Daughter of Cuban immigrants climbs ladder of success

Marie D. Quintero-Johnson, vice president and director of mergers and acquisitions at Coca-Cola Co.
  • Marie D. Quintero-Johnson joined Coca-Cola in 1992.
  • She has worked her way up to vice president and director of mergers and acquisitions.
  • As a female executive%2C she has experienced awkward moments.
  • Marie D. Quintero-Johnson, a daughter of Cuban immigrants, serves as vice president and director of mergers and acquisitions for the Coca-Cola Co. The Miami native and mother of two spoke to USA TODAY Hispanic Living magazine about having mentors, building a career and balancing work and family.

    Who has had the most influence in your life?

    My mom. My parents.

    How did your parents influence you?

    My parents were Cuban immigrants. My mom was 15. My dad was 17. They met in Puerto Rico. They went from Cuba to Puerto Rico, married in Puerto Rico and moved to Miami, where I was born. We went back to Puerto Rico for a few years when I was 6.

    My dad was an independent construction contractor (in Miami). My mom was a stay-at-home-mom until my youngest brother went to high school. She then went back to school and got her master’s in political science. I can remember her studying a lot at the time.

    I got from her the love of studying. I never wanted to leave college. My senior year, I had a job lined up very early. But, I spent lots of time trying to figure out ways to stay in college indefinitely. That quickly ended when by dad mentioned I would have to fund my own ongoing college aspirations beyond graduation.

    My dad taught me many lessons. One of the earliest pieces of career advice he gave was that I could not change the world in a day. He told me to keep doing my job in a professional manner and you’ll get accepted for your intelligence and not for the fact that you are wearing a skirt.

    I had to chuckle at an article that I saw about women in the workforce recently because the very situation described happened to me when I was 25 working in Latin America. I was waiting for all of the attendees of the meeting to arrive, and I was the only female among very experienced, genteel, older Latin men. They were very polite. While we waited, they asked if I could get them coffee, so I did. They then asked, “When is the person from Coke going to get here?” It was kind of an awkward moment when they realized that I was the person from Coke; it seems they were expecting a man, as was the custom. The meeting certainly went smoothly. At 25, you are too young to know that you are getting what you want.

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    How did you get to your current position?

    After I finished my MBA, I spent two years as an audit associate for Coopers & Lybrand.

    In July of 1992, I joined The Coca-Cola Company as a principal financial analyst focused on Latin America. I took my current position in March 2002 after I spent three years as the executive assistant to the chief financial officer. Here, I helped implement Coca-Cola’s strategic opportunities. At Coke, I’ve also been a part of the controllers’ group, treasury, and business development for Latin America.

    Why have you stayed with Coca-Cola so long?

    Coca-Cola pulls you in. It embraces you, gives you something to believe in as a company and presents a world of opportunities. Coca-Cola is not just about the products we sell, but about what the company represents and contributes in all of the communities where we do business. I have never wanted to work anywhere else. I love what I do.

    Did Mentors help you along the way?

    I don’t necessarily have a formal mentor. I’ve had some great sponsors. At Coke, it’s useful to have sponsors who help steward your career and represent you when the opportunity arises. They help guide you to ensure you have the right skills to get your next job.

    A mentor, in my mind, is almost a one-on-one support system to help give discreet advice on how to think about life choices but not influence the long-term career path.

    A good manager should, in fact, be your sponsor for your career. I’d rather be a great manager than a great executor. Normally, you’d come across a sponsor when you are exposed to them. That more easily happens when they are your manager. You then retain that relationship.

    I’ve had the benefit of having great sponsors. Both of them were my managers; one was for five years and the other for the balance of my career. I’ve been here for 21 years.

    Do you mentor other women?

    I mentor a few people, mostly women. I mostly get questions around, “How do I handle this situation? How do I find the right sponsor for my career?” I personally feel responsible for the people I have taken under my wing, overtly or by happenstance. I remain interested in how they are doing in their career.

    One woman is in Latin America, and she is very interested in being a career person. In some places, there is societal or family pressure to have children (and) pressure to take the “mommy track.” I underestimated the societal pressures in other countries of doing the right thing by your family, however that may be defined.

    A lot of mentoring is making sure she knows she has a support system to navigate that situation.

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    There’s another woman in Japan. She’s also a mother with kids the same age as mine. For her, it’s about work-life balance. She gets up at 4 in the morning to get ready and take care of her childrens’ needs.

    Another woman is in Europe. She is smart, outgoing and outspoken and has questions about “How do I handle this situation?” She has questions such as, “How do I stay true to myself?” In a predominantly conservative arena.

    Is Coca-Cola a good employer for minorities, like women and Hispanics?

    Coke is very deliberate about diversity as it should be defined across every geography. The definition of diversity differs in each one of those 207 countries that Coca-Cola operates in. Most meetings at Coke, you’ll see five nationalities at one table. The diversity of thought is manifested by diversity of nationality.

    Coke is very focused on ensuring females are represented at high levels. It’s very diverse, all the way down to what makes the most relevant sense in the community. Coke is very vocal and very procedural in ensuring we have diverse candidate pools.

    I hope in my career life we don’t need to have these discussions anymore. By the nature of the pool of candidates, I hope it will no longer be a point of discussion. Regarding women, I don’t think we will have to talk about whether they will be hired, simply based on the sheer numbers of them coming out of college.

    What are your career hopes/dreams for your daughters?

    I want my daughters to find something they love to do and then have every opportunity to do it for as long as they want. I want them to understand that they will be enriched not just by education, which is an essential foundation, but by friendships, experiences and success in what they want to achieve.

    What did you aspire to be as a child?

    I aspired to work for the United Nations. It was so global, with seemingly endless reach.

    How do you view work-life balance?

    I have to say that I was guilty of not having work-life balance until I had children. While I could, I was willing to be the person who took on the extra work during a holiday or busy time so people could be with their children. I was the last one here a lot of the time.

    Then I had children. In fact, I had twins. Now, I go home and relieve the nanny and put my kids to bed at 8:30. I may work more after they have gone to sleep.

    On weekends, I try to avoid the work side of the (smart) phone. Then on Sunday, I plug back in to prepare for the week ahead. They know if they need me, they can call.

    I can’t say that I have great work-life balance. I’m very disciplined to give my family 100 percent when I am with them, which is very hard when you own an iPhone. It’s never quite balanced. It’s managed.

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    What’s your next career move?

    I have had the privilege of meeting young people who are part of a group called Global Shapers, with whom Coke has a partnership. Global Shapers was organized by the World Economic Forum and includes truly incredible young people who have achieved amazing successes in their fields of interest. You talk with many of them, and they have planned their lives. They have a picture of their lives, and they want to find a career that fits the optimal vision for their lives.

    I’m 1,000 percent in the other direction. I’ve never planned anything to that degree. I have always focused on what is in front of me and what is needed to succeed at that. I’m not thinking of my next five steps or five years. I’m happy doing what I’m doing.

    Marie D. Quintero-Johnson.

    Title: Vice President and Director, Mergers & Acquisitions, Insights & Corporate Real Estate for the Coca-Cola Co.

    Age: 46.

    Background: Native of Miami; daughter of Cuban immigrants.

    Education: Bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University in accounting; master’s degree from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

    Career highlights: In 21 years with Coke, she has been involved in numerous acquisitions including Honest Tea (for an undisclosed amount) and Glaceau’s vitaminwater for $4.1 billion.

    Favorite inspirational quote:.

    “In the end, only three things matter: How much you loved, how gently you lived and how gracefully you let go of the things not meant for you.” — Buddha.

    Wanted: A few good mentors.

    Finding good mentors is more important than ever as more Latinas enter the corporate world and navigate new challenges there.

    As of July 2013, more than 9.9 million Latinas were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of 2011, the most recent BLS statistics available, 8.9 percent of them held management positions and another 16.3 percent had professional jobs.

    By 2020, there will be an anticipated 12.6 million Latinas working, the BLS estimates.

    As more Latinas dream of reaching high corporate ranks like 46-year-old Marie D. Quintero-Johnson has, career sponsorship and mentorship will be in greater demand. Mentors and career sponsors can help young people learn hard lessons more gently, Quintero-Johnson says.

    “I think it’s helpful. I wish people had told me what I know today the day that I started. I was so idealistic. I may not have listened to all if it, but I would have listened to some of it,” she says.

    This article is excerpted from USA TODAY Hispanic Living. This special edition magazine contains articles on lifestyle, family, politics and other matters important to U.S. Latinos. Buy it wherever magazines are sold or athispanicliving.Usatoday.Com.

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