Onyemelukwe is the Director, Public Affairs, Communications & Sustainability for Coca-Cola Nigeria Limited. Prior to joining Coca-Cola Nigeria Limited, Onyemelukwe worked at Philip Morris International, where she served as Manager, Corporate Affairs. She started her professional career with Novartis Pharmaceuticals where she championed key projects delivering over 50 new lifesaving medicines under different disease areas like (Malaria, Oncology, Hypertension and Diabetes) to patients at competitive prices and served in various capacities before leaving the company to pursue other diverse experience. In this interview, she shares with us her exciting career journey and how she is leading campaigns to improve the lives of women.
From Pharmaceuticals to FMCG
If someone had told me I would be working for a brand like Coca Cola, I would have argued that. I started out my career at Novartis Pharma Services, a Swiss pharmaceutical company, that deals in a wide range of products ranging from antimalarial drugs to antihypertensive products. I then transitioned from pharmaceuticals into the FMCG space. The switch was born out of a desire to take on new challenges. In my days in pharmaceuticals, communication was becoming a very fast evolving space, and was taking new dimensions in the space. So, I decided to take it up as an added responsibility; and that actually led to a discovery of my passion. I didn’t actually realize that it was going to lead me to an entirely new career.
My Growth Journey
I always knew I wanted to do big things. I had big dreams and I wanted to achieve them. I was passionate about people and loved to connect with them. But, in terms of really having a full time career in Communications, I must say that is something I never really planned. When I started out, I ensured I put in my best. I was very deliberate about my growth and tried to build my capacity as best as possible. I took short courses and went on short assignments that I knew would help me get better. It was extra work for me, but I did it with all my heart, and overtime, I was able to excel at it. So, as I tell young people today, whatever capacity you are called in to serve, go in and ensure you deliver excellence. This is because you can never know what would propel your success in life.
My Driving Force
I am driven by how we can create a fair and equitable world. I believe that Sustainable Development is a very critical concept to consider if we are interested in human empowerment. Hence, knowing that what I do everyday impacts lives is a major motivation for me. Throughout my career, I had always gravitated towards issues that created large-scale impact. I love making a difference, so I go out of my way on a daily basis to strive for excellence, looking for opportunities to create a difference in the lives of others.
One memorable milestone that stands out for me is the economic empowerment of over 450,000 women across various programs under our 5 by 20 Project. There is no better fulfilment to see that the work you do is creating smiles and making a difference in peoples’ lives everyday. Also, moving into the FMCG space was another critical milestone for me. Having read Pharmacy and worked in the pharmaceuticals space for about ten years, I started really looking forward to doing new things.
When I arrived at Coca-Cola, my first major milestone was executing a Mother and Child program. This programme opened my eyes to the deplorable state of things in our teaching hospitals. I was shocked at what I saw. But, seeing the changes made after a period of a year was a happy moment for me. Today, we are able to touch more than ten teaching hospitals in the country, providing life saving equipment, ultrasound machines, incubators and upscaling their capacity to save more life.
The first is to always be a hundred percent ready. It is important that you are ready to pounce on opportunities as they come in. During my career switch, I sat down, created a strategic plan, and charted my way. Hence, when opportunities for taking on new assignments showed up, I was always ready. Not only did I take them on, I always went the extra mile to ensure that I grew capacity to enable me excel and deliver at top level.
That’s why I tell everyone who cares to listen, please take every opportunity that presents itself with both hands. Beyond that, work hard to make most out of it, you never can tell where it’s going to lead you.
Another lesson is to be prepared for challenges. There would always be challenges, but if you are prepared for it, you won’t be caught off guard. When challenges arise, your reaction matters. So, make sure you are never shy or hesitant to ask the right questions or call for help. This would help you handle issues as they arise.
The third lesson for me is to be mentally tough. Make sure that fear does not get you down. You must learn how to bounce back from failures and keep pushing.
On Women Empowerment
I was very fortunate to start my career in a multinational company, and one of the first lessons I learned was that competence is a much bigger factor in comparison to gender. It is not just about being a woman or a man, you must be able to deliver on your assigned tasks. That was a very important lesson I learned very early in my career. So, as much as I am passionate about creating a level playing ground, competence cannot be overlooked.
For instance, I have been on a panel where we employed a pregnant woman. It wasn’t an issue because she was completely competent for the job. This is something we actually advocate for a lot. Whether she’s pregnant or not, this is not supposed to be a deterrent, or a barrier to her getting a job.
We have had a lot of young women differentiate themselves in various fields and this number keeps growing. This is a great motivation for younger professionals, because they have people they can look up to.
At Coca-Cola, we have been able to empower so many women in a very short time. We have learned that if they have access to the right support they can be extraordinary economic multipliers – both at the community level as an essential part of building thriving communities – and collectively as a significant economic global force.
To create equal opportunities, we seek to further empower women in the workplace and beyond. This is because women are not only essential in building thriving communities, they represent one of the biggest economic accelerators globally. So we are deliberately investing in initiatives that can further this goal. We have a popular project called 5by20, which was a ten-year commitment we embarked on from 2010 and ended in 2020. We took a decision to economically empower five million women over that ten-year period.
In Nigeria, a total of 450,000 women benefited from these initiatives. We realized that this brought about tremendous improvements in our business as well and it made us understand how powerful women can be. Women represent two-third of the world spending power, which represents an economic impact much larger than that of economies of the US, China and India combined. Most of the buying decisions in the homefront are made by women, so empowering women will go a long way in helping make more buying decisions.
Also, if I had the power to close the gender gap, I will educate every girl child and encourage them to dream big and be who they want to become. There’s no limit to what a person can actually achieve once the mind is set on it.
My spark is about my dedication, resilience and hard work. We need to have the resilience to show up every day. These are the qualities that differentiate me and help me stay motivated everyday to ensure that we have a better society.
I would advise young women out there to find and understand their passion. You need to realize that everybody is different. You are different from the next woman. When you stop comparing yourself with others, you become open to opportunities. Never forget that life is a marathon and not a sprint. So remain resilient and confident and don’t forget that you can actually do phenomenal things.
Nwamaka Onyemelukwe is the Director of Public Affairs, Communications & Sustainability at The Coca-Cola Company. She is a proven Public Policy expert with expertise in gaining efficiencies, growing company profitability and mitigating against extreme operating environments.