This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.
Ann Mukherjee thinks about a simple question every day: If you had a chance to change the world, what would you do?
Mukherjee, 56, is the North American CEO and chairman of Pernod Ricard, the world’s second-largest seller of wine and spirits — meaning she’s in charge of famous top-shelf liquor brands like Absolut, Jameson and Malibu. And she understands first-hand how alcohol can change someone’s life, because it almost ruined hers—twice.
She says her earliest memory as a child is of an assault she suffered at the hands of two drunk teenagers. And when she was 14, her mother was killed by a drunk driver. Her job today, she says, helps turn her pain into “positive, meaningful change.”
“We should never just accept that bad things happen,” Mukherjee tells CNBC Make It. “As a leader, I feel a strong sense to stand up for those who have gone through similar experiences as I have, and do everything I can to make sure others never have to go through it.”
Mukherjee’s first act as CEO in 2019, for example: launching an Absolut Vodka ad campaign about sexual consent. Under its tongue-in-cheek slogan “Drink responsibly,” the ads promoted a new hashtag: “#SexResponsibly.”
“Our products are meant to unlock magic, not to be used for harm,” Mukherjee, who sits on the national board for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), says. “If you’re going to use these products as a weapon, then don’t buy them.”
Here, Mukherjee talks about how trauma affected her ability to lead, the person who permanently altered the trajectory of her career and a lesson she’s learned as a woman CEO in a male-dominated industry:
On the moment that made Mukherjee a leader: ‘I couldn’t deal with her death being senseless’
I was five years old when my parents immigrated from Kolkata, India, to Chicago. I was an only child, and my mother was my best friend. My father was always more distant, so she ingrained in me the importance of being independent, and how to deal with difficulties in life.
When she died, I went from being a smart-aleck kid to a capable adult within minutes. After the doctor pronounced her dead, I saw her body. I hugged her. Then I sat very still in the hospital hallway and immediately started thinking about how I was going to organize the funeral and prepare her body for burial.
I couldn’t deal with her death being senseless. I had to give it meaning, and keep moving. My life has always been that way: When tragedy or a challenge hits me, I immediately think, “What am I going to do about it?”
Life isn’t about what happens to you. It’s about how you respond when things get hard. I learned that lesson very early.
On how falling in love pushed her to take a leap of faith: ‘I walked into the fire’
[My husband] Dipu and I met in an online chat room in 1995. The winners for  Miss Universe and Miss World were both from India were announced just months earlier and he was like, “Shouldn’t we be proud?”
I called him a moron. I said, “We’re supposed to be proud because there’s two beautiful women recognized? Did they find the cure for cancer?” and he asked me on a date.
He’s a master mixologist. When we moved in together, his boxes of barware took over half the house. He’s the one who re-introduced me to alcohol, and showed me that if it’s done right, it can be fun. When I was asked to interview at Pernod Ricard, it was Dipu who said, “Don’t screw this up!”
I was unsure if I could work for a wine and spirits brand, after everything I’d gone through. He said, “Don’t you get it? The universe is talking to you, and telling you that this is your opportunity to right wrongs. How could you say no?”
Part of being a great leader is having people around you that tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear. Dipu has shown me that if you can be a lifelong learner, vulnerable enough to listen, it could lead to really great things.
I realized that you can either walk away from fire, or you can walk into it. I walked into the fire. If I’m in this role for five or seven years, am I going to solve everything before I leave? No. What I hope to leave is a legacy of people who are inspired and believe that they can make a difference.