Leaving a Legacy: How Frito-Lay’s Ciara Dilley Champions a Future for Female Founders

We spoke with the VP of Transform & Innovation for Frito-Lay North America on why she thinks supporting female entrepreneurs is more important now than ever.

For Ciara Dilley, the vice president of Transform & Innovation at Plano-based Frito-Lay North America, helping female entrepreneurs is more than just a company-wide initiative.

It’s a legacy.

Ciara Dilley

“When you work for a large corporation, you can either choose to listen to the negatives about big corporates or you can choose to use the amazing resources of an organization like ours to make a difference,” Dilley says. “I always say, ‘If we don’t show up in society and make a difference, who will?'”

Dilley’s role allows her to lead the diverse portfolio that is Frito-Lay’s Transform Brands. Names include Stacy’s, SunChips, Smartfood, Off the Eaten Path, and Red Rock Deli. She and her team deal with marketing, communication, packaging development, new products, sustainability, and more.

With more than two decades of industry experience, Dilley embodies innovation—it’s her job to help consumers discover new flavors, ingredients, and purpose-driven brands. But her job also involves heading a number of initiatives that push Frito-Lay beyond a mega snack company.

And that’s where the passion comes in.

“We have this belief and this desire to support women and help female diversity within our own organization and beyond. We passionately believe that female equality is so incredibly important, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because our society will be better for it,” Dilley told Dallas Innovates. “As we looked at how and what we could do to support female diversity in a way that’s really meaningful and not just nice words on a page, we took a lot of inspiration from Dallas born and bred Melinda Gates. She speaks about and does such amazing work to support the economic empowerment of women.”

The two programs that Dilley and her team work on are meant to make a real difference.

Recently launched is WomanMade, a PepsiCo initiative that advances female founders in the food & beverage industry with funding and mentoring opportunities. And widely known is the Stacy’s Rise Project, which Dilley has helmed since joining Frito-Lay last February.

[Images: Courtesy Frito-Lay/YouTube]

The grant and mentorship program from female-founded Stacy’s Pita Chips was created to bridge the funding gap for female founders, while at the same time empowering women to take the leap and start their companies. “This is one of those programs where we can use our people, our money, our business knowledge, and our expertise to do some really powerful good,” Dilley says.

Each year, Stacy’s Rise gives up-and-coming female entrepreneurs business grants, professional mentorship, and resources to grow their businesses. Typically, participants were in the food and beverage space—last year, Stacy’s partnered with Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi to award Hakuna Brands the $100,000 Stacy’s Rise Project grand prize.

“We realized that if you can put money into women’s pockets, if you can give them financial control, if they can have their own money to support their own livelihoods and their families, that is an incredibly important step to female equality. That’s a big foundation of why we do this,” Dilley says. “The program is super targeted on what these women want. I often joke that these women don’t want hugs and tears and tissues—they want cash. They want real mentorship. They want business ideas and support. That’s what we set the program up to do.”

Going into 2020, Dilley and her team decided they needed to take it up a notch. The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the already staggering statistics showed that female entrepreneurs face tremendous challenges today and every day.

“Women get around 2 percent of VC funding, despite the fact that they’re 50 percent of the population. And, they’re creating businesses at about three times the rate of men. Women of color get .2% of funding,” Dilley says. “When you start to see stats like that, you realize something has to change. This is about putting these women front and center.”

The latest iteration of the Rise Project supports 15 female entrepreneurs—this year across all industries—with $150,000 in business grants, free professional services, and ad space. 1,700 applications poured in over the course of three weeks, with high numbers in diversity and variance of location.

A panel of Frito-Lay/PepsiCo leaders and the initiative’s partners at Hello Alice will next month announce the group of finalists based on brand uniqueness and a commitment to social impact. Dilley says giving back to society, especially at this moment in time, has been incredibly important throughout this year’s judging.

“Giving back to the community and having a company with a purpose has been a very important part of the criteria in judging. But these women do it anyway,” she says. “These founders are all doing amazing things. Either their diversity strategy is fantastic, they’re super focused on who they employ, or they always give back to their community. That criteria for female founders wasn’t hard to find. It tends to be built into their DNA.”

After selections are made, each finalist will receive $10,000 in cash, expert design consultation, donated media space, and two personal Frito-Lay experts to act as mentors in each woman’s most-needed area. There’s also provided access to a wide range of specialty webinars so the founders can gain insight from the likes of Facebook, Google, and Netflix.

“The most valuable part of the program is what you can’t buy,” Dilley says. “They’re things that these women would not be able to buy. Between the money, professional mentorship, webinars, and media space, we think the program is going to be stronger than ever.”

For now, the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to cancel the Rise Project’s in-person components. Typically, all participants would travel to Plano to meet their mentors and join in on a kick-off event. This year, that will all be held online—but Dilley and her team aren’t daunted whatsoever.

“We’ve kept the show going, just like women do,” she says, applauding Frito-Lay’s external partners as well. “We think this is a great example of the resilience of women. We just find a way to do it.”

Though fairly new to the Frito-Lay team, Dilley has worked at PepsiCo for five years, mainly focusing on healthy snack options. She’s a native of Ireland, but made the move to Dallas last year with her husband and two sons.

“I always say I do this work as much for my boys as I do for the girls,” she says. “It’s sometimes more important for the boys to understand the work of female founders and the challenges they face, as well as how vital it is to support women. When they see their mom doing this, they get excited.”

It was on her own professional journey that Dilley discovered the large number of female entrepreneurs in the snacking space who, like Stacy Madison of Stacy’s Pita Chips, had potential to make it in the industry. As she became more involved, offering personal guidance and meetings, she decided to start educating herself about the challenges that female entrepreneurs often face.

That quickly turned into an ardor to champion women, both inside and outside of the company. That shines through in conversation—the raw emotion could be felt in our Zoom call as she enthusiastically laid out plans for the rest of the year.

To her peers, Dilley is now known for “waving the flag” of Frito-Lay’s support of female entrepreneurs.

“This is the thing that gets me up in the morning,” Dilley says. “This is the thing that I talk about every single day. This is the thing that makes me proud to work for a big corporation.”

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