One of the most popular and talked-about sessions at ICON 2024 was the “Visionaries in Tech” panel, which featured Raygaan Cottle of Woolworths, Robin Keller of TreeHouse Foods, Shanthi Rajagopalan of Microsoft, and Yukiko Yamaguchi of Panasonic Connect. Our goal for this session was to shine a spotlight on transformational tech leaders and share the stories of how they got there.

As tech leaders and visionaries, our four panelists were gracious in sharing their own personal experiences that brought them to where they are today. Their advice was heartfelt, often surprising and sometimes touching as they reflected on their own unique paths to the ICON stage.

Lived Experiences: Lessons From the Leaders

Our panel discussion kicked off by asking these leaders, “What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?” Shanthi Rajagopalan, who’s the Global Head of Strategy for Retail and Consumer Goods at Microsoft, began. “You don’t have to take all the feedback that you get,” she said. “We’ve all been there where you’re really working on trying to speak up, but then you’re in a meeting and someone says to you, ‘You were too visible in that meeting.’ And it’s so easy to react to that and just kind of retreat to the shadows.

“But when you get feedback that doesn’t feel congruent with your own lived experience, get really curious about it,” she noted. “Figure out what they were trying to share. But after you’ve been curious, you get to decide if you want to act on that feedback or not. All of us are on our own journeys, and you don’t have to take all the feedback that comes your way.”

For Raygaan Cottle, Head of Planning for Trade at Woolworths, South Africa, a key lesson was overcoming rejection and being resilient. “For financial reasons, I earned a degree in radiography. But, because of my passion for math and analytics, I applied to Woolworths for a planning trainee position. And I was declined,” she related. “I’m telling you this because it’s quite ironic, isn’t it, that I applied for planning training, and today I sit here as the head of planning?”

“It really just proves that if you are determined and you have a purpose, you can achieve anything you put your mind to,” Cottle emphasized. “So I re-applied. And when I returned to Woolworths for a second interview, they said, ‘How do you come from a medical background into a food retailing company? And my answer was very simple. I said that, in the medical field, you’ve got to service a patient, and in the retail field, you’ve got to service a customer. And I got the job. Then I worked hard to build a strong knowledge in planning. And from there on my journey was quite exciting, as I moved through positions of increasing responsibility.”

Breaking Down Barriers on the Path to Success

Our discussion also focused on each participant’s unique career path. Because all the panelists were women, the conversation often turned to the special challenges they faced as they moved into leadership roles in the male-dominated worlds of technology and supply chain.

While Yukiko Yamaguchi is Chief Marketing Officer at Panasonic Connect, she also leads the company’s diversity and culture transformation efforts. “I faced some gender discrimination many years ago (at a different company), which was necessary to help me understand the importance of diversity and equal opportunity firsthand,” noted Yamaguchi.

“I came to Panasonic specifically because it has a 100-year history and it’s a big company, which means that a commitment to diversity can have a huge effect on society,” she continued. “So it’s gratifying to know that I’m helping to create opportunities for the younger generation of women. They won’t have to experience the challenges that I did early in my career. I love my job, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished at Panasonic, which has been recognized as a transformative company in Japan.”

Robin Keller, Vice President and Chief Information Officer for Treehouse Foods, also stressed the importance of mentorship. Because Keller had to drop out of college when her mother became ill during her sophomore year, she faced special challenges as a woman who also lacked a degree. “I was working in a clerical job at a small manufacturing company, and one day the IT leader came to me and said, ‘We’re going to put in an ERP. Would you like to join the team?’ And that moment was the start of everything.”

“I had fantastic angels — people in my company, friends, colleagues, coaches and mentors that really encouraged me — and I’m so thankful for them,” said Cottle of Woolworths. “I coach and mentor today because my journey has taught me that if you put your mind to anything, you can achieve it. You can break down barriers. But first everyone needs equitable opportunities. Some people don’t know what their true potential is until they find their angel, that coach or mentor who believes in them and encourages them.”

Creating the Next Generation of Leaders

We wrapped up our panel discussion by asking, “How can we create a new generation of visionaries? What advice would you offer to those who want to follow in your footsteps?” Again, the panelists emphasized the importance of community.

“None of us got to where we were without the help of our networks,” Keller of TreeHouse Foods pointed out. “When we were coming up, the network above us was mostly male, and there were men that took the time to ask us how they could help us get to the next level. If you have talent in your organization, take the time to help them to get to where they need to be.

“Ladies, if you’re young and early in your career, just stay curious. Don’t shy away from challenges. Focus on YOUR own journey,” she added. “And for the ladies who are a little more seasoned, don’t forget to send the elevator back down for the ladies who are behind you in your organization.”

The “Visionaries in Tech” panel at ICON 2024 was both educational and inspiring — and the feedback we’ve gotten on this discussion has been phenomenal. We thank these four visionaries for sharing their stories with us, and we look forward to hosting more events like this in the future.

Susan Beal is Blue Yonder’s Chief Customer Officer. She moderated the Visionaries in Tech panel during Blue Yonder ICON 2024.