Finding strength and success after trauma

Finding strength and success after trauma

This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It personal with successful CEOs discovering everything from how they got to where they are to what gets them out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

Anne Mukherjee thinks of a simple question every day: If you had a chance to change the world, what would you do?

Mukherjee, 56, is the CEO of North America and chairman of Pernod Ricard, the world’s second-largest seller of wine and spirits — which means she’s responsible for popular liquor brands like Absolut, Jameson and Malibu. And she herself understands how alcohol can change a person’s life, because it almost ruined her life – twice.

She says her first memory as a child was of an assault she suffered at the hands of drunken teenagers. And when she was 14, her mother was killed by a drunk driver. Her job today, she says, is to help turn her pain into “positive, purposeful change.”

“We shouldn’t just accept that bad things happen,” Mukherjee tells CNBC Make It. “As a leader, I feel a strong sense of standing up for those who have gone through similar experiences as I have, and I do everything in my power to make sure others never go through them.”

Mukherjee’s first act as CEO in 2019, eg: launching the Absolut Vodka ad campaign on sexual consent. Under the slogan “Drink responsibly,” the ads promoted a new hashtag: “#SexResponsible.”

“Our products are meant to unleash magic, not use it for harm,” says Mukherjee, a member of the National Rape, Abuse and Incest Network (RAINN) National Council. “If you’re going to use these products as a weapon, don’t buy them.”

Here, Mukherjee talks about how trauma affected her ability to lead, the person who permanently changed her career path, and the lesson she learned as a CEO in a male-dominated industry:

The moment she made Mukherjee a leader: ‘I couldn’t handle her death being meaningless’

I was five years old when my parents immigrated from Kolkata, India, to Chicago. I was an only child, and my mother was my best friend. My father was always away, so I instilled in me the importance of independence and how to deal with difficulties in life.

When she died, I went from being a smart child to a capable adult in a matter of minutes. After the doctor pronounced her dead, I saw her body. I hugged her. Then I sat still in the hall of the hospital and immediately began to think about how to organize the funeral and prepare her body for burial.

I couldn’t handle her death being meaningless. I had to give it meaning, and keep moving. My life has always been like this: When a tragedy or challenge strikes me, I immediately think, “What am I going to do about it?”

Life is not about what happens to you. It’s about how you respond when the going gets tough. I learned this lesson very early.

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[My husband] Debo and I met in an online chat room in 1995. Winners of [1994] Miss Universe and Miss World were both announced from India just months ago and were like, “Shouldn’t we be proud?”

Calling him a moron. I said, “We’re supposed to be proud that there are two beautiful women recognized? Did they find a cure for cancer?” He asked me on a date.

He is a mixed expert. When we moved in together, bar tool boxes took up half of the house. He’s the one who reintroduced alcohol to me, and showed me that if done right, it can be fun. When I was asked to give an interview at Pernod Ricard, it was Dipu who said, “Don’t screw this up!”

I wasn’t sure if I could work for a wine and spirits brand, after all I’ve been through. He said, “Didn’t you understand? The universe is talking to you, telling you this is your chance to right mistakes. So how can you refuse?”

Part of being a great leader is having people around you who tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear. Dipu showed me that if you can be a lifelong learner, and are prone to listening, it can lead to really great things.

I realized that you can either walk away from the fire or walk in it. I walked in the fire. If I’ve been in this role for five or seven years, will I solve everything before I leave? no. What I hope to leave is a legacy of people who are inspired and believe they can make a difference.

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