Mia Mends


Mia Mends joined Sodexo Benefits and Rewards in 2012 in the newly created position of Vice President, Sales for Americas Region, in São Paulo, Brazil. In this role she is charged with overseeing the strategic and profitable growth of Sodexo's products and services through diversified distribution channels in eight countries in Latin America.

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What impact did HBS have on your life and the life of others?

I've always said that going to HBS felt like winning the lottery. It dramatically impacted the trajectory of my life and my sense of what was possible. As a product of Wellesley College, the notion of women's leadership had been strongly reinforced for me, so I entered HBS with a sense that I could make a meaningful contribution to society. It was HBS, however, that gave me the capability and the deep confidence to actualize it.

I am an immigrant who was uprooted with my family from Accra, Ghana, in the midst of civil unrest. My parents had to rebuild their lives and sacrificed their own prospects to ensure a better life for their children by giving us access to the best education possible. All we had to do was work hard and take advantage of the opportunities afforded us. My admission to HBS was, for us, the quintessential American dream come true.

My two years at HBS were among the best of my life, but also the most demanding. I entered with feelings of deep insecurity about my ability to excel. I had to dig deep within myself. I also sought solace and support from the African American community. Among my AASU family, I felt supported and loved. I thrived at HBS in part because of the strength and power I derived from this community.

And so I credit HBS for the tremendous leap of faith I took with my family last year when I accepted a job in São Paulo, Brazil. It represented a new role in a new function in a new industry, for a new company in a country where I have had to learn two languages. I am the only American, the only native English speaker, and the only black represented in the eight Latin American countries in which we operate, and one of only two women at the executive level.

It has been an enriching growth experience in many ways, but also lonely and difficult. It's shocking to live in a country that is second in representation of African diaspora, and rarely see people of color in São Paulo. If we had a dollar for every time a stranger ran their hands through my son's hair, we'd be very rich! My family and I are stared at intensely everywhere we go. Brazilians say that racial tensions do not exist here, but there is very little integration. Sadly, few blacks are found in economically developed areas.

My boss has told me that I am their lesson in diversity. I am fortunate not to have experienced overt racism or discrimination. At their core, Latins are warm and welcoming people. But they also remain distant from foreigners. At a minimum I'm surrounded by intrigue and suspicion, which has made building a team and operating with credibility a long, hard-fought battle.

I hope that maybe somewhere in this process, I am forcing my colleagues to reexamine any preconceived notions they had about "people like me." It was my experience at HBS that gave me the courage to make this life change and the perseverance to see it through. I continue to draw on the lessons I have learned and the network I have developed. HBS unequivocally shaped me.

The advice I give to other young women is to use HBS to find out who you are and what you want. It's an opportunity to be reflective and thoughtful. Push yourself and take risks. The world, particularly the corporate world, can be a harsh, unkind place. And so HBS, for many of us, is the last opportunity to challenge oneself in a "safe" environment. Leave fearless, knowing how phenomenal you are, how capable you are, and how strong you are. Know that the character and capability you have built at HBS are qualities no one can take away from you (and people will try). And then use your talents to make meaningful contributions, including giving voice and power to other women who don't yet know their potential. That can be your legacy; that should be your legacy.