A boring summer job at a U.S. embassy upended Kim Nelson’s career plan. Otherwise she might have become a major diplomat in President Obama’s administration.
But as a young Black woman, she bypassed government jobs, found her passion in business, and built a 30-year seminal career at General Mills.
Nelson led the makeover of the General Mills Snacks Division to produce healthier products. She also spearheaded external relations initiatives that made General Mills a leader on civil rights issues and a financial supporter of landmark equity projects.
Nelson, 59, left General Mills in 2018 and now focuses her energy on corporate board service and helping other women of color gain seats on public boards.
“Kim Nelson is just a person of class, caring, and competency,” says Marc Belton, one of two Black men to serve with Nelson on the General Mills executive leadership team. “It was just the way she carried herself and the way she approached doing business and working with and leading people that was quite unique and very exemplary.”
The confident executive whom Belton describes never thought of going into business when she was growing up in Hawaii.
She was a year behind Barack Obama at Punahou School, a private college prep school in Honolulu. “My parents scrimped and saved to send my sister and I to that school,” Nelson says.
The family was living in Hawaii because her father, Alphonso Jones, was in the Air Force. Nelson recently teamed up with her father, now 90, to write his memoir, Soaring: My Improbable Life.
Nelson has two older siblings. Her desire for adventure and travel came from watching her father. “He grew up poor, the eldest of six kids in the middle of the Depression in Washington, D.C.,” Nelson says, adding that a book about his life is just as relevant today as ever. She characterizes his story as “a Black boy facing discrimination, facing low expectations, who has a dream. My dad lived the American dream.”
Her father’s “fantastic stories of traveling the world” as an airplane navigator prompted her to enroll at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown in Washington, D.C. But she says she soured on an international relations career after experiencing the drudgery of a U.S. embassy summer job in London, in which she stamped visas in a basement.
“Kim is not a shouter. She’s a very deep thinker and she is very strategic.”
—Ken Powell, former CEO, General Mills
After graduating from Georgetown in 1984, Nelson wasn’t sure what kind of career she wanted. However, the excitement of the East Coast appealed to her, so she moved to New York City to join her older sister, Leilani.
It was a good time in the life of the Jones sisters. Leilani won a Tony Award for acting in 1985. Meanwhile, Nelson says, “I lucked into a job at Salomon Brothers back when there was a Salomon Brothers.”
The three years that she spent at the large investment banking firm were pivotal. “What I learned from my years at Salomon was that I wasn’t really interested in the financial markets, but I liked the business world, and thought I could be successful,” she says.
Nelson earned an MBA from Columbia in 1988 and then moved to Minnesota to join General Mills. “I liked the vibe of the company,” Nelson says. “I loved the brands. I had grown up with Bisquick and Cheerios.”
Her plan was to learn what she could in two to three years at General Mills, then leave to start her own marketing company. “Almost 30 years later, I was still there,” she says.
“I felt like General Mills was invested in me,” Nelson says. “They cared whether I came or went, and they believed in me. Everything I learned about leadership, about innovation, about motivating and inspiring teams, they taught me.”
Ken Powell, former General Mills CEO, says, “Kim is not a shouter. She’s a very deep thinker and she is very strategic.”
From 2004 to 2010, Nelson was a senior vice president at General Mills and president of the Snacks Division. “She was a very successful operating executive,” Powell says. “I think when she started, the [General Mills Snacks] market share was in the mid-teens, and when she exited it was in the low to mid-20s.”
From a business metrics standpoint, Nelson delivered for General Mills. “During the time that I was leading Snacks, we grew the division at a compound annual growth rate of 10 percent revenue growth and 14 percent profit growth,” she says.
Her ability to dramatically boost revenue was not simply a result of effectively marketing a well-known product line. She simultaneously was overhauling the types of products General Mills was selling and substituting new ingredients in long-standing products.
“People started wanting more natural foods, more whole foods, more fresh foods,” she says, “and becoming concerned about preservatives and sugar, fat, and salt—all the things that make foods taste good or preserve them long enough so you don’t have to throw them out.”
A few months after she took the helm of the Snacks Division, Nelson led an off-site session with her employees. “The vision we came up with was to lead America in better-for-you snacking,” she says. “We got the innovation machine geared up against that [mantra], and we launched Fiber One bars, which were a smash hit.”
Nature Valley bars also were important products that helped General Mills make the shift to healthier foods that also tasted good.
Nelson’s profile expanded to the nonprofit and public sectors when she served as the General Mills senior vice president of external relations from 2010 to 2018.
In that role, she advised Powell and close colleagues on how General Mills should address the 2012 constitutional amendment that would have the effect of banning same-sex marriage in Minnesota. “Most companies do not ever want to weigh in on these contentious societal issues,” Nelson says. “But our values were such that we wanted to create a workplace that values diversity and inclusion.”
Before the amendment issue surfaced, General Mills already had an LGBTQ employee resource group, Betty’s Family, which drew its name from Betty Crocker products. Nelson and Powell had good relationships with Betty’s Family that they had built over years. As CEO, Powell made the final call that General Mills would make a public statement opposing the marriage amendment.
The corporation made news in dramatic fashion at a gathering for the Twin Cities LGBTQ community. “[Ken] made the announcement and the entire auditorium just erupted,” Nelson says. “People were crying and embracing and it was absolutely incredible. In the end, we were the first state to defeat this [type of] same-sex amendment.”
Nelson also served as president of the General Mills Foundation. Powell recalls that the Northside Achievement Zone, which helps low-income children of color from north Minneapolis graduate from high school, needed to transition from federal to private funding. He says Nelson led the effort to award NAZ a $3 million grant from General Mills.
“That leadership gift was transformational,” Belton says. “It allowed NAZ to accelerate their ability to raise funds because of the sign of approval that General Mills was able to give. NAZ is a cornerstone organization in the community today.”
Since concluding her executive career, Nelson is spending her time on corporate board work. She is an independent director on the boards of Cummins, Colgate Palmolive, and Tate and Lyle.
Kate Kelly, PNC Bank regional president-Minnesota, is collaborating with Nelson on addressing a chronic problem—the scarcity of women of color on corporate boards.
Both women are members of the Minnesota chapter of Women Corporate Directors. In 2020, Nelson started chairing a “pipeline committee” that aims to increase the number of Minnesota women of color who serve on corporate boards.
After 28 women candidates were identified, Nelson, Kelly, and other committee members devised a plan to prepare these women for board service. The effort included five workshops and help in developing board candidate materials.
Six of the women of color have secured public board seats. “Kim is highly focused and organized, and her strong leadership skill is that she has a mission and she goes about it with no wasted effort,” Kelly says.
“We have different perspectives and insights to offer,” Nelson says. “I’m just a big believer in diverse views leading to better solutions.”