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Corporate Leader Brenda Barnes Dies At 63


Brenda Barnes died on Tuesday at the age of 63. She was one of the highest-ranking women in corporate America when she chose to step down as president of PepsiCo North America in 1997 to be with her three children. She told NPR...


BRENDA BARNES: The whole issue boils down to time. You know, I was faced with many times when I might not be at a school event or I wouldn't be there at a special moment, you know, for one of my children to tell me about or, you know, when you have very limited time windows, you are trying to force an interaction. That child might not be ready to talk about it. So just having that casual time to interact with your family is what I was finding that I was missing too much.

SIMON: Brenda Barnes would spend seven years with her children, and served on a few corporate boards, before she returned to full-time work as the CEO of Sara Lee. Erin Barnes is the daughter of Brenda Barnes. She is now 28 and joins us from Chicago. Thanks very much for being with us.

ERIN BARNES: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Your mother always said she didn't make the decision she did for you, her children, so much as herself. Help us understand that.

E. BARNES: Yeah, she - we were very fortunate growing up to have a wonderful nanny who lived with us for about 11 years and really became part of our family. She moved with us eight or nine times. And my mom, you know, told us after the fact, when she made the decision to stay home, that she said, I knew my children were loved. They were fed. They were educated. They had happy lives. So it wasn't that we weren't being well taken care of, she just didn't want to miss another birthday. And her job had her travel so frequently that it did pull her away from home more than she wanted to be.

SIMON: Yeah, what difference do you think it made in your lives?

E. BARNES: Oh, it changed our lives entirely. It's hard to even quantify, you know, what that would be like. But if I look back on those years, both of my parents who left Pepsi around the same time were the parents who drove every kid to the mall, to the movies, to soccer games and practices. And they were just - they were there at our disposal 100 percent of the time, and we have such a strong family unit.

And I think my mom particularly stepping down when she was at such a pinnacle in her career really showed us what value we were to her and how important her family was. And she really - you know, her actions very much matched what she always preaches, which is that family is the most important thing to her.

SIMON: There was some criticism at the time, I gather.

E. BARNES: Yeah, yeah. She laughed. I mean, I - she really is blown away. And I think it was maybe in the interview she had with Katie Couric back in the day that she said, you know, I got famous for quitting my job. I think she just never in a million years would have thought that it would have impacted the business world like it did. And it sparked a debate of women feeling like she had a responsibility to other women, showing that you can have it all. And my mom would always just say there's 24 hours a day, seven days in a week, and you have to pick and choose what's important to you. So that's really all she did.

And people - my mom would always tell people the thing she hated most was this debate that women have, you know, kind of criticizing one or the other, whether it's working moms kind of pitting themselves against stay-at-home moms or vice versa. My mom just said, it is 100 percent a personal decision for you, for your family. And what she did find that upset her so much, and it was such a kind of lacking space just in our business world, is that these moms who do work and then stay at home to spend some time with their children don't lose their minds.

They don't lose any of their hard work, but they have a hard time coming back into the workforce. You know, that broke her heart because she said these women are brilliant, and running a household is no small feat. And they're running the PTAs and they're - you know, they're running communities. Why are we having a hard time getting these women back into the working world? So she did some work at Sara Lee with the Returnships Program. But, you know, she was just very much a supporter of people making individual decisions and encouraging women to support each other and not - you know, there's no right or wrong way to do anything. You just make your choices and choose what's important to you.

SIMON: You sort of have changed your career track, I gather, too.

E. BARNES: I did. And my whole family is in business, so I kind of got pulled in that world in college. And then through the experience - so I worked in advertising in Chicago. And then through the experience with my mom, I have decided - and in my last couple months of a career change and finish nursing school this spring. So it was a decision largely shaped by, you know, kind of the identity I found in myself caring for her during the last six and a half years and having so many of those medical professionals help us in such a meaningful time. It was just something that really resonated with me and I found that I was much happier, you know, when I was caring for her. So I made a change and I'm very happy with it.

SIMON: Sounds like you learned from her example.

E. BARNES: Absolutely. Yeah, she - you know, our parents, I think, never cared what we did as long as we were happy doing it and that we worked hard and treated people with respect.

SIMON: Well, it sounds like you and your mother have done that.

E. BARNES: Thank you. Thank you very much.

SIMON: Erin Barnes, her mother, Brenda Barnes, died this week at the age of 63. Thanks for finding time for us this week.

E. BARNES: Thank you. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.