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Can a PepsiCo exec start a national conversation about women’s health?

Dondeena Bradley

Bradley speaking at a TedX conference.

 

Lately, Dondeena Bradley, an Upper East Side mother of two, has been having a lot of conversations with women about their health and wellness. She chatted with them at round-table event in Philadelphia, listened to their concerns at a Story event, and she’ll be doing it again at the upcoming SHE Summit this weekend.

Bradley is not a health or life coach. She’s a VP at PepsiCo.

And she’s working on a new protein drink called Wello, which, she says, will fill a nutritional gap but also act as a platform for a larger conversation—online and at global events—about the health and wellness issues that affect women.

“I think of the beverage just as an invitation for women to come into a conversation about unleashing their well-being, and then connect to each other,” she says.

To listen to her speak is to believe in her personal commitment. But what does it mean to build a wellness initiative from inside the belly of the same beast that feeds the nation’s obesity epidemic with Mountain Dew and Cheetos?

HER VISION

Bradley has a PhD in Foods and Nutrition, and her interest in health started at an early age, after her grandmother had a diabetes-related amputation. She worked in medical food development for several companies, and then started at PepsiCo in 2007.

After working on other nutrition ventures, the idea for Wello came to her. Protein, she noticed, was often framed in masculine terms, and women (especially in rural, less affluent communities) were often missing out on the energy and vitality it provided.

It served as the perfect metaphor for a larger framework that would support women’s wellness and empowerment. If protein provides physical power, bringing women together to talk about unleashing their potential provides empowerment. Both of which, Bradley says, are essential to well-being. “From my perspective, it’s emotional, physical, and spiritual,” she says.

BOTTLING WELLNESS

Bradley would not be the first to use the language of wellness to woo customers. And she knows this well. “This is not a marketing scheme,” Bradley says at one point, in a way that sounds like a true statement and not a press release. Even if Wello certainly provides excellent marketing material, allowing the parent company to emphasize its focus on “nutrition ventures.” A marketing video on the company’s website, for example, features Bradley exploring the company’s organic garden (really) before reaching for a bottle of its signature sugary beverage with care.

When I ask her about accusations of hypocrisy and whether or not working on nutrition in a less-than-nutritious place keeps her up at night, I expect a knee-jerk, packaged speech.

Instead, she pauses, looks up reflectively, and I can feel her searching for the right words that will somehow defend without being defensive and justify without justifying. She seems to be honestly contemplating what it all means, as if answering this question never gets easier.

Finally, she says, “ How I respond to that is: My reach and learning how a true system like this works is going to make this even more impactful.”

CHANGE FROM WITHIN

It’s true, of course. The resources that a multi-billion-dollar company comes with aren’t bad, and the impact Bradley can have with those resources is the sword she wields against accusations of hypocrisy.

Could she build a billion-dollar wellness brand and get the healthy product into millions of hands the day it launched if she quit and created a protein smoothie start-up? Of course not.

Yet that’s the path most wellness entrepreneurs take: Ditch the corporate job, create a healthy product, try to make it successful. Bradley says that path isn’t the wrong one, but that it’s not always right, either.

“How do I learn from this world but really stay true to this vision? Can I stay in the system that I’m in and really disrupt it in a way that’s effective, that doesn’t make me sacrifice my values?” she asks. “If you can do that, I say, stay.” If she can, many women will surely benefit. —Lisa Elaine Held