Harvard in Tech
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Harvard in Tech

Harvard in Tech Spotlight: Michal Geller, SVP of Global eCommerce Marketing and Product at PepsiCo

I spoke with Michal Geller, SVP of Global eCommerce Marketing and Product at PepsiCo. After graduating from Harvard, Michal started his career as a founder. He had always been drawn to entrepreneurship and innovation and knew he wanted to work at companies where these attributes were core to the culture. He sold his company to John Sculley, former CEO of Apple and former president of PepsiCo. At the time, he never imagined himself joining a company of the size of Apple or PepsiCo.

He spent several more years working at early stage startups before he joined a mid sized company initially through a consulting role. He soon realized he could continue to be innovative even in the context of a larger company.

After some time there, he received a call from Amazon to join them in Seattle. He spent 4 years at Amazon, which in hindsight, was an incredibly formative experience. He took on many roles directing their gift cards, payments, and coupon groups. At Amazon, he learned about being innovative, scaling, thinking big, challenging himself and his team, achieving excellence, and seeing and working toward incredible success.

Amazon acquired a company in NYC, and an opportunity arose for Michal to be a part of the executive team there. They offered him a marketing role, which became his first formal exposure to marketing (his prior experience had largely been in product management).

After some time there, a Stanford Business School classmate called him about an opportunity at PepsiCo. Michal saw an incredible opportunity to rethink and rebuild eCommerce function with PepsiCo. He took the role and has been with the company since.

Michal shared his advice for driving innovation, effective collaboration, achieving career growth, and exercising empowering leadership.

Make the most of each opportunity. For most of his early professional life, Michal thought he could and would only work at early stage startups or as a founder himself. But when opportunities arose to join established or then growth stage companies like PepsiCo and Amazon, respectively, he took a chance and was able to learn about scale, what makes companies successful, and how to work with big teams. But even in these larger organizations, he was able to find the agency to preserve what he valued most: an entrepreneurial culture through creating new roles and initiatives that drove meaningful impact.

Interestingly, Michal was able to pursue one of his early stage startup ideas when he joined Amazon. He did not found the startup as a standalone company because the business required scale that of course a small organization did not have. However, with the market positioning, backing, and resources of Amazon, Michal was able to make the idea a reality.

Do many small things quickly. While large companies or teams seemingly have a challenge in moving quickly, they need not solely do big things quickly. Rather, they can experiment with many small things and progressively learn and iterate from each experiment. As a result, when they do make large investments and commitments, they are able do so from a place of greater certainty and deeper understanding.

Drive impact and trust. To create meaningful change and to be able to implement your ideas successfully, you need to start by building trust and delivering impact within the company. Through the aforementioned small tests, you achieve small wins in the form of measurable impact that help to establish greater credibility for yourself, your team, and your ideas for future projects and collaborations. Once you have delivered tangible impact, created concrete value, and established trust with others in the company, people will start following your lead, and your ideas will truly gain momentum.

Have a commercial orientation. Michal has spent time in many different roles within many different companies, but he underscores a common thread that drives success in all: a deep commercial understanding. Understand what the company does, what the customers need, what resonates with the prospects, what differentiates the product from its competitors, and where the industry is going. Ultimately, every department, whether it be marketing or product, is incredibly integrated and codependent on each other, and every project is very cross functional.

There is no clear separation between marketing or product or operations or customer success. Rather, each employee is focused on driving success for the company. To this end, having a deep understanding of the overall context in which the company operates is most crucial.

Find strength in your breadth. While some careers require specialist knowledge, most careers, especially in the broader business world, involve and are aligned well with generalists. As a result, it is important to think of yourself and your role more broadly and more fluidly as well. Leverage your generalist experiences to build greater cross functional empathy and understanding. Every project and every person exists in a context and never in isolation. For example, even if a marketer did everything right, their efforts would be of no use if they were selling an out of stock product (which involves coordination with the supply chain, operations, customer success, and product teams). Each team member needs to understand the multifaceted contexts around their work.

Look for dissatisfied people. The best team members are always trying to improve, identifying areas of weakness, and ways to do new things. These people are the ones who raise the bar and set the tone, culture, and aspirations of your team. Once they have figured out what works, they can then build a process around these successes to transform the insights into automated platforms that continuously generate value and stand well on their own.

Write fuzzy job descriptions. An overly prescriptive job description can often stifle the best employees. Instead of writing out instructions or outlining specific tasks, give your team members a sense of the end goal and what they should generally work on and just let them leverage their creativity to achieve.

Focus on the people. Looking back on his time at Harvard, what stood out most to Michal was the diversity of thought and community on campus. He was constantly able to learn about new perspectives from his peers. Throughout his career, Michal has found that truly everything is about people. A company, a family, and even a society are just collections of people. Pay attention to the people you interact with and the people you surround yourself with. Find people who challenge you and make you better.

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