As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Gina Dhanani.
Gina Dhanani serves as the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Marketing Officer at The Double Cola Company, a 99-year-old family-owned beverage business with a distribution reach across much of the United States and 17 countries worldwide.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Historically, my passion was in the marketing field. I love the challenge of creating a product, developing its story, and watching it grow. I first began working at Double Cola, a 99-year-old family-owned business, as a Marketing Manager and eventually worked my way to the Marketing Director position. At that point, I became involved in the sales side of the operation. The more I learned about the company, the more I wanted to help grow it. I love a challenge, so as challenges arose, I found myself wanting to find solutions. Over the years, I began taking on more responsibilities and eventually moved to Vice President of the company. After a few more years — and assuming more responsibilities — I became Chief Operating Officer. Considering my love of marketing, I chose to also remain Chief Marketing Officer. Much of the business now falls under my purview while my husband, Alnoor, serves as President of The Double Cola Company. Though he’s semi-retired, he still manages our international business interests.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I first became COO several years ago, my husband and I visited with a customer for some negotiations. I was very involved in the conversation since I stay up-to-date on trends and developments in the beverage industry. We wrapped up the negotiations, and as we were leaving, one of the men we were meeting with turned to me and said, “I didn’t realize you were so smart.” It was an eye-opener for me. I kindly told him that I was the “brains” behind the operation, and my husband was the beauty.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This isn’t “funny” necessarily — or from the early days of my career. But it’s a good story that I learned a lot from and that others can, too. When we launched our first alcoholic beverage, BREWSKI, it didn’t receive the response we were expecting. It was very well-received in some markets, but our diehard Ski Citrus Soda fans were essentially expecting an alcoholic Ski. Instead of saying, “You are wrong, this is a great product,” or disregarding our fans, we said, “We’re listening to you. Let’s see what we can do to make the product you’re looking for.” So we totally scrapped our original pilsners and developed an entirely new product. It’s a kolsch beer blended with our Ski soda, and it tastes delicious. Our Ski drinkers were thrilled, and we’re so glad we were able to take their feedback and turn it into a product that works for all of us.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My husband has always been my mentor and my biggest cheerleader. Anytime I have doubts about my abilities, he’s there to encourage me and remind me of how well I’ve done.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I would like to think I’m strategic about these things. Preparing in advance lessens the stress for tough situations. For difficult conversations, I like to mentally think about my desired outcome, as well as the other person’s desired outcome, and write it down on paper. I think through what the other person’s potential pain points might be and how to consciously address those. I also think about points I’m willing to compromise on. Last, just before I go into a meeting or hop on a call, I spend a few minutes to take deep breaths, meditate, and clear my head of distractions.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Having a diverse team helps to avoid tunnel vision. It brings different trains of thought, perspectives, and experiences to the organization. You want your team to have different points of view so that you’re able to think outside of the box to find solutions.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
A truly thriving society has to have inclusivity and equity as key pillars. And given our long history of underperforming in those regards, we simply have to be conscious and intentional about our decisions. Most of our blind spots exist because of subconscious biases that are inherent in our world-views. As a leader, it is imperative that I continuously challenge myself to intentionally seek a broader perspective. It takes a proactive approach to achieve this, but progress has never been gained without a proactive spirit.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
My days are spent primarily in top-level strategic thinking and planning efforts. As COO and CMO, I am charged with setting the vision, mission, and culture for Double Cola and making sure that we’re reaching our goals. For us to grow as a company, each member of our team has to deliver on their own responsibilities, and I manage those individual team members to help them perform their best while also making sure they’re feeling fulfilled and elevating their own careers. That’s the biggest difference for executives. Our eyes are trained on the macro view of the business, but we’re also involved in the micro deliverables and efforts. We have to consistently be analyzing the performance of our employees and making appropriate tweaks when needed so the entire business can succeed.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Many people, when they’re mapping out their careers, tend to think of a C-level position as a professional destination of sorts. But it’s really just the beginning of a new phase of an executive’s career. I’m glad I had the chance to learn so much about The Double Cola Company by working my way up to my current positions. I needed all those experiences, and I draw from them every day as I lead the business. But, being named COO/CMO didn’t serve as the capstone for my career. It’s a new chapter in the journey.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women have to work harder and perform better to be considered equally competent. Often, being assertive equals being “bitchy” or “pushy” for women; whereas, with men, being assertive means being in charge.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
First of all, I never thought I would be running the company when I started at Double Cola 17 years ago. I think that if you told me nearly two decades ago that I’d be where I am now, I would have been shocked. So, I never really spent much time thinking about what it would be like when I’d be in charge. Rather than jockeying for advancement, I committed myself to learning my roles along the way and being as proficient as I could be at them. I’m glad that was my approach because now that I’m running much of the business, my knowledge of the inner workings of the company proves valuable on a daily basis.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Confidence is an absolute “must” for an executive. You also have to be willing to listen to other people’s ideas and accept that theirs might be better than your original thoughts. The best executives are also great motivators since their vision is achieved by the efforts of their team. And, of course, perseverance. Leading a business isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. It’s a tough gig, and though there are plenty of great moments, there are also roadblocks galore out there that have to be navigated. An optimistic spirit of perseverance is imperative.
People who aren’t cut out to be executives tend to be afraid to take calculated risks, are people who don’t learn from past mistakes, and think they always have the answer.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Set a culture that excites you and your team to show up. Celebrate wins as a team, and learn from past mistakes. Also, don’t be scared to seek out a mentor or two. Learning from people — especially fellow women — who’ve fought similar battles is priceless.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Part of being a leader is being involved in and taking an interest in your community. I serve on several boards and committees, and as a company, we encourage our team to do the same. We have a quarterly volunteer day where, as a team, we volunteer at a local non-profit. We’ve helped build houses, pulled weeds in a bio-retention water basin, cleaned classrooms, as well as many other things.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Work smarter, not harder: We live in a “hustle culture” that tends to put a precedent on being busy. As I’ve advanced in my career, I’ve learned that proficiency is way more important than looking busy. It also gives you more time in your day to invest in other fulfilling things.
- A bad decision isn’t the end of the world: Immature professionals are terrified to make a mistake. Conversely, successful professionals own their mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Once you realize that every single person in the world has slipped up before, it makes it easier to admit a mistake and make the most of it.
- It’s ok to ask for help: Less-seasoned workers often feel like they have to have all the answers. The further I’ve gone in my career, the more I realize that there is so much out there that I don’t know. I aim to learn as much as possible, and I believe that a teachable spirit is infinitely more valuable than trying to put on airs that I know everything.
- Figure out what motivates people and act on it: A big part of being a leader is identifying the most effective ways to have your teams working at their highest potential. You’ve got to know your people and you’ve got to invest in them. As I mentioned earlier, I set the vision and mission of Double Cola, but we can’t reach our goals without a fully bought-in team that is motivated to win.
- Don’t be scared to go back to the drawing board: No person in the history of business has had all the right ideas and answers. Some people, though, have a hard time admitting that a particular decision wasn’t the best. But it’s better to drop a bad idea fast than let it drag down an entire organization.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Equity for women in the workplace. We, as a society, are leaving so much on the table by failing to address gender inequities. It’s up to us to do what we can in the spaces we have influence to right these wrongs. Though our individual efforts may not seem like much, if we add them all up, we can collectively push big changes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
An African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I have this quote in our office to remind myself and our staff that we are one team and working together we’ll achieve more.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Jamie Kern Lima, the founder of IT Cosmetics. I love the story of how she conceptualized her business idea to solve a problem.