Success is a Mindset

Women’s Leadership Summit keynote speaker Merary Simeon on gaining confidence and paying it forward

It’s finally here. In just four short days, we’ll be saying, “Welcome to the 2021 Women’s Leadership Summit.” In the weeks leading up, we’ve been sharing the stories of some of the inspiring women (and men!) who will be sharing their wisdom with us on Friday.

You’ve heard from Jesse Lovejoy, Amy Bream, Katie Goyette and Linda Hope. Now it’s time you get to know Merary Simeon, a former Play Like a Girl board member, a human resources executive at PepsiCo and one of the nicest, most encouraging, most courageous women we’ve ever met.

Merary will be delivering the keynote address on Friday, and from what she’s told us, we better have the Rocky theme song queued up. “I want women to recognize that they already have everything they need to succeed,” she says. “I want them to understand that they own their own narrative. I want them to know they were made to change the game!” 

In addition to speaking, she also is lending her time and talents to our Executive Auction, which gives lucky winning bidders one-on-one mentoring sessions with executives, athletes and other leaders.

We caught up with Merary last week to learn more about her professional journey and the central role mentorship has played in her life. Catch the highlights from our conversation below and then get your ticket for the Women’s Leadership Summit.

On working at PepsiCo

While the last year has been a great awakening for many companies that previously placed little value on diversity and inclusion, Merary says PepsiCo has been focused on these issues for a while. In 1947, the company created its first Black sales team. In the 50s PepsiCo named the first woman to its board of directors. In 2006, an Indian-American woman, Indra Nooyi, became only the fifth CEO in the company’s history. Today, women represent just over 40% of the company’s managerial global workforce, and the goal is to hit 50% by 2025.

“We believe that we thrive because of our diversity,” Merary explains. “We still have work to do, but I’m confident in the work this company [PepsiCo] continues to do to empower every woman.”

One of those ways is through a pair of employee resources groups—one for all women and another specifically for women of color. In addition to being a community where women (and allies!) can connect, learn and celebrate together, it’s also a way to influence workplace policies and the company’s impact in the community. In celebration of Women’s History Month, these groups chose to highlight Play Like a Girl, and for every $25 employee donation, the company will match it. (Thanks, ladies!)

If you’re at a company that offers ERGs, Merary encourages you to get involved—even if you don’t identify with that community group. If your company doesn’t offer them (many small- and mid-sized workplaces don’t), she encourages you to seek out this type of community in other ways. “There are many community organizations that have women networking opportunities,” she says. “Play Like a Girl’s Women’s Leadership Summit is a great example.”

On finding her confidence

In addition to being an executive at PepsiCo, Merary is also a sought-after public speaker and leads transformational workshops for women. But she didn’t come by these talents easily. While taking college classes, this Puerto Rican native also was learning English. She spent some of her early career suffering from imposter syndrome—the belief that she lacked what it took to succeed while feeling undeserving of the praises she received.

“It’s not easy to stop listening to the negative voices,” she says. “If I would have believed some of the things people said to me about where I would be today, I would not be here today.”

She credits mentors with helping her beat the feelings of inadequacy. My mentors played a powerful role in helping me see in myself what I couldn’t see by myself. Now I know you can’t wait for permission to invest in yourself. You can’t allow anyone to bully you with their limited imagination.”

On being a mentor

Even early in her career, Merary found ways to pay it forward. She started by meeting with students at her former high school. “English was a second language for them,” she says. “I didn’t know English that well at the time and I was going to college. They saw me trying. We all have the opportunity to empower others, no matter our career level. You do not need a title to inspire.”

Despite taking on more responsibilities at PepsiCo, Merary still teaches a monthly leadership course at a local church to empower undereducated women to become entrepreneurs.

And of course, Merary is looking forward to meeting her mentee from the Executive Auction.

“I’ve never been part of an event like this and I’m really looking forward to it,” she says. “I can’t wait to meet my mentee and help show her how capable she is of realizing her full potential.”

Yes, Sport Is a Pathway to STEM

Meet Jesse Lovejoy, one of the speakers and executive mentors at our Women’s Leadership Summit on March 19.

Welcome to the first installment of our Women’s Leadership Speaker Series, where we’re introducing you to some of the inspiring leaders who will be sharing their passion with us on March 19. First up is Jesse Lovejoy, who is director of 49ers EDU and the 49ers Museum (yes, those San Francisco 49ers). 

We know what you’re thinking, why would we feature a man as the first subject in our speaker series for a women’s summit? We’ll tell you why. Jesse’s work with the 49ers speaks to everything we care about here at Play Like a Girl—and he is our founder and CEO, Dr. Kim’s mentor. Plus, it’s easy to be inspired by the career journey that led Jesse to this important work which has included numerous partnerships with Play Like a Girl in recent years. 

Since 2014, 49ers EDU has leveraged football as a platform for teaching lessons in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) to over 300,000 Bay Area students. The program also encourages physical activity while teaching important skills through the values of teamwork. Kids flex their engineering muscles by designing their own helmets in the state-of-the-art tech wonderland that is the 49ers Education Center. They get schooled in the laws of physics on the field of Levi Stadium, watching what happens when they kick or throw a football at different angles. Oh, and did we mention these programs are completely free of charge for every single student?

Jesse will be a speaker at our Women’s Leadership Summit—and is featured in our Executive Auction. He is one of many executives, investors, elite athletes and entertainers who will be donating their time to mentor summit attendees who bid in the auction. We hope you’ll be just as inspired as we are by his passion for leveraging sports to ignite the spark for STEM and the career journey that brought him to where he is today.

PLAY LIKE A GIRL: Looking back on your career so far, what is one of the biggest challenges you faced, and how did you overcome it? 

JESSE: It was, without a doubt, changing my career trajectory from one without purpose to something that has meaning. I quit a career that I was good at and I left an industry I was succeeding in, and I started over. The risk was huge, but I overcame it by believing in the power of doing something that mattered. I also had the support of my wife and family who encouraged me to believe in myself and what I could do. All of that, plus a lot of hard work and dedication to the people around me, brought me to where I am today.

PLAY LIKE A GIRL: You’ll be speaking at the Women’s Leadership Summit about the important role male allies play. What do you believe is lacking in your industry in terms of opportunities for women? And what do you see as the way forward?

JESSE: Well, if you’re talking about pro sports you can pick a million different verticals in which representation for women is woeful. If you are talking about education or community relations in sports, it’s better but there’s still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to executive leadership positions. Across the board, the sports industry is categorically lacking in virtually every way when it comes to opportunities of merit for women to contribute and succeed.

I guess the place I’d start is to try to reframe the discussion a bit from one that is focused on equity (solely) to one that also articulates the significant business benefit and value that comes with a more balanced organization from a gender standpoint.

Let me be clear: Achieving gender and pay equity in the workplace is MASSIVELY important on its own. That said, there are also scores of studies that speak to how much an industry, business or department stands to gain (financially, operationally, culturally) from having an office that accurately reflects our society and has women in positions of leadership and value within an organization.

If we can diversify the discussion and the way this issue sits in the minds of decisionmakers at companies, we may start to see greater success short- and long-term. 

PLAY LIKE A GIRL: What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

JESSE: Keena Turner, a 4x Super Bowl champ and the man who led the charge in hiring me for my position with the 49ers, told me, “You are going to have a lot of bosses.” That resonated in a very literal sense when I joined the 49ers. But I quickly realized what he was actually trying to tell me: Be of service to everyone—and not yourself—and you will ultimately be successful and build the kind of relationships that you want in your business and personal life.”

PLAY LIKE A GIRL: If you could, what career advice would you give to your younger self?

JESSE: That’s easy: Be kind to everyone. Find purpose in your work. Believe in yourself.

Follow Jesse on Twitter to keep up with the good work he’s doing at 49ers EDU. And don’t forget to secure your spot for the “New Rules for a New World” Women’s Leadership Summit on March 19. Proceeds underwrite program scholarships for girls in need.