Meeting with Elodie Neil, Director of Danone’s “Direct to Consumer”
It is also interested in all the aspects of innovation that lead to new economic possibilities and initiate transformation within organizations.
It is particularly curious about what is happening in the world of “social business”, which is a particularly fast-moving sphere for women’s empowerment at the current time.
With this three-fold approach in mind, the EVE blog met with Elodie Neil, Director of Danone’s “D2C” in its Waters division, which works with Ecosysteme.
EVE le blog: Hello Elodie. At the EVE blog we are curious… we like asking people to tell us about their backgrounds during interviews. What is yours?
Elodie Neil: I started my career at a very young age, just after my BTS. I admit that for a long time I didn’t feel quite at ease not having more qualifications, like many of the other managers in the professional world where I worked. I needed to prove that I was as competent as the graduates coming from prestigious business schools, so I worked very hard. I shaped my own destiny; I fought hard and always kept focused on being extremely rigorous and reliable.
It paid off, because at 30 years old I joined the Board of Directors of “contact center”, the company where I had started out. But while it did allow me to get ahead, that strategy took its toll: sometimes I wore myself out and even though I took on more responsibility, I didn’t always receive the recognition that I should have. At around 30, I realized two things: 1/ It is not only being competent, loyal and hardworking that makes a difference at work, and 2/ I needed and wanted a better work-life balance.
EVE le blog: How is it possible to approach your manager with this request for a better work-life balance when up to that point you have shown an immense capacity for work?
Elodie Neil: In my specific case, you approach him after a sleepless night! The previous day, I came home from work as usual at around 9pm and I had a very emotional conversation with my eldest daughter. My child was 5 at the time; she was really adorable and very mature in her way of explaining that she needed to see me more. I was distraught.
I asked my manager to meet me the next day, and I broached the subject directly, “I can’t manage both. I need a different way of working if I’m to reconcile my work and my family life!” And I went for it, “What about if I took Wednesdays off?” It was unheard of at the company, a member of the Board of Directors who worked four days a week! But I was lucky because at that time, my boss needed me. We agreed that we would try and that if it didn’t work, we would find something else…
EVE le blog: This experience shows that there is everything to gain in asking…
Elodie Neil: Yes of course, it is the demonstration of the proverb “if you don’t ask, you don’t get!” You have to dare to ask, even though it is not easy. Even though women aren’t used to doing that. It’s because of our education. For example, we don’t ask for a rise in salary, we don’t know how to do it; we don’t think that’s one of the priorities in having a job… We become attached to the meaning of our work, we want an interesting job, and we want to be useful.
All of that is essential obviously; doing a job that has a positive impact on the community is fundamental. You just need to make sure that you don’t go against what is also important for you, your working conditions, your pay, recognition, etc.
EVE le blog: This part-time position that you chose at the time when you needed to balance your professional life with your family life, are you still doing that, even though your children are grown up?
Elodie Neil: Yes, and my part-time organization is also time for myself: it was already true when the girls were little and while I took time for them, I also booked time slots for myself, to relax. It is even more important now that I fill my Wednesdays with activities that replenish me, that allow me to experience things outside of work. Because even though I love my job, I also believe that balance is only possible when you do different things and alternate routines.
When I joined Danone 12 years ago, taking up the position of “CRM Director in B2B” as it was at the time, (business to business customer relations management – Ed), I explained that my part time organization was one of the conditions… Well, not really right at the start, I actually mentioned to the person who offered me the job that I was working four days a week and that I would understand if that would prevent my being hired! In fact, Danone is Danone and it wasn’t an obstacle. Of course there are few male or female directors working part time, but we work in project mode, what counts is setting and achieving objectives. The way we organize our time is open.
EVE le blog: How have your evolved professionally through Danone?
Elodie Neil: After starting out in the national CRM B2B department, I took an international and corporate path. Then I moved to the “Waters” division to work on proximity. That is what led me to become Director of D2C three years ago ( “Direct to Consumer” – Ed). The Director of the Waters division was determined that we should go there!
EVE le blog: Did the job already exist?
Elodie Neil: No, the job didn’t exist. I designed and developed it, first as a project among others in my “proximity” mission. Then I saw the high business potential of D2C and in quite an entrepreneurial move, I started to set up a specific department.
EVE le blog: So what is D2C exactly?
Elodie Neil: D2C is selling directly to the consumer. In three main points of contact: home, street and office.
EVE le blog: We have seen beverage dispensers inside companies and public transport buildings for a long time… What’s the difference here?
Elodie Neil: The dispenser makes beverages available to the consumer as he or she goes on his way. The idea behind D2C is about going to meet the consumer, to bring our products and services to him or her, with added value. There are various tools available for placing orders, when the sales person calls in, online, or even using new technologies such as the order terminal that we are installing in halls of residence; but it’s the people, our brand ambassadors, who will then deliver the products.
This creates jobs… and therefore empowerment. For example, for people without any income or opportunity to get out of their houses, in some developing countries and closer to home, it is a concrete path to inclusion, socialization and taking control of your own destiny.
As a businesswoman, I didn’t really notice that to begin with. It was only when I met the Ecosystème teams, in particular Alexia Penent, that I really became fully aware of it, and together we decided to base the D2C objectives on “social business” goals. I therefore decided to add social impact to the three other impacts of D2C that had already been evaluated in our strategy (business impact, impact on the brand image and impact on our healthcare credibility).
EVE le blog: In concrete terms, what we could call a partnership between D2C and Ecosystème, how did that play out in the field?
Elodie Neil: Before going into detail about the projects, I think it’s a good idea to explain Danone’s position in this approach: we understand that the brand is a sort of media in itself, and that the people who sell and market our products are the messengers.
Which means that it is in our interest, but it is also our duty to ensure that these people are in good health, that they do not sleep on the street, that they have access to hygiene, that they eat well and are safe. This means that we care about their living and working conditions and that we are involved in improving them. So everyone working on our projects not only receives a salary, but also gains access to training and coaching packages.
This means that we are sometimes involved in anticipating government agendas. On that note, I can give you the example of Mexico: a country suffering from a very serious child obesity problem, with which the Minister for Health is struggling. One of the keys to facing this challenge is to start by putting water on family tables and in children’s lunchboxes, where there are now mostly very sugary soft drinks. We support educational programs on this subject, but we know that it’s not enough, the instruction given in schools about a healthy diet needs to reach actual family life. So for instance, the D2C department has designed a fun water dispenser with designs featuring children’s cartoon heroes, that can be set up in their bedroom to assist parents in continuing to take the “right” approach every day.
EVE le blog: Do you have any specific projects which are focused on women’s empowerment?
Elodie Neil: Yes, we have a project in Indonesia which is entirely aimed at women: Danone Aqua Home Service, which currently involves a network of 5,000 Aqua Ladies (three and a half years after its launch). This project allows all these women to work, which is really something in a country which has excluded them from the legal work market for a long time.
It comes with a salary, of course, which brings about an obvious change in their position within the family. It also helps with empowerment by boosting self-confidence and allows women to be considered from a new perspective. It also goes along with leadership, because these women who earn independently take responsibilities in the daily lives of their communities, and act as an inspiring role model for other women, starting with their own daughters who see their mothers working and reaping satisfaction.
EVE le blog: How many “social business” projects does D2C currently have under way?
Elodie Neil: Around ten, on five continents, from Mexico to Indonesia, including Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Cambodia. We are working on concepts in France…
EVE le blog: Do you have the impression that when Danone makes a positive impact on the economy and society of the countries where the company does business, it also has a positive effect on the way that Danone interacts here in the West with its environments?
Elodie Neil: I have more than an impression, I’m sure of it. I notice it at my level: when I return from countries where we are implementing these projects, I look at how we do business from a totally different perspective.
So I am full of new ideas, which are both simple and disruptive, that’s the very aim of innovation. I’m also full of energy and courage, because I’ve seen with my own eyes that you can work directly on changing things in the field. Most of all, I’m reassured by the idea that economic activity always has meaning. And good sense! The real questions to be asked when we’re developing an offer are “What are we doing, with whom, why and how?” And if we summarize even more, it boils down to asking “What do you think the value is?”.
EVE le blog: So what do you think the value is?
Elodie Neil: The value is what allows the maximum number of people to benefit and on the biggest possible scale! In order to do this, each person in the chain needs to find their role: Danone, the micro-entrepreneur, the delivery person.
In our Waters division we have proven that these D2C economic models generate profitable growth, help to forge direct and unique links with the consumer, explain the importance of drinking clean water and have a steady social impact. What we need now is to move up a gear, by deploying these models as often as possible in as many places as possible. And to establish them not as the only tactical models but as real distribution models which are part of our strategies, which will then create value.
Having incorporated this social dimension in our Waters business makes me prouder to work for Danone, and that gives even more meaning to the business we do, it’s now a part of our DNA!
Interview by Marie Donzel, for the EVE blog, with the involvement of Valérie Amalou (Danone).