Pepperidge Farm president: I failed in grad school and bounced back

April 10, 2014, 3:46 PM UTC

From entrepreneur to corporate all-star, Irene Chang Britt talks to Fortune about her road to success.

Irene Chang Britt, president of Pepperidge Farm

FORTUNE — Pepperidge Farm (CPB) president Irene Chang Britt launched her career running a bike shop with her brother. The sibling entrepreneurs’ business expanded to two stores and mail-orders; sales reached $1 million before they sold the company. Around the same time, Britt faced academic setbacks but managed to bounce back – and has since climbed the ranks at Fortune 500 companies like Kimberly-Clark (KMB), Kraft (KRFT), and now Pepperidge Farm. Through it all, the exec has kept on smiling — much like the golden-baked fish her brand serves consumers.

What is the best advice you ever received?

When I graduated with my MBA, my dad, an economist, told me to go work for a manufacturing company, one that made good products for regular folk. He said that the practicality and tangibility of that would serve me well, and those companies really meant something to the economy, especially if they manufactured domestically. So, I started in toilet paper — I guess that’s about as real as one can get! I then moved into food and beverage. Honestly, it was fabulous advice, as I’ve loved how incredibly grounded my career has been.

What was the last book you read?

I just read How Starbucks Saved My Life, by Michael Gates Gill. It’s a true story of an ad exec who loses his job in his fifties, struggles with bad decisions, and then gets offered and accepts an hourly job at Starbucks at the age of 61. He starts by cleaning toilets and then moves up into serving. It is a great book that reminds us all about the power of humility, hard work, self-respect, and respect for others, no matter their background. I loved it.

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What would you say to a group of young people looking to enter the tough job market?

Follow your passion. Seek out opportunities with companies that have brands or products you love. We spend lots of hours at work, so it’s best to really believe in what you do. And companies love having advocates on board. Bring your whole self to work. Connect with those around you and dedicate yourself to doing and delivering. Don’t be afraid to take on those assignments that no one else will touch. Every opportunity is an opportunity to prove yourself.

What was your biggest missed opportunity?

I’ve not been planful about my career, except knowing that having started as an entrepreneur, I would run a company again. So, I’ve lived my life grabbing opportunities that seemed fascinating … turnarounds, moving countries, strategy, innovation, R&D, and M&A. I was open to all opportunities, and this has given me a breadth of perspective on business that I may not have if I had taken a more traditional path. I don’t regret any missed opportunities, because I’ve had so many great ones.

What was the most important thing you learned in school?

I learned to fail … and to bounce back, big. I failed my first semester in grad school, as I was intimidated — I ran my own small business, I thought of myself as “just an entrepreneur.” I was very lucky, because I had two people in my life who applied “tough love.” Both my accounting professor, who was my mentor, and my fiancé, dared me to quit. I was a competitive athlete, so that was an awesome challenge. I fought back so hard, I ended up on the Dean’s Honor List upon graduation. Honestly, if they hadn’t kicked me in the rear, I don’t know where I’d be now.

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What business or technology person do you admire most? Why?

It seems pedantic to say “Steve Jobs,” but I really do admire him — and have for a long time. Not because of his company’s success. Rather, I admire his push for always doing what he believed in and never letting popular opinion trim down his edges. I can’t say that I agree with all of his actions, but I think we would all move more quickly in business if we spent less energy on worrying about others’ opinions.

How did you get your first job at Pepperidge Farm?

I joined Pepperidge Farm in 2012 after seven years with the Campbell Soup Company (CPB), leading businesses as well as being Chief Strategy Officer. Pepperidge Farm is a wonderful company to be a part of and has such a rich history. It was founded in 1937 by Margaret Rudkin. She started baking great quality bread for one of her sons who had health issues and couldn’t eat commercially made bread. But more than a mom and a baker, she was an incredibly determined and focused entrepreneur, growing the company through innovation, superb manufacturing, and solid distribution gains. That mix of creating a wholesome product with an entrepreneurial zeal is what continues to define us today.

What is one trait every executive needs more today than ever?

Curiosity. The world is changing so fast. We are engaging with our consumers via channels that didn’t exist three or five years ago. We are using breakthrough technology and science to help us understand how people taste and eat. You have to be curious and engaged in all these developments in order to stay connected and stay ahead of your competitors.

You also need a sense of humor. Work needs to be enjoyable, and as a leader, you have to be able to laugh with your team … it makes the challenging times more manageable.

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If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?

At home with my children under one roof. My daughter is in college, my son is a high school freshman, and I travel every week. Our schedules mean we have to plan months in advance so that we are all in the same place at the same time. When my husband and I are together with them, it is bliss.

What is one goal that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?

I love running businesses and building great teams. But my biggest goal is still ahead of me. My family came from poverty and war in China, and through incredible personal strength and hard work, my parents and grandmother overcame the hardships and became extremely accomplished and raised four diligent, respectful, hardworking kids. Along the way, there were friends and strangers that helped, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. My life goal is to use the success I’ve had to help others in need, through education funding, mentoring, and counseling.

What was your first job?

My first job was selling and fixing racing bicycles in a shop I started with my brother. We were accidental entrepreneurs. We started a business with nothing and worked day and night to deliver great customer service. We ended up with a very successful set of stores. That experience taught me the value of delighting customers.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

I don’t know if it’s really a superpower, but I’d want to be able to give everyone in the world equal access to a great education. The world will always have issues, but with educated populations, each generation can have the tools to debate, decide, and do … solving issues, rather than relying on quick fixes.

What’s your take on the “having it all” debate?

It’s about finding the right balance for you and your family. I try hard not to miss either Board Meetings nor my son’s band concerts, and to do that, some things need to fall by the wayside (like laundry!). Women of my generation had to fight for that in business, and I am determined to make sure that younger women won’t have the same issues in the future. I mentor a number of female leaders across a variety of businesses to help them navigate their careers so they feel fulfilled in their lives while reaching their career potential.