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Brenda Barnes dies; Pepsi executive famously left the corporate world for her family

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 01/22/17


Brenda Barnes, a two-time corporate chief executive whose decision to leave her top job at Pepsi-Cola sparked a national debate about women juggling career and family, died on Tuesday in Naperville, Ill. She was 63.

Her daughter, Erin Barnes, said the cause was complications of a stroke. The elder Ms. Barnes had had a stroke in 2010, after which she gave up her corporate career entirely.

Ms. Barnes had been chief executive of Pepsi-Cola North America for a year and a half when she decided in 1997 to step down, saying that after two decades of grueling hours away from home she wanted to spend time with her three children, ages 10, 8 and 7.

She was 43 at the time and overseeing PepsiCo’s chief profit engine, based in Somers, N.Y., making her one of the most recognized women in corporate America. She resisted the entreaties of her peers to remain at the company, explaining that she had had her fill of days and nights away from her children.

“I hope people can look at my decision not as ‘women can’t do it’ but ‘for 22 years Brenda gave her all and did a lot of great things,’” Ms. Barnes told The Wall Street Journal at the time. “I don’t think there’s any man who doesn’t have the same struggle. Hopefully, one day corporate America can battle this.”

Her choice and the blunt language she used to describe the many burdens executive women had to shoulder elicited sharp reactions. Supporters hailed her decision to put family first. Detractors argued that her retreat from such a lofty post was a defeat for women fighting to be considered men’s equals in the boardroom.

The debate raged on television talk shows in the United States and in tabloid newspapers in London — much to the surprise of Ms. Barnes, who had never seen herself as a public figure pushing a cause.

She was also—not insignificantly—Catholic: 

One of seven children, Barnes grew up in the Chicago area. Her father was a factory worker; her mother stayed at home. “My parents gave me a strong work ethic,” the self-described workaholic told the Christian Science Monitor in 1997. Barnes, who has a reputation for marketing, believes that communication is key to success in business. “I really believe that clarity of direction is critical,” said Barnes. “I believe in treating people with respect, and giving them freedom to do their job is essential.” It’s a foundation strengthened by her Roman Catholic faith and her education at Augustana College, a liberal arts and science school in Rock Island, Ill., connected with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She graduated in 1975 with a degree in business and economics. Barnes helped hire Augustana’s president, Steve Bahls, two years ago and heads its board of trustees. “During board meetings, we have invocations, and she has been very supportive of starting board meetings with remembering why we are here: to help students grow in body, mind and spirit,” said Bahls.

Augustana noted last week she was listed at one time as one of Forbes’ most powerful women when she suffered the debilitating stroke that ended her corporate career.

Read more and watch a video of her here.

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her…

Photo: Augustana College

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