Belinda Oakley recently became the CEO, North America, for Sodexo Live!
Belinda Oakley was national vice president of operations at the company behind Mrs. Fields Cookies and TCBY frozen yogurt. She had a long, proven track record of success in the hospitality industry, in markets all over the world. She had earned plenty of certifications in franchising and workplace training.
And yet, as she began to look into MBA programs she wondered: Was any school going to accept her?
Oakley may have had a master’s degree from the “School of Life,” as she says, but her resume was missing some letters in the formal education section.
“The lack of paper plagued me, just quietly in the background, for a decade,” said Oakley, the new CEO of Sodexo Live!, an alumna and adjunct in the Executive MBA program at the Daniels College of Business.
At first, it wasn’t a big deal. Oakley was just 19, working in a franchised bakery, when the parent company offered her a job managing 25 locations across Western Australia and Northern Territory. It came with a company car and a good salary, so she put her psychology classes aside and dropped out of college.
“I felt like this was saying yes to an opportunity that reflected prosperity,” Oakley said. “It ultimately was a really game-changing decision. It put me in a leadership role in food operations, unintentionally, very early on.”
One role led to another. Executives recognized her talent, offered her jobs and elevated her to increasingly senior positions in the hospitality industry—roles that put her in offices and boardrooms with people proud of their alma maters.
“I was up next door to the VP of marketing who was from [Northwestern University’s] Kellogg [School of Management]. The CEO was from Duke,” Oakley said. “I always felt like my work stood for itself. My relationships and my ability to create culture stood for itself. But where I always felt more and more conscious of what I didn’t have was in a boardroom setting with a bunch of degrees.”
Returning to the classroom
Oakley was just as conscious showing up for her first day at the Daniels Executive MBA program, which is designed for professionals with 10-20 years of experience. But it wasn’t long before her reservations melted away. She thrived in the program, graduating as cohort leader, with honors. (Plus, her future husband was in her study group.)
Throughout the 18-month program, Oakley gained an important understanding of strategic frameworks that are commonplace in the business world—things she knew almost innately, but didn’t always have the words to express.
“If you end up in a C-suite role, you’re going to have people with high degrees of functional competencies in supportive roles,” she said. “You just need to understand the language of the whole ecosystem so you can interpret and converse with the different functional responsibilities.”
The EMBA was an important investment in her career, Oakley said, and an equally important reassurance that she belonged in an executive position.
From student to teacher
In 2022, the EMBA program welcomed Oakley back to campus, this time as a member of the faculty. She teaches a class toward the end of the curriculum, called “The Discipline of Execution.”
“Strategy without execution is just hallucination,” Oakley said. “So many organizations spend a ton of money and a ton of time building a strategy that never leaves the page. The discipline of execution is installing what I would call the management operation system. The easy part was getting the strategy. The hard part is getting the flywheel turning with momentum in a way that your gains produce on themselves.”
In the classroom, Oakley lectures on the importance of reinvesting in talent, the need for inter-office conflict and why shared understanding matters. She also emphasizes the importance of streamlining—and even limiting—an organization’s goals, acknowledging any resource restraints that could make achieving those goals more difficult.
But her course is also about synthesizing the EMBA experience, encouraging students to reflect on everything they’ve learned during their 18 months on campus and map out how they might apply it.
Andy Cohen, professor of the practice and faculty director of the EMBA, says Oakley’s unique experience and perspective has made her a terrific addition to his teaching team.
“She integrates her ease with students in the classroom, her wisdom derived from a long successful career and her status as a former EMBA student into a powerful final integrative course in the curriculum,” he said. “And, at the same time, she is simply the most recent in a long line of examples of the EMBA bringing talented, practitioner alumni to bear on our program. This is a hallmark of the Daniels EMBA program.”
Creating “experiences” at Sodexo Live!
In January, Oakley was named the North American Chief Executive Officer of Sodexo Live!, which serves more than 200 sports, cultural and entertainment properties on the continent. Super Bowls, convention centers, museums, concert venues and airport lounges all count on Sodexo Live! for amenities and atmosphere. Local institutions, like the Colorado Convention Center and Denver Center for the Performing Arts, are partners as well.
“What I love about Sodexo Live! is that the only lane that is there is to be an experience maker,” said Oakley, who will lead more than 20,000 employees across the U.S. and Canada.
Oakley was also excited to take a job at a company that is 40% family-owned. She reports to Natalie Bellon-Szabo, whose father, Pierre, founded Sodexo. It’s that legacy and tight-knit culture that has Oakley excited about her future at the company.
“I think there’s something about the spirit of [the company] that I really connected with—particularly in this moment in time with where consumers are, with where the general population are. Our senses are so dulled because we are just overstimulated, underconnected. And I think experiences matter.”
That’s why, in some ways, the position at Sodexo is a return to her teenage years, when a young Australian wanted to major in psychology, the study of human behavior.
“I think I always felt a connection to people,” Oakley said. “For me, that had always been a big part of my life, having people who saw more in you than yourself. I was really hopeful to pay that forward and make a career out of that.
“It’s funny, I look back and think I did make a career out of that, just without the degree.”