ago and I wrote about it on LinkedIn because I was thinking back to very personal stories, to my grandmothers on both sides of my family. I’m very impressed with their strength and resilience when they fled from a lot of turmoil in China to emigrate, from my mother’s side of the family, first to Taiwan and my father’s side of the family to Hong Kong before coming to the US. That in and of itself, the amount of change that they would have had to embrace, new language, new culture, all new people, it is a lot to take in. On top of that, my grandmother on my father’s side was such an accomplished person. She, in fact, was the president of a bank in Shanghai, in China, which was the financial capital of China and of Asia back in the 1940s, so just imagine 60 years ago, you know how different times were then and the opportunities were even more scarce than what we’re discussing. For her to reach that level of leadership is just truly inspiring to me. So, I love to look at my own personal stories for inspiration.


She was paving the way for others, and I think that speaks to how important it is for representation and women holding senior leadership positions. How important do you feel it is for representation in terms of women in high positions of power and other than her, growing up, were you exposed to any other women in positions of power?


You are so right, Emma in terms of representation being really important, not just gender, but all types of diversity. I, myself, am very passionate about disability inclusion and so representation there as well. You know, all types of representation. And I think in general, when I really think about the heart of it and why it matters to me, there are clear studies that show diversity helps us as humanity come up with more creative solutions and to think outside the box. Diversity, not just gender, not just race, but also experience, backgrounds, perspectives and I think that diversity makes us rich as a people. Therefore, we can solve some of the world’s biggest problems and we have a number of them to work on and we need everyone’s creativity and innovation to be applied.

Your second part of the question is who have I seen as role models outside of my grandparents. As I was growing up, I do think that they were perhaps far and few between, but there were some really great role models. And I do think back to, for instance, some of my friends and their parents, the way that one of my best friends, her mother, was the head of strategic planning for an enormous corporation and to see her really thrive in the business world was an important role model for me to be able to aspire towards. I love mentoring people who are coming into the workforce now, women, men, just mentoring young people because when they see that career journeys can be varied and interesting, when they see that career journeys can be purpose driven, those are things that are inspiring and can help plant the seeds that are going to really sprout in beautiful and even unpredictable ways in the future.


What is your favourite thing about being a woman in business?


It’s so interesting that question being a woman in business, first I think what’s my favourite thing about being in business in and of itself putting aside the woman piece for a moment. I think business in terms of how it operates in the world has a role to play, to drive innovation, to solve problems, to meet real human needs and therefore the impact that business can have along with government and with non-governmental bodies, along with lots of other organisations can really drive change. And then women in particular, which is theme of the questions you’re asking I think that not to over generalise, because of course we don’t want to over stereotype, we don’t want to generalise an entire gender, but I do think women can bring a sense of curiosity, a sense of creativity, a sense of innovation, a sense of nuance, perhaps to issues that can be helpful as we work together to solve these big problems.


Which business book had the most impact on you and your career?


There are a lot of great business books out there, including the one that Management Dynamics is putting out this fall, which I’m really proud to be able to share with people I know.

There is one book that I have gone to again and again and I’ve recommended to others, and it’s called The First 90 days. It’s not a new book, but I think it really encapsulates some wisdom. It talks about transition periods, so if you’re heading into a new situation or a new job, what are things to think about? And I think the models of thinking are really helpful and have stood the test of time. For instance, it talks about having a good situation assessment of the role that you’re going into, is the business that you’re going to be managing a start-up? Is it a turn around? Are you trying to continue a trajectory that a business has been on? Also, I think it, just as the book that you and your team are going to be putting out soon, emphasises the prioritisation of people really thinking about teams, the people that are around you, to listen well.  In those opening 90 days it’s a really critical and interesting time. It’s a time in which you can have a very fresh perspective on a role as well as a critical eye on things that aren’t quite right, before you drink the Kool-Aid and can have that fresh perspective.

I often counsel people that I’m mentoring to capture their insights from those first 90 days and to write them down because there is nothing like having that fresh perspective for the first time. I think you’re in your first 90 days of your role. So perhaps that’s something you can think about as well.


I mean, you definitely learn the most, I think in the first 90 days and you see the most from the outside perspective, which can be helpful to the company as well. Looking to the future, what’s in the pipeline, what are you hoping to achieve next, what’s coming up?


I’m very purpose driven and really aiming to make an impact. I have a personal mission statement I’ve created to inspire hope and empathy for people and planet. And so in terms of what’s next, I would love to do that in multiple ways.

One, I am seeking corporate board roles on top of my Mars responsibilities, especially in a purpose driven organisation, one that is scaling and one that can really benefit from my backgrounds in marketing, strategy and digital.

Secondly, I’m actually really proud that I’ve been selected recently to be a Mars ambassador to support the humanitarian work of CARE Ghana. CARE really empowers women and children, and so I’ll be spending a month in Africa. It’ll be my first time to Africa and I’m incredibly excited and passionate about giving back in that way.

And then third, I mentioned my author life outside of Mars and so my third book is coming out in October, tying very closely with the book that you’re launching as well. I’m really proud of that work because it does shine a light on cultural diversity as well as disability awareness. It’s inspired by wounded veterans and has won awards for disability awareness. I’m really proud that Springboard Consulting named me disability hero of the year for my work on the Goodbye Orchid series.


What advice would you give to other women who aspire to become leaders?


I find that clarity of where you’re going and what you’re striving for can be very helpful. So, when I speak on this topic publicly, I often ask people to think about their inspiring purpose question. What’s the reason you do what you do beyond the obvious profit and functional purposes? And the clearer you are about that, about your own answer to that question, the more you can align where you spend your time, where you spend your energy against those things that you really feel are your legacy or your mission in life, and the way that you’re going to make an impact in the world. That clarity for sure has helped me personally and I found because I do speak publicly in different forms that it can be really helpful for others as well.

*Pre-Order our new book ‘Leading Edge’ from amazon here

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