U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Staff


September 28, 2020


As the coronavirus continues to bring a great deal of uncertainty to our world, one thing is clear: the business community is on the frontlines of the fight against the pandemic, demonstrating unparalleled agility and innovation to help our country navigate this health and economic crisis as fast and effectively as possible.

The U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship Center is interviewing business leaders driving the global corporate response to COVID-19 to learn more about their efforts, how they are navigating this uncharted territory, and what advice they have for others.

Read on to hear what Kenny Thompson, Head of External Affairs, North America at PepsiCo, shared with the U.S. Chamber Foundation in July on how PepsiCo leaned on partnerships to support communities in need. What follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: Can you tell us about your efforts at PepsiCo to address the impacts of COVID-19?

We believe the best way we can support communities is by providing support for health care workers, funding testing and screening services, and by bringing food to those in need. We’ve invested more than $60 million globally to help the most affected communities.

We’ve also been leveraging our distribution expertise, investing heavily in partnerships, and using our local businesses and nonprofit partners to help address hyperlocal issues. We don't like the top-down approach, we like to connect with partners and communities directly because it’s more effective. For instance, in Detroit, they needed laptops for students. In New Orleans, it was testing. How can we make sure that we're giving communities what they need, when they need it? This is where we’ve leveraged our local relationships and partners to make sure we're providing the right resources. In North Carolina there was a shortage of face shields so one of our bottlers donated face shields for frontline medical workers made from our 2-liter bottles.

We’re a food and beverage company, so we’re able to get food and products to places in need. When we started seeing people losing their jobs, folks who had a steady income suddenly unemployed, we knew we could step in and help provide healthy meals. About 22 million kids get free or reduced-price lunch during the school years so, when schools shut down, and that source disappeared, we joined the USDA to help fill that gap.

One of the first moves we made, though, was closer to home. We needed to make sure that our frontline workers were getting supplies to do their jobs safely. Some of our PepsiCo employees are essential workers – they’re in grocery stores stocking shelves and in manufacturing plants – so we needed to make sure they had the necessary supplies and protection to work safely, effectively, and not worry about their health.

Q: PepsiCo and The PepsiCo Foundation launched an initiative to provide more aid to communities of color across the country. What are the some of the unique challenges communities of color are facing as a result of COVID-19 and how can the private sector help?

As soon as we started to recognize there was a clear disparity in rates of infection and deaths from COVID-19 among African American and Latino populations across the country, we decided to focus on what we could do to provide immediate relief. We focused on providing support for testing and screening, providing PPE, supporting front line workers and things of that nature. There’s a range of challenges facing communities of color. It's access to opportunity, access to health care, access to food, and access to information. We wanted to make sure that we were working to address the longer-term economic impact of the pandemic on these communities, too.

We've had a lot of great, long standing partners at PepsiCo, including the National Urban League and UnidosUS — which are not only well-known organizations that do great work, but they also have affiliate organizations across the country that we can tap into and leverage locally. In May, we announced a $7 million investment with these organizations that would support COVID-19 relief and programming for longer-term economic growth at both the national and local levels.

We’ve worked with these partners to provide near term relief and will continue to support them as these communities move towards recovery through job training and other programming.

Q: PepsiCo is working with a wide range of partners to deliver relief and solutions in different parts of the world. What is the value of cross-sector partnerships particularly in emergencies like this?

We’re a large company, so we’re able to use our expertise and infrastructure, and reach to help communities in need. We've worked hard to build and maintain partnerships with communities and organizations for decades, so we’re able to learn what needs exist and provide resources that are meaningful to each community. Every day we work to be a part of the community because we have employees that live and work in your town, and who have kids that go to your neighborhood school.

The value for us is simply being able to help. We want people to see how ingrained in community we are, and to realize that it is who we are as a company. It's not just when there's a disaster. PepsiCo will always be there — living, working and looking for ways to help.

We’re trying to make sure that we are delivering the resources that communities need so that they make a difference. PepsiCo strongly believes that the private sector has a role to play in serving the communities where we live and work. We’ve been working to elevate what so many great organizations are doing locally, and to support programs that the government is working on day and night.

Q: Over the course of this crisis, we’ve seen unprecedented agility and ingenuity from the business community, as they’ve rearranged operations or shifted production overnight to lead the fight against this pandemic. What do you think this crisis has shown about the role of business in society?

This crisis has really been a call to action, and we all have a role to play. A lot of companies are doing a lot of great work and have stepped up in a major way. For PepsiCo, I've seen the ability to grow and expand our capabilities. What PepsiCo has accomplished over the past few months shows how we've learned to be flexible and how we’ve stretched our boundaries and pushed our limits to think, operate, and work differently. We've done things we've never done before — and that's where our growth and impact is coming from.

I'm not talking about revenue, but our ability to positively impact communities and how effective we can be at the local level. I’ve seen cross-functional collaboration — between different departments, the PepsiCo Foundation, and our different business units (like Quaker and Gatorade) — to deliver aid to communities in need. We’ve really expanded our ability to do things, and we’ve been responsive in a way that we've never been before. We’ve also been working closely with our peers, suppliers, customers and other leading foundations to jointly identify programs that can expand and sustain the circle of support for communities in need.

Q: How is the coronavirus pandemic different than other disasters or crises you’ve responded to? Do you have any lessons learned or best practices you’d like to share with the larger business community as they navigate their response?

Hurricanes or earthquakes usually affect only one specific region of the country. But this pandemic has impacted everyone and is somewhat unprecedented. This is new territory for so many businesses and so many people.

PepsiCo has always been focused on supporting communities around the country. So, we haven’t shifted our thought process, but we have narrowed our focus to see what needs exist and what we can accomplish locally. The relationships we’ve effectively leveraged during this pandemic are relationships that we established years, and in some cases, decades ago. The organizations we have consistently worked with are the same ones guiding our relief efforts today.

The one lesson I would say to other companies as they’re evaluating their next steps is to lean into what you're currently doing because that's where your strength is. For PepsiCo, it wasn't about changing our ethos or changing our approach. It was really leaning into what our goals already were: working closely with community leaders and partnering at the local level. For PepsiCo, our response is just doubling down on the work that we were doing with our existing partners.

For more interviews with business leaders visit the U.S. Chamber Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center’s Business in Action Series.

About the authors

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Staff