March 12, 2021  

Creating a culture where women in STEM can win

When PepsiCo HR Director Avantika Nigam helped open a new office in Hyderabad, she made it her mission to hire and support women at all levels.

Avantika Nigam wants to pay it forward. As a woman whose career ambitions were encouraged from a young age, she says, “I feel fortunate that I’ve never felt some of the traditional biases most women in India face. My mother was a working woman, and so were both my grandmothers. My father always pushed me to be independent. There was no concept of women having lesser opportunities.”

So when PepsiCo was opening a new office in Hyderabad, India in 2019, Avantika leaped at the opportunity to step into a different role — one that would allow her to champion the advancement of women.

As the head of HR for PepsiCo’s Global Business Services India Hub, she was tasked with building a rapidly growing workforce from the ground up, with men and women evenly represented. “Usually, you inherit an existing workforce and that makes it difficult to change the numbers really fast,” she says, “but we got to start this from scratch.”

Avantika with some of her favorite PepsiCo snacks.

That doesn’t mean it was easy. Many of the roles in the Hyderabad office are in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), which at HBS translates to positions across finance, analytics, HR reporting, insights and IT. But fewer women are available to apply for these positions — an issue that starts in school, where women represent just 35% of STEM college students globally.

This divide can lead to women who are in STEM careers feeling alienated once they’re in the workplace. “Bringing in one or two women at a time is never going to help,” she explains. “You need to have the volume to really create a culture change on the team.”

In just 18 months, Avantika and her team have done exactly that: The HBS team is currently 40% women. What’s more, 30% of HBS managers are women, compared to the industry average of 11%. “It’s very gratifying to see,” she says.

Avantika’s strategy included a mix of thoughtful outreach, intentional hiring, internal community-building and other measures to raise the bar on talent and diversity. To encourage more young women to enter STEM fields, she launched an apprenticeship program for female students from underserved communities. She also drove her team toward more intentional hiring practices by setting clear goals and emphasizing the importance of gender parity in the office’s top roles. PepsiCo’s goal is to have women in 50% of managerial roles by 2025: “It’s not enough to just hire women,” she says. “You need to have them in leadership positions."

It’s not enough to just hire women. You need to have them in leadership positions.

Inclusion efforts came next. Avantika brought in an outside counselor for a training on gender bias, a program she plans to expand to other topics. Her PepsiCo HR colleagues around the world offered advice on building strong support systems for women, which led to HBS participation in the Women’s Inclusion Network (WIN) employee resource group and Million Women Mentors (MWM). “I wanted every woman to have someone she could talk to,” Avantika says. “It’s important for women in STEM, particularly, to see that others have taken the same journey successfully.”

Avantika has experienced the benefits of mentorship firsthand during her seven years as a PepsiCo employee. As a new mom to twin daughters several years back, she found herself on the brink of burnout. Conversations with a mentor helped her prioritize work/life balance — and also gave her crucial insight into creating environments where women are set up to win. “That’s when I started thinking about what D&I initiatives can really do for women, and how they can enable women to take that leap from struggling to becoming successful,” she says.

Avantika with her daughters at the HBS office.

Avantika with her daughters at the HBS office.

Her team’s ultimate goal is to up the number of women at HBS to 50%, but Avantika says she can already feel the impact of what they’ve achieved in the strong sense of community that exists among the women at HBS, despite the fact that many of them joined remotely during the pandemic. She points to the growing WIN numbers as one sign of success: “Each new member brings in their own ideas, their own thoughts. And that’s how we evolve our agenda.”

Knowing women feel valued and heard, Avantika says, is one of the most meaningful benefits of her work. "We all need to feel like we can contribute and have a larger impact,” she says. “And when you’re able to drive an agenda like this one, it can also have a big impact on society.”