Alcohol almost ruined her life.  Now she’s CEO of Absolut, Jameson and Malibu: ‘I walked into the fire’

Alcohol almost ruined her life. Now she’s CEO of Absolut, Jameson and Malibu: ‘I walked into the fire’

This story is part of the “Behind the Desk” series in which CNBC Make It meets successful business people face-to-face to learn everything from how they got there, to what gets them up in the morning, to their daily routine.

Ann Mukherjee ponders one simple question every day: if you had the chance to change the world, what would you do?

Mukherjee, 56, is the North American CEO and chair of Pernod Ricard, the second largest wine and spirits retailer in the world — meaning she’s responsible for famous premium spirits brands like Absolut, Jameson and Malibu. And she understands firsthand how alcohol can change someone’s life because it nearly ruined hers — twice.

She says her earliest memory as a child is of an attack she suffered from two drunk teenagers. And when she was 14, her mother was killed by a drunk driver. Her job today, she says, helps turn her pain into “positive, meaningful change.”

“We should never just accept that bad things happen,” Mukherjee told CNBC Make It. “As a leader, I feel a strong sense of standing up for those who have had experiences similar to mine and doing everything in my power to to make sure others never have to go through this.”

For example, Mukherjee’s first act as CEO in 2019: launching an Absolut Vodka ad campaign about sexual consent. Under the tongue-in-cheek slogan “Drink Responsibly,” the ads promoted a new hashtag: “#SexResponsibly.”

“Our products are meant to release magic, not be used for harm,” says Mukherjee, who sits on the national board of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). “If you’re going to use these products as a weapon, don’t buy them.”

Here Mukherjee talks about how trauma impacted her ability to lead, the person who changed her career forever, and a lesson she learned as a female CEO in a male-dominated industry:

On the moment that made Mukherjee a leader: ‘I couldn’t handle the fact that her death was meaningless’

I was five years old when my parents immigrated to Chicago from Calcutta, India. I was an only child and my mother was my best friend. My father was always more distant, so she taught me the importance of being independent and how to deal with difficulties in life.

When she died, I went from being a smart kid to a capable adult in minutes. After the doctor pronounced her dead, I saw her body. I hugged her. Then I sat very still in the corridor of the hospital and immediately began to think about how I would organize the funeral and prepare her body for the funeral.

I couldn’t handle the fact that her death was meaningless. I had to make sense of it and keep moving. My life has always been like this: when a tragedy or a challenge hits me, I immediately think, “What am I going to do about it?”

Life isn’t about what happens to you. It’s about how you react when things get difficult. I learned this lesson very early.

How Falling in Love Led Her to Take a Leap of Confidence: ‘I Walked Into Fire’

[My husband] Dipu and I met in an online chat room in 1995. The winners for [1994] Miss Universe and Miss World, both from India, were announced just months earlier and he said: “Shouldn’t we be proud?”

I called him an idiot. I said, “We should be proud because two beautiful women have been honored? Have you found the cure for cancer?” and he asked me out.

He is a master mixologist. When we moved in together his boxes of barware took up half the house. He reintroduced me to alcohol and showed me that it can be fun when done right. When I was asked to interview at Pernod Ricard, it was Dipu who said, “Don’t break that!”

I wasn’t sure I could work for a wine and spirits brand after everything I had been through. He said, “Don’t you understand? The Universe is speaking to you and telling you that this is your opportunity to right wrongs. How could you say no?”

Part of being a great leader is having people around you who tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear. Dipu showed me that when you can be a lifelong learner who is vulnerable enough to listen, it can lead to really great things.

I realized that one can either walk away from the fire or go into it. I went into the fire If I’m in this role for five or seven years, will I resolve everything before I leave? no What I hope to leave is a legacy of people who are inspired and believe they can make a difference.

On the importance of adapting in the workplace: “People won’t change who they are to accept you”