In 2017, Sodexo—provider of quality-of-life services to more than 75 million customers in 80 countries—set the ambitious goal of having 40% women at its senior leadership level by 2025. Choosing that particular target was no accident. It was influenced by a gender-balance study Sodexo conducted in 2014 among 50,000 managers across 100 entities. The most important finding: teams with a male-to-female ratio between 40% and 60% consistently delivered the best results, from financial performance (23% more gross profit) to employee engagement and client retention. For some companies, this would have been a revelation. But for Sodexo, an organization long recognized as a champion of gender diversity, the study is simply another proof point of what it already knows: investing in and accelerating talented, diverse women has a clear business advantage. 

As Lorna Donatone, CEO of Geographic Regions and Region Chair for Sodexo North America, recently told DiversityInc:

From new hires to seasoned managers at Sodexo, it is a point of pride throughout our organization that we are recognized for our diversity and inclusion efforts and our work to achieve gender balance. We believe that it is not only the right thing to do—it also creates a huge competitive advantage and is a driver of business success. All companies should seek to measure their commitment to gender balance, as they do for any other business driver.

The story and incredible career of Azita Shariati, Region Chair, Nordics and Country President, Sweden, is a notable example of the company’s gender commitment coming to life. Now one of Sodexo’s most senior leaders, Shariati’s career began humbly. She moved to Sweden as a young immigrant from Iran in 1988. Unable to speak Swedish, but determined to learn, she soon enrolled in a local university to study Nutrition Sciences. Her first role with Sodexo was as an ambulatory restaurant manager in 1998, where she replaced absentee managers at client sites. A hard worker and eager learner, Shariati advanced quickly, becoming a district manager, then regional manager, and by 2006, a sales director, a position she held until 2009, when she was offered a life-changing opportunity through Sodexo’s Women’s Leadership Forum for Talent (SWIFt). 

Chartered by CEO Michel Landel in 2009, SWIFt aims to develop Sodexo’s women’s leadership pipeline through mentoring, sponsorship, active promotion, and advocacy. The end goal is to help high-potential women advance into senior positions with profit-and -loss (P&L) responsibilities, as well as operational and facilities roles. 

SWIFt is led from the organization’s highest levels, with Dr. Rohini Anand, SVP Global Chief Diversity Officer, and Sophie Bellon, Chairwoman of the Board, as its co-chairs, and representation from 35 senior leaders spanning 17 nationalities. SWIFt has guided the implementation of various programs in more than 46 countries, worked to ensure that at least 50% of mentees participating in Sodexo’s mentoring programs are women, and in 2014, established a comprehensive, year-long course to help high-potential women prepare for leadership roles. 

It was her participation in SWIFt’s European Reciprocal Cross-Country Mentoring Program that would help shape Shariati’s career. Through it, she was mentored by a CEO from the Netherlands who exposed her to his vast European network, shared his business acumen, and allowed her to job-shadow him, providing her the critical business insights and the visibility within the organization she needed to advance. Shariati was appointed as an Operational Director for Sweden shortly thereafter, and Sodexo’s CEO in Sweden in 2013. 

By 2015, she was named the “most powerful woman in Sweden” by Swedish magazine Veckans Affärer. And in 2017, she was appointed as Chair of the Nordics Region, which includes Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark.

As a leader, Shariati has become a champion of gender diversity in her own right, exceeding the target she set of 50% women on the Swedish leadership team. When asked why gender balance is a key objective for her, she is unequivocal: 

I prioritize gender balance to increase profitability. It is a strategic issue and therefore important that management takes ownership and drives the issue forward just like other business issues. I know that Sodexo shares that view. Feeling that you have the highest levels of management behind you is always valuable.

Shariati also went on to become one of SWIFt’s six Steering Committee members, now helping guide the program that gave her invaluable opportunities for growth, both as a mid-level employee seeking to advance, and as a leader looking to expand her global network. 

While she attributes much of her success to leaders who recognized her potential and helped her grow, as well as Sodexo’s inclusive culture and commitment to advancing women, Shariati also acknowledges the importance of her own contributions: 

There are always people who work hard, but that's not enough. Only when your personal drive and goal-consciousness is combined with someone giving you a place to fail, does that combination create enormous strength.

As she advises women making their way in the corporate world:

Find what makes you passionate, set goals, and tell others. It is about building your personal brand. Think about what you want others to associate you with. Find and use sponsors in your network. Remember to have fun, and live in the moment.

Sodexo has made considerable strides when it comes gender diversity. Globally, the company has a woman Board Chair, 50% representation of women on its board, 38% women on its executive team, and women in 30% of its senior leadership roles. In North America, Sodexo boasts a woman CEO, 40% women, and 20% women of color on its executive team. The company is continually recognized for these efforts; for example, Sodexo has ranked in the top 10 on DiversityInc’s “Top 50 Companies for Diversity” for nine consecutive years. 

With this continued commitment to advancing women, Sodexo has made it clear that it will only increase its investment in future women leaders because, put simply, it’s good for business and it’s the right thing to do. With leaders like Shariati on board, there is little doubt Sodexo will meet and beat its 40% goal, and in so doing, will continue to show the corporate world that “when women do better, we all do better.”