Executive Conversations: Galya Molinas’s Story
“I was so scared. There were times when I asked myself, ‘What are you doing?’”
That confession came from Galya Molinas as she reflected on her journey after leaving a corporate career of more than three decades. That career, which included stints as regional president for two different Coca-Cola business units and began in marketing at Unilever, was exactly the multinational, high-powered one she had aspired for growing up in her native Turkey.
Molinas credits the values instilled in her by her family as essential to her career success. Among them was the importance of accountability. “If you were asked to do something, you had to do it,” she says. “And if you didn’t do something you had promised to…Wow! That was a big deal.” Adaptability was also a family trait. “My family came from very different places, and they made Istanbul their home,” she recounts. “I grew up with four languages, and we had differences in perspective at home that brought a lot of diversity.”
A self-described introvert, Molinas said she “listened quite a bit and tried to be invisible.” She wasn’t lacking in opinions but found that listening was a way not only to provide her the space to think but also to learn something from each person. It is of little surprise that among the many accomplishments she has been cited for is her ability to create cultures built on empowerment and diversity, as well as equity and inclusion.
COMMONALITIES, NOT DIFFERENCES
That focus on listening and learning served her well as an adult and working professional, enabling her to focus not on the differences among people, but what they had in common. “What I really liked in my journey is the fact that I was able to encounter various nationalities, with various cultures,” she recalls. “Romania, Croatia and the Balkans were one thing, Middle East was another, and then, when I went to Mexico that was yet another culture. But funnily enough, you also find a lot of similarities.”
Despite all of these traits, values, and experiences, Molinas was frightened by the possible loss of identity as she faced the question of what to do next. “That was a huge fear for me,” she remembers. Molinas left Coca-Cola after 25 years, just as COVID was hitting and many loved ones were impacted by it. That one-two punch was a powerful reminder of mortality, she says, and made her realize that it was time to move on to something that had been in her mind for some time.
It was an inherent fixation on endings – not unhappiness or dissatisfaction – that caused her to consider moving on. “I always think about how things should conclude – how to bring closure to a journey when I start it,” says Molinas, who sometimes thinks of this fixation as a personal flaw.
As much as she was enjoying what she was doing, when she made the decision to leave, she recalls being content and grateful. “I enjoyed corporate life, and I know that I was privileged. I felt valued, trusted, and I was given opportunities.”
Following Coca-Cola, Molinas seized the opportunity to start thinking about her next journey, conscious of the fact that for once she didn’t know what closure would look like. Instead of rushing on to another opportunity, she took a purposeful pause to reflect. “I truly took a break,” she says. “I knew that I needed a sabbatical because there was a certain way of thinking, certain routines that I had adopted over the years. I wanted to do a restart.”
Her first several months were a complete departure from her corporate life. “At the beginning I didn't think about anything,” she says. “The only thing in my mind was the hike that I was going to take the day after. It was all about eat well, sleep well, do your exercise, and spend lots of time outdoors.”
An additional focus was being deliberate about whom she spent time with – and whom she didn’t. In the former group were friends and loved ones. In the latter were people from her business network, from whom she felt a need for some time and space. While she didn’t feel direct pressure from people, she found that she was pressuring herself. “You have to protect yourself,” she says of going through such a profound transition. “Sometimes you have to avoid a conversation, and sometimes it's good to talk. It really depends on you.”
The break proved to be temporary. “My big learning out of this is that we all live in networks and communities, and you know when it is time to re-engage with your network. “I reached out to a number of people who could give me good advice,” she says. “You may not take in everything that they say, but you take pieces, and that really helps.”
She recalls people’s willingness to engage with her in this capacity as one of the highlights of her journey. “It’s amazing what happens when you ask for help.”
PERSONAL TREASURE HUNT
Molinas likened the exploration to a “treasure hunt” – albeit a very personal one. “One thing opens and leads you to another thing,” she remembers. “When I gave a little more time to myself, themes started emerging. It happened naturally, and I realized that if I had forced it, it wouldn't have happened.”
Eventually, Molinas wanted some structure around her “treasure hunt” to help frame her thinking. While still on her “sabbatical,” she enrolled in a seven-month executive program at Harvard Business School. She also engaged with her mentors, and through ICEO, LHH’s International Center for Executive Options, she met with a career psychologist and worked with a coach. Each gave her valuable guidance on different aspects of her journey.
“The relationship that I had with my ICEO coach was really very important,” she says. “I had an idea on where I needed help, and I was in an open and receptive mindset.” Molinas points out that ruthless self-honesty is critical in such a situation. “When you look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘This is where I really struggle,’ that’s where people can help. That's what happened in my relationship with ICEO and other amazing people who helped me on my journey.”
The psychologist described her as a “challenge junkie,” telling her, “You have a tendency to jump from one challenge to the other, and you love it.” While this observation was not news to Molinas, she found a certain validation in hearing it. “I knew this about myself, but it's so important when somebody else talks to you about it.” The big takeaway from that relationship, she says, was the caution to avoid doing something for the sake of the challenge and instead find something that appealed to her on an emotional level.
And finally, at the suggestion of one of her mentors, she went back to the diaries that she had kept over the years – her “reservoir of memories,” as her mentor termed them. “I was getting ready to think about areas that I needed to explore a little more intentionally and clearly; areas that I was very interested in,” she recalls. Her mentor’s advice: “Look at what you told yourself then, because you're going to find certain similarities over the years.”
That exercise ignited a desire to get more serious about social entrepreneurship. The “sweet spot” between the social good and a business was not new territory for Molinas. She had led regional sustainability efforts and Coca-Cola’s foundations in both Turkey and Mexico. “It's not exactly philanthropy,” she says. “I’m interested in the entrepreneurship [aspect] and using the business discipline to deliver social value.”
She started networking in that direction and became involved with global communities of social change makers: the London-based Royal Society of Arts and Commerce and the U.S.-based Ashoka. Molinas also became part of the investment committee of Founder One, one of Turkey’s first social-impact investment funds.
Mentoring, which she finds particularly satisfying with younger leaders, rounded out her areas of interest to pursue. “I realized that I would like to share and give back [based on] some of the experience that I have built,” she says. “They learn from me, and I learn from them,” describing the dynamic as “a two way relationship.”
She envisions a future combining various areas of interest. “What I see, is that the learning piece is going to continue. I enjoy sharing and learning from others in various capacities including mentorship and lecturing. Social entrepreneurship is something that I'm going to pursue further, as well as governance. It’s a journey.”
While this phase may not present an idea for the clear-cut closure that Molinas is accustomed to, she is comfortable with that. “The picture of success has changed,” she says, acknowledging that she had to give herself permission to see things differently. “I'm evolving as I move along and it's okay. Even if I make some mistakes on the way, I go back and say, `Okay, you need to change the approach.’”
Her advice to 2021 Galya: “Put less pressure on yourself” around discovering purpose. She notes that purpose “evolves,” and its discovery is a process. “It can take a whole lifetime to find your purpose,” she says.
Galya Molinas shared her story as part of Reimagining Post-Corporate Careers: An Executive Conversation Series hosted by the International Center for Executive Options (ICEO). Watch the full conversation here.