Delia Cochran (left) and Sharon Schachter

Delia Cochran and Sharon Schachter: Women Leading, By Example

Women didn’t exactly have a wide range of opportunities when Sharon Shachter and Delia Cochran began their careers. “At that time,” Schachter remembers, “you could be a nurse, a teacher, or a flight attendant. That was pretty much it.” She became a flight attendant; Cochran became a nurse.

In time, though, both women achieved positions of worldwide leadership at The Coca-Cola Company — Cochran as the company’s director of capability, Schachter as its director of leadership development. Having benefited along the way from supervisors and mentors who encouraged them to think beyond limits both external and self-imposed, they have now filled that role themselves for countless Coca-Cola employees.

And they’re filling that role for Georgia State students as well. Through the Women Lead program at the Robinson College of Business, Cochran and Schachter — both of whom earned graduate degrees at Georgia State — are drawing from experience both professional and personal to help new generations of women set their sights on higher goals.

A Defining Experience for Georgia State Women

Started in spring semester 2015, Women Lead is a leadership program designed for female RCB undergraduates (but also open to males) to empower them to seek upper-level corporate positions and overcome the challenges they’ll face along the way. The program contains classes focusing on leadership development and the economic and social effects of women in the workforce, but those are just the beginning. The program also hosts networking events, trips to corporate headquarters, engagement interviews, and roundtable discussions where influential women in business are the keynote speakers.

Women Lead is also one of the first “Signature Experiences” — an important component of the university’s strategic plan — offered through the Robinson College. These experiences hinge on real-world opportunities for both learning and applying knowledge, and allow students to interact with successful businesswomen while building social currency in the form of community and corporate connections. Each experience culminates in a final project for which students earn academic credit based on an evaluation by Robinson faculty.

In designing the program, Robinson sought the help of people with experience heading up similar development efforts in the corporate world — and both Schachter and Cochran had plenty at Coke. The two had played major roles in the creation of the Women in Leadership Program, designed to build a pipeline for women in mid-level corporate roles; it was the first big initiative of the Global Women’s Council, commissioned by chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent in 2007 to address the underrepresentation of women at the senior executive level. For women in junior positions, they also created the Achieving Your Best Self program, which was of particular interest to Georgia State, Cochran remembers.

“They reached out to get some information from Sharon early on and ask, ‘What is this y’all have done at Coke, what does it look like, how’d you do it?’ So we sat down with [Women Lead program director]Nancy Mansfield, and it was very exciting to hear how she wanted to get to women even earlier and really begin to stretch them and get them to think about the implications of their career paths.”

As Schachter describes it, Achieving Your Best Self was devised in response to a situation that had become increasingly common in their corporate culture — “women who were married and had kids, then got a promotion at Coke and Coke was asking them to move, but the spouse usually trumped that in terms of their career.” The goal, she says, was reaching out to women early in their careers and “getting them to really think about what success looks like for them — for them to own for themselves what success looks like, so they don’t spend the next 20 years on a path that isn’t fulfilling.”

Through Women Lead, they’re able to reach women even earlier in their lives and careers. “What a gift that is, to get women at the undergraduate level,” Schachter comments. “We are not aware of any other school that is doing this at that level.”

Both Schachter and Cochran agree that they get almost as much out of the program as the students do. “It’s very enriching right back to us,” Cochran says. “We can talk about what we’re giving them, but there’s not an experience that I leave that I don’t feel enriched and better for having done it.”

‘There Are Many Paths to Get Somewhere’

As they’ve mentored the students in the Women Lead program, Cochran and Schachter have been able to draw from their own paths to corporate leadership positions — paths that were neither immediate nor easy. Schachter recalls a number of career setbacks caused by forces outside her control — first an oil crisis that ended her airline career almost as soon as it’d begun; then, after she’d earned her MBA at Georgia State with plans on going into international banking, a financial crisis rendered job openings scarce.

“I thought, ‘OK, I’m being pushed down again,” she remembers. “But I was recruited by a consulting company, and I ended up working there four years. It turned out to be a great experience for me, because even though I was a female and young, I was being put into situations where I was interfacing with senior leaders. I wouldn’t have been able to do that anywhere else.”

Cochran, meanwhile, earned her nursing degree and spent 17 years at Egleston Children’s Hospital, now part of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. A strong mentor, she says, got her to expand her horizons and explore management training and leadership development. That, in turn, prompted her to pursue a master’s degree at the College of Education and Human Development.

“Probably one of the best decisions I ever made,” she says with a smile. “What I was learning on the job I was able to apply immediately in the curriculum to pursue my master’s — I loved that. And I was immediately doing things for work with what I was learning at Georgia State, and that just made it very real for me. It was a really rich learning environment.”

Though Cochran and Schachter earned their advanced degrees in different fields and at different times in their careers, their experiences had a very important common thread: “Neither one of us are in the original job we thought we would have,” Cochran says. “I chose a health care path for my first university studies, and did that for a period of time until somebody said, ‘You’re doing more than just being a nurse, would you be open to exploring that?’ Part of the take-away message, for me, was if you don’t know what’s out there, if you’re not told to pursue anything, how can you say you’re doing what you were meant to do?

“There are many paths to get somewhere, but you have to get an idea of where you might want to go. How do you think it through? How does your life experience inform that, how does your value structure inform that, how does your passion inform that?”

Being part of Women Lead, she says, has given her and Schachter the opportunity to help a widely diverse group of young women find the answers to those questions. “Sharon and I both have served as mentors this past year,” Cochran says, “and it’s been amazing to sit down across from someone who’s young, has a different culture, and is from a different value and family structure. And just to be able to talk with them and watch them open up, you can see them discovering opportunities they might not have thought of.”

For Schachter, who retired from Coke in 2013 after 33 years with the company, the experience is particularly poignant. “Staying involved with this is a way to keep giving back, and really pay it forward,” she says. “Because I didn’t want to stop working with the development of people. I don’t have the opportunity to do it at Coke anymore, but I’m finding other ways.”

It’s also enabled her to reconnect with her alma mater. “Once I got involved and realized all the innovative things Georgia State was doing, especially around retention, with analytics and the microeconomic approach, and with the diversity of the students, I got really excited. A lot of things were happening at the same time … to me, it was like a whole different school from what I had experienced. I’m a big fan, a rah-rah supporter of Georgia State these days.”