Helen Andrade: An Inspiring, Organized & Disciplined DE&I Leader Building a Diverse & Plural Company

The 10 Most Influential People in Diversity and Inclusion 2023

As the Brazil Head of Diversity and Inclusion & Director of the Nestlé Foundation, Helen Andrade’s definition of success is being at peace with her personal and professional choices and being able to have a dignified life with her family and friends.

“Success is relative, but, in my opinion, it is definitely not linked to positions, money, having or not having children, getting married or not, and other conditions linked to the social standards of success. Success depends on being happy and at peace with your choices, whatever they may be,” she maintains.

The Journey to DE&I Work

Helen has a long work history, having worked since the age of 17. “I needed to work to pay for my studies, and sometimes I reconciled it with volunteer work. In the corporate world, I didn’t skip hierarchical levels, I advanced step by step,” she observes.

Helen started her career in a position hierarchically below junior analyst, that was named training instructor. Then she worked as a junior analyst, full, senior, specialist, coordinator, manager, and senior manager, right up to the position she presently occupies. In her 28 years of corporate experience, she has worked in recruitment and selection, training and development, communication, and compensation in large national and multinational companies.

As a black woman in a family of six women in an absolutely diverse country like Brazil, with enormous social and racial inequality, DE&I has been part of Helen’s life since she was born. “I learned from an early age, that education (knowledge) is the basis to achieve what we want, and the courage to move forward, despite obstacles, is a decisive factor. My inspiration comes from home, from my family, from my grandmother, who is the most inspiring and strong woman I have ever known,” she declares.

Helen didn’t decide to work with diversity and inclusion, but, in hindsight, had already built a path and results related to this subject. So instead of deciding, she understood that it was a purpose and it happened naturally. “Natural does not mean easy, but it’s part of the way I live my life and carry out my work. When we genuinely believe in what we do, we influence other people to do the same, we connect with people with similar purposes and attitudes, and we create a chain,” she observes.

For Helen, her first serendipitous connection in the corporate world took place right after graduating from university when she participated in a selection process, and, by chance, the owner of the company (pharmaceutical segment) was in the office and came upon her. He then asked to talk to her and, at the end of the conversation, mentioned that he had two starting positions at the company – one in procurement and one in human resources – and that he believed she could work in either one, so she chose the latter.

“He explained to me the vacant positions and asked me to choose, and I chose human resources. After a few years, I began to respond directly to him, and he was an extremely strict and demanding professional. I learned how to take care of the whole without losing focus on the details. In addition to that, I learned how to deal with people in the corporate environment by observing the admirable work of his husband, who was at the company quite often,” Helen recalls.

This was the first step of many that led to her finally joining Nestlé.

Transformation Only Comes Through Action

Nestlé is one of the largest beverage and food companies in the world and a very innovative company in the food and beverage industry that thinks about innovation and ESG across the business. It celebrated 100 years in Brazil in 2021, and Helen feels proud to be working at Nestlé at present, doing the work they need to do with the support of a great team.

She notes that there’s strategic work at Nestlé to show the power of food to improve the quality of life for everyone, today and in future generations. Within its business strategy, it is committed to contributing to a healthier future for people and the planet, reducing the environmental impact of its operations, and driving innovation.

The company analyzes changes in consumption habits and product innovation with a focus on healthiness and the entire production cycle, in addition to solving operational challenges, optimizing costs, generating growth and efficiency, and creating solutions and products made possible by new technologies.

Helen points out that Nestlé’s Diversity and Inclusion area aims to contemplate all communities, cultures, and ages in the work environment. Some fronts are fundamental in Nestlé, to which it already dedicates programs and projects, such as racial, generational, and gender equality, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA+. “We know the importance of the work on raising awareness, and transformation only comes through actions,” she insists.

Nestlé is always attentive to changes in the world, aiming to offer a diverse and inclusive environment for all people. Therefore, it invests in initiatives that cover new forms of hiring and development, contemplating awareness and action. The organization understands that this is the only way it can transform the scenario in a reliable and lasting way, which means guaranteeing that all people have equal rights and opportunities.

Becoming The Mirror of Brazil, a Diverse and Plural Company

As the Brazil Head of Diversity and Inclusion & Director of the Nestlé Foundation, Helen’s days are hectic as she has the pleasure and responsibility of leading a center of expertise dedicated to fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in a continental country (the 5th largest country in the world), at the world’s largest beverage and food company.

“We are working to become the mirror of Brazil: a diverse and plural company. Therefore, we have several ongoing initiatives to promote a work environment where all people feel respected, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, generation, people with disabilities, social origin, or other personal conditions. We also advocate for identifying and recruiting diverse people and reducing unconscious bias in the selection process. We believe that leadership plays a key role in accelerating this transformation, and that’s why its senior leadership actively works on the diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda,” she maintains.

Nestlé’s future is to advance on its diversity and inclusion journey consistently, engaging leaders and every person at Nestlé to understand their responsibility and monitor the results of all initiatives. “There’s no innovation without diversity because it is quite difficult to think of different solutions with people with the same profiles. Diversity, equality, and inclusion have become a reality. In other words, a company may have been born without some perspectives, but it will not survive without keeping in step with the global transformations,” Helen explains.

Nestlé also has an initiative for young people, which is a global action, and in Brazil, in 2022, impacted more than 145 thousand young people with its actions. It currently leads a group of 90 large companies in the country that work collaboratively for a positive impact on development, training, entrepreneurship, and youth employment.

Launching Initiatives That Minimize DE&I Challenges

Advancing inclusion and equity is challenged for many reasons. For example, people’s lack of awareness, structural racism, and the lack of equal opportunities for all people. However, Nestlé has advanced in initiatives that try to minimize these challenges.

These include mentoring programs for black people implemented in 2020; career acceleration programs for black women; ERG (Employee Resource Group) — also known as affinity groups; continuous mapping of opportunities for improvement in infrastructure; work tools and practical actions for the inclusion of people with disabilities; affirmative actions for hiring transgender people; in addition to several other initiatives.

She believes that the DE&I impact must go beyond the corporate walls and influence society though brands that reach people’s homes and may promote important conversations within the families. “Family and school are fundamental for the transformation,” Helen observes.

“I have a connection to the real world that I value very much. I learn from non-governmental organizations, institutions that support minority communities, institutions specializing in certain topics, for example, people with disabilities, supportive care homes, and others. This external connection enables me to learn more every day and carry out actions that actually make sense to people.”

Helen insists that, as a leader, the best recognition is seeing someone whose potential she believed in, stand out. Working with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has allowed her to be recognized by different people that have been in her life at different times and for different reasons.

“When I receive an email or message on my cell phone or social media from someone who has worked with me for years telling me about their career, saying that they’ve just taken a new position and would like to talk, or that they’ve returned to Brazil, or that they’re going to leave the country for other opportunities and want to have a coffee, these are very gratifying situations. Recently, a person who worked with me called me on LinkedIn and asked if he could refer me to his manager’s position, which was vacant in his current company. This one I really found to be an unusual and amusing situation,” she observes.

Know Yourself & Focus on The Lessons

As a very organized and disciplined person, Helen believes that her 10 years of classical ballet classes during childhood and adolescence have helped her to this day. She tries to have a balanced workday and doesn’t schedule meetings with her team and others after 5:30 p.m. On weekends, she makes time for her son and her family, and they try to spend time with people close to them.

 “There were times in my life when I had exhausting, endless working hours, and I’ve learned that that’s not healthy for anyone nor the company. Therefore, I get organized to be productive within a balanced workload,” she remarks. “I also don’t put too much weight on situations. If at some point I have to work late or take a long trip, I don’t complain or suffer, and I’m aware that these are moments, not routine.”

Helen’s advice when considering life’s small obstacles, such as, for example, not getting something when you planned or wanted it, is to focus on the lesson, which is learning to deal with frustrations, not letting yourself be paralyzed, preparing better and understanding that different paths can lead to the same destination.

“The important thing is to not stop moving forward. Overcoming obstacles quickly always feels good but understanding that failure is not defeat can help you learn and do better next time, and that depends on your attitude when you’re experiencing the situation. Now, considering big obstacles in life, when you’re unable to solve them alone, like some serious health problem, such as cancer or something like that, what has worked for me was having people around who fully supported me (my family, my friends, including my doctor as a friend), discipline and faith,” she reveals.

In her parting words of wisdom, Helen advises everyone to seek self-knowledge, because knowing yourself is the first step to conquering what is really valuable to you.

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