Ann Mukherjee Proves You Can Change Liquor Industry From Within

Liquor industry leader Ann Mukherjee makes bold moves to fulfill her passionate belief in return on responsibility. “It’s not enough to be responsible. You have to get a return on it,” says Mukherjee, the 57-year-old chairwoman and CEO of Pernod Ricard North America, the largest operation at the world’s second biggest producer of wine and spirits. It makes Absolut vodka, Malibu rum, Jameson Irish whiskey, and Beefeater gin, among others. “I experienced personal traumas caused by others’ irresponsible drinking. That’s why my responsibility is to lend my voice and humanize issues,” she says.

Mukherjee was born in India, and raised in the U.S. An intoxicated adolescent boy sexually assaulted her at age four. A drunk driver killed her mother when she was a teenager. She held marketing management roles at several consumer product makers before surprising friends and family by joining the booze business.

Now she’s the first woman, person of color, and industry outsider to lead Pernod Ricard’s North American unit, which excludes Mexico. Shortly after her December 2019 arrival at the company, Mukherjee launched an Absolut Vodka campaign targeting sexual consent, and painted “sex responsibly” on her fingernails.

Next up, she will expand a Dallas pilot project that combats binge drinking and impaired driving. The “Safe Night” program, which Pernod cosponsors, hopes to soon add another major U.S. city. “We want to take this nationwide,” she says. A self-proclaimed “acceleration queen,” Mukherjee says she also aims to speed Pernod Ricard’s U.S. growth “to try to make us number one in the world.”

TIME recently spoke with Mukherjee about her employer’s other efforts to prevent drunk driving, the appetizing outlook for ready-to-drink cocktails, “war gaming” product launches, and why she yearns to own a restaurant.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How does return on responsibility improve returns for your investors? Do you avoid taking a public stance on certain controversial issues because your position might hurt Pernod Ricard?

Consumers have a higher standard around brands they trust. They expect those brands to be walking the talk. Return on responsibility is what consumers expect of us. It actually drives return on investment. Making it part of your DNA not only future-proofs your business, it also creates the loyalty you need.

We only go after those issues that drive value, our company values, and our purpose of conviviality. Conviviality is about unlocking this magic of human connections. When somebody gets promoted, you’re celebrating over two flutes of champagne. We stay away if [an issue] isn’t about unlocking that magic.

Employees have asked me to speak against gun violence, a very important issue, but not our mission. So I am not going to [do so].

Why should executives speak out about issues related to their business? After all, most Americans want companies to stay out of social and political issues, some surveys find.

Every company needs to define their value creation model. You’re giving people something to buy into [because] you are a brand standing for timeless values. If sustainability issues are not about how you create value, don’t talk about them. Taking on topics du jour is another form of greenwashing. [Saying] you care about sustainability “because we’re supposed to’’ is not good enough. At Pernod Ricard, we talk about sustainability because nothing we make happens without agriculture. We won’t have a business if we don’t care about our farmers [or] don’t understand water conservation.

The Dallas pilot project epitomizes your return on responsibility commitment by training restaurants and bars to assist customers who drink too much. Given your horrific experiences involving alcohol abusers, why didn’t you initially launch a nationwide campaign against drunk driving?

The project’s approach had never been done before so we wanted to pilot it to make sure we got the right model [before] we start rounding it out to every city. Nationally, we do other things around responsible drinking. You attack it through helping the hospitality industry, education, and legislation. We worked very hard with on a [relevant] piece of legislation in President Biden’s infrastructure package.

The package the president signed into law contains a provision that any car manufactured in the United States must soon be capable of preventing a drunk driver from operating the vehicle. I got pretty emotional the day that law got signed. I posted a picture of my mom to my family and told them how the provision will reduce drunk driving. It was a way to give her death some meaning.

The ready-to-drink cocktail market is flourishing. How much U.S. revenue might Pernod Ricard get from such cocktails five years from now?

I can’t give any forward-looking numbers, but it is a part of our growth equation. The U.S. market for ready-to-drink cocktails is expected to grow at a rapid pace. People looking for convenience [also] want brands and cocktails they know and trust. So Malibu making a ready-to-drink piña colada makes sense. Absolut making an espresso martini ready to drink makes sense.

It’s important enough for us that we are now investing capital behind it. We’ve installed [our first] ready-to-drink canning line in our Fort Smith, Ark., facility. That $22 million investment is expandable so as that business gets bigger, we have the ability to grow with it.

While chief marketing officer of Frito-Lay North America, you helped introduce biodegradable bags for its Sun Chips. But due to their loud crackling sounds, the bags got withdrawn. What key leadership lesson did that noisy flop teach you?

At that time, the company wanted to make bold statements. While [the bag] did not work, employees said, “Wow, we were willing to take a risk for what we believed in.” But [being] enamored by the technology clouded our better business judgment. Passion, if not done objectively, sometimes is not the smartest thing to do. I learned to have a war game plan ready to go if something goes wrong.

How do you use war gaming to lead Pernod Ricard North America effectively?

We war game to be ready. There could be possible problems involving innovation launches, new marketing campaigns or new technology. And even if it’s a success, what were the lessons learned?

A great example is Jameson Orange, the first real flavored whiskey launched under the Jameson franchise. It was probably the biggest [U.S.] innovation launch the industry saw last year. We war gamed everything. What did this teach us? You got to make sure your innovation is on the shelf before you do all that [promotional] display stuff. It was 100% against industry norms. We’re very excited about the results. We now launch innovation based on learnings around how consumers shop.

You often use nail polish to broadcast your views about hot topics. You painted Black Lives Matter or BLM on your fingernails after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. And you put a Ukrainian flag on your nails following Russia’s invasion last year. What message are you sending to your coworkers?

That it’s OK to be vulnerable. And it’s a way for me to use something illustratively to say, “I care. You matter.’’

You try to unleash gifts that colleagues don’t know they have, so they feel they can do the impossible. What impossible goal have you achieved?

Sitting in the chair I’m in today. I’ve been told, “You should be a homeless drug addict,’’ [because of] my story. I feel very privileged that people believe I can create positive change. Most people can achieve anything they want if they can get out of their own way. I try to get people out of their own way and give them inspiration and hope.

Not long ago, you said you were still trying to decide what you want to be when you grow up. Are you interested in becoming CEO of a publicly held company someday?

Why wouldn’t I be? That’s absolutely in the mix. I get [recruiter] calls. And what a training ground I’m in now! But I’m very happy where I am. I came [to Pernod Ricard] because I wanted to accomplish something from a business and responsibility perspective. Working for a company you believe in doesn’t come around every day.

I would [also] love to open my own restaurant and be the Stanley Tucci of India. Cooking is how I get rid of stress. I read cookbooks like novels. I love fusion cooking, bringing different cuisines together, and understanding culture through food. We [recently took] a three-week food extravaganza tour in Vietnam. I’ve got lots of dreams. Who knows what I’ll end up doing? (TIME.COM)

CEO Rohan Pavuluri Is Fighting For His Nonprofit’s Mission in New York Federal Court

Millions of Americans face consumer debt lawsuits every year and for many low-income families, getting legal advice is limited. A quick Google search can give some generalized information on legal systems, but perusing the internet won’t provide any specific next steps for an individual’s case. Without the cost of a lawyer, the defendant will oftentimes lose their case by default. But giving free legal advice without a law degree in most states, including New York, is considered illegal.

Now Rohan Pavuluri, CEO and co-founder of Upsolve, a tech nonprofit that helps low-income families file for bankruptcy for free, is taking legal action on behalf of his business. Pavuluri, alongside Rev. John Udo-Okon, a minister in the Bronx, filed a lawsuit in federal court in January against the New York state Attorney General Letitia James’ office, arguing that the state’s law prohibiting people who are not lawyers from providing legal advice is unconstitutional and goes against First Amendment rights.

Upsolve, Pavuluri argues, should be able to make legal advice more accessible with a program that vets and trains local volunteers to give users assistance on what to do when sued by a debt collector.

“The way that our system is designed today is a civil rights injustice,” says Pavuluri. “There are so many areas within our civil legal system, including this, where we have modern day literacy tests and poll taxes in the form of complicated legal forms and legal fees that stop people from accessing their rights.”

The suit highlights the cases of Liz Jurado, Christopher Lepre and Tyler Evertsen, who were sued for an epidural medical bill, a loan for an already-returned broken car and for a debt that was never theirs, respectively. All three individuals couldn’t afford the legal fees to challenge it and lost their case, leading to bankruptcy and major financial setbacks.

Pavuluri spoke with TIME about the lawsuit his business is counting on winning.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why did you start Upsolve, and why did you file this lawsuit?

In so many ways, the legal fees that we make poor people pay are like poll taxes. If you can’t afford to pay the fee, you can’t access your rights. The mission of Upsolve has always been to fight for this new civil rights in America, which is the right to access your rights, regardless of how much money is in your bank account, including those navigating debt collection lawsuits. You need to do that with both simplifying the legal system and empowering people to use technology tools, but also empowering people to access individuals who are in their community and are trained to provide free, safe, accountable, legal advice. Unless you expand the supply of legal helpers (we call them justice advocates) available in America, there’s no way we can have equal rights under the law.

Why would someone want legal advice from a person trained but without a law degree?

The bar to get a legal license is quite expensive. It’s over $100,000 and oftentimes takes three years. You don’t need that legal license to provide the most basic routine legal advice that millions of Americans do need. What our program intends to do is train justice advocates who are not lawyers to provide safe, free, accountable legal advice and that is illegal today. You can go to jail, it’s at least a criminal offense in New York and in other states as well. It’s also illegal to receive free legal advice.

What type of people volunteer?

There are millions of frontline nonprofit staff in America, who are already embedded in communities of need, who better reflect the diversity of the communities in need, who are oftentimes better trusted by the community in need. Clergy members, patient advocates who deal with folks navigating a very complex healthcare system, including medical debt. There are librarians, social workers. They should be empowered to provide free, safe, accountable legal advice, in routine areas of law like debt collection lawsuits.

What problems arise when someone faced with a debt lawsuit can’t afford a lawyer?

Over 90% of people who are sued for their debt whether it’s a hospital, subprime auto lender or a third party debt buyer, don’t get any kind of legal advice and over 70% of the people who are sued, lose automatically without the court considering any of the underlying circumstances. The downstream consequences of losing a debt collection lawsuit unfairly are tragic. They include homelessness, hunger, poverty, wage garnishment and even in some cases, the downstream consequences include jail time because somebody doesn’t show up to a post judgment hearing and then they get an arrest warrant against them. It’s really one of the fundamental civil rights and justices that people lose these lawsuits and then face the financial consequences.

What are some examples of these types of cases you’ve come across?

There are three stories at the center of our case: Liz Jurado, Chris Lepre and Tyler Evertsen. As an example of what happened to them, Liz Jurado received a $12,000 surprise medical bill from her anesthesiologist for a routine epidural, which millions of women received during childbirth every year. And that medical bill drove her into bankruptcy and she was sued for that, she couldn’t defend herself, she lost without the court considering any of the facts from her side. A surprise medical bill should not drive people into bankruptcy. They each shared their stories of not being able to afford a lawyer and not being able to get free legal advice from a professional who is not a lawyer but who is trained to provide their assistance for free. Two of them used Upsolve when they needed to file for bankruptcy. Their stories are really powerful and they illustrate the tragedy of the American legal system which is when you can’t afford a lawyer, you can’t access your rights, and you can’t advance yourself financially.

Are all of these debt collection suits legitimate?

No. That is the problem. A lot of research indicates that Americans are being sued for debts that either they don’t owe or wrong amounts. In the case of Liz, Chris and Tyler, if they had the chance to be heard in court, there is a very good chance that their outcomes would have been different. We have two systems of justice: one for people who can afford it, and one for people who can’t.

Do other states have laws like this?

Every single state has anti-civil rights policies that stop low-income individuals who can’t afford lawyers from getting free, routine, accountable legal advice from trained professionals who aren’t lawyers.

What would a ruling in your favor mean moving forward?

I draw an immense amount of inspiration from folks like Clarence Gideon, who, from a prison in Florida, wrote to the Supreme Court and said, “I believe that each era finds an improvement in law. Each year brings something new for the benefit of mankind. Maybe this will be one of those small steps forward.” What we’re doing here is similar to the challengers in Miranda v. Arizona, where they establish Miranda rights and in Gideon v. Wainwright, which established a right to counsel in criminal cases. Those are two examples of court cases that vindicated constitutional rights and dramatically expanded access to the legal system and civil rights in the United States.

This is an economic, social and racial justice issue when you think about which group of people disproportionately cannot afford legal fees. It’s important to empower professionals who better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve to help those communities access the legal and financial system. This is at its core the American project. This lawsuit is about a very specific issue here, but embedded is a central question about the future of the United States. Do we want to live in a country where low income working class families can access the legal rights they’re supposed to be entitled to and can access equal rights under the law? Or don’t we?