The story of Honey Nut Cheerios, the Wild West of product management, how all’s fair in love and business, and the future of philanthropy.
General MillsAnn Fudge, revered businesswoman and known DonorsChoose.org supporter, sat down with our staff as part of our organizational Speaker Series to share a few lessons she’s learned over the course of her career, from her time product managing the launch of Honey Nut Cheerios (yes, the tastiest Cheerios) to sitting on the boards of international companies and advising the likes of President Obama and Paul Ryan. She covered a lot of ground in our talk, but here were the top four lessons we learned:
1. Do what you believe in.
Ann’s first job out of business school was at General Mills, working on Cheerios, which, while already an appetizing job on its own, carried additional meaning for her as a mother. Her 3-year-old and a 6-year-old children inspired her to brand Cheerios as a tasty snack for kids and a healthy snack for parents on-the-go. “When I see young people, as I did two days ago, eating little Cheerios out of their baggies,” she explains, “I [think to myself] I did that.”
That connection to the brand undoubtedly helped her in as she oversaw various rounds of conceptual design, testing, and trials that went into the product she’s most proud of: Honey Nut Cheerios. “I remember the day it hit the shelves,” she says. “It was the fastest trial-and-repeat cereal we had ever had in the history of the company.” (Thirty-five years later, Honey Nut Cheerios is the best-selling cereal in the nation.)
2. Business and relationships are more similar than you’d think.
“Remember this as young businesspeople,” she advises. “It’s like a relationship. You love your partner, but there are times when you and your partner are not seeing it. You’re just talking past each other. We’ve all been there. The same things happen at board meetings.” For Ann, the problems that come up in both business and romantic relationships do so “because someone surprised you.” They didn’t communicate, or they weren’t transparent in some way. Ann remains optimistic, though, and for her, it’s mostly worked out: “In all those instances when that kind of thing happened, throughout the process—there was a process—we did end up in the right place.” She acknowledges that when you run a business, you have to talk about controversial topics, and debate itself is not some jagged, impassable mountain to climb. Whether you work in the for-profit or nonprofit sector, “Eventually it’s going to come out.”
3. Teaching the next generation how to be kind matters.
Ann Fudge may help to lead some of the most revered companies and nonprofit organizations in the country, but she’s quick to remind us: “I’m a grandmother of five. That’s why this”—she said, gesturing to the large DonorsChoose.org team gathered in front of her—“is so important to me.”
“I don’t believe in getting children”—as in, her grandchildren and the rest of the family she adores—“stuff,” she says. “Don’t do it to your kids, even if you can afford it.” Instead, she believes her legacy to her family is to help them understand the importance of giving back, and all of the social responsibilities associated with it. That means everything from community service to “learning how to be a little philanthropist.” In addition to just a single gift for the holidays, each of her grandchildren receives a $50 gift card to fund a project on DonorsChoose.org (by the way, you can pick up a few here). “I wanted them to get the feedback, to see the letters from the kids.”
4. Keep everything in perspective.
It’s worth mentioning that this emphasis on giving and helping others isn’t an empty lesson for Ann’s grandchildren’s sake. It helps her relax under pressure, too. She shares one final story with us, about a particularly difficult week at work. “I don’t even remember what it was,” she admits. In order to decompress from the noise around her, Ann turned to the thank you notes she had just received from students she had supported on DonorsChoose.org. Rather than allowing the negativity to overwhelm her, she stood at her desk, opened the envelope, and spread every thank you note she had on hand out onto the desktop, looking at them every time she returned to her office. Suddenly, “I had no problems in the world. That was my little kids’ work.”
__We would like to extend our deepest, sincerest thanks to Ann Fudge for volunteering her time (while under the weather, no less!) to visit the DonorsChoose.org office for our Speaker Series, and wish her—and you—a peaceful, happy holiday season! Feel free to share her lessons with anyone you think can learn from them this season.