Pushing the Frontiers of Diversity

Steve Bucherati,former chief diversity officer of the Coca-Cola Company, talks global diversity.

Steve Bucherati isn’t fazed that he’s one of the very few heterosexual white men in the diversity and inclusion space. The former chief diversity officer of the Coca-Cola Company readily admits his privilege in the same breath as he gets fired up about gender representation in the workforce.

Bucherati’s résumé is impressive: he successfully launched Coca-Cola’s Global Women’s Initiative in more than 200 countries simultaneously and led the company to make a complete U-turn after a monumental class-action lawsuit. Coca-Cola emerged a world leader in workplace equality, with Bucherati at its diversity helm.

He retired earlier this year from a 24-year stint at the company. But he’s far from done—he now has plans to launch his own consulting firm.

The father of two daughters candidly tells Diversity Woman about his unplanned foray into D&I, the next big trend in the industry, and what it takes to transform big ideas into measurable change.

Diversity Woman: How did you get interested in diversity?
Steve Bucherati: I grew up as a child of two uneducated parents in a lower-middle-class family. But even when you don’t have money, I recognize you have certain privileges as a white male. I grew up in the WASP state of Maine, so I didn’t have much exposure to diversity when I was younger.

One experience that stands out was in 1981, when I was 23. A work assignment took me to Moultrie, Georgia. It was in the Deep South. The African American janitor at the facility asked me if I played basketball, which I did all through high school. He then asked me if I would play in his league on Sundays. Fast-forward to that Sunday: I was the only white person on the basketball court. It took awhile to break the ice, but when I did, I played basketball with them the rest of the day. A few days later, three white colleagues at the company told me I couldn’t play with that league. I was ostracized by a bunch of people for playing with an African American league.

That was when I had my first diversity moment of courage. That’s the first time I came face-to-face with prejudice. But I knew I was right, and I had to stand up for what was right. It was a personal awakening.

DW: Your professional experience in D&I came much later. How did you get into the field?
SB: Kicking and screaming! At the time, I was the director of human resources for global marketing at Coke. In 1999 and 2000, Coke went through the largest class-action lawsuit in history. Shortly after the lawsuit was settled in November 2000, I was approached by our senior leaders, who said, “We want you to fix things.” “Fix things” was the job description. I said no. I even said, “I’m a white guy, I’m not sure how to do this.” I was literally drafted into the role. But it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me in my professional career. D&I found me.

DW: What an undertaking! How did you get up to speed?
SB: We had a court order that listed a thousand things we had to do for the settlement. We also had to work with a court-appointed task force. I knew we had a lot to accomplish very quickly. So I spent the first 60 days talking to everyone I could, to get perspective on what I should focus on. I had been at Coke for 10 years and had good brand equity within the African American community there. I spent a lot of time with people who would tell me the truth about the situation on the ground. It became necessary to get key perspectives, then move forward with what needed to change.

DW: What were some successful initiatives at Coke?
SB: I’m extremely proud of Coke’s Global Women’s Initiative, which we started in 2007. It was fairly kamikaze—we decided we would put forward a global women’s network in all 207 countries we operate in simultaneously. That’s never been done by any company ever.

At the time, the company’s product-purchasing decisions were influenced 70 percent of the time by women. But only 23 percent of our leadership across the globe was female, primarily driven by numbers in the United States. So we didn’t look like the consumers we were serving, at the leadership levels. We knew that had to change.

We had incredibly strong support from our CEO, Muhtar Kent. Now, eight years later, Coke has made incredible strides forward. It was a great achievement to win the Catalyst Award [for empowering women] in 2013.

DW: Can you talk about any of your diversity successes internationally?
SB: The #5by20 program [aiming to enable the economic empowerment of 5 million women entrepreneurs across Coke’s global value chain by 2020] has been incredible. I have talked to women in some of the poorest places in the world, who have been part of the program. When you listen to them tell the story of how successful they are and how we have changed the trajectory of their lives and the lives of everyone in their circle, you cannot help but be overwhelmed. It’s an amazing feeling.

DW: What advice do you have for organizations that want to make D&I part of their agenda?
SB: An organization has to decide why it’s interested in diversity. You have to ask, “What’s the benefit to us?” That’s what helps it go from “fuzzy talk” that’s purely academic. I believe in metrics. There’s no way we could have operationalized equality in the most global company on the planet without measuring where we were and where we were headed.

One of the last things I focused on before I left Coke was an initiative called “diversity drives innovation.” That’s the next strategic horizon. If we are able to leverage all of everybody’s background, we would be much better at problem-solving. With diversity driving innovation, we could all be so much more innovative, and quicker, and think of solutions we would never have thought of before.

DW: What are some big trends you see in D&I going forward?
SB: Work around generations is going to be even more critical moving forward. Gen Y thinks very differently from Gen X and baby boomers. Companies will have to look at how to attract, recruit, develop, and retain a workforce that thinks very differently and has different desires than what’s been the norm.

I also think the LGBT space will continue to explode. Our country and many others are moving in the right direction. I believe we can never go back to where we were—love is love, period. End of statement. We have to continue to take a stand, because we still have a lot of work in front of us in this space.

DW: So what’s next for you?
SB: I’m 56, and it’s time for me to move on to the next chapter in my life. I still feel very committed to D&I and fairness. I also believe I have a lot to offer, after being in Corporate America for 34 years. I’m setting up my own diversity consulting practice and working with organizations that are looking to start or accelerate diversity programs. DW

Ruchika Tulshyan is a Seattle-based journalist and content strategist.

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