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At Home in the World

by Fiona Soltes No Comment

Roger and Sandra Deromedi

International travel isn’t foreign to the Deromedi family—it’s essential.

Roger Deromedi, BA’75, has visited 70 of the near 200 countries in the world. His wife, Sandra, and their three children joined him in Paris and Switzerland while Roger worked for Kraft Foods in Europe. Family members mark where they’ve been on a map crowded with pushpins. So important are travel and international experiences to them that Roger and Sandra recently created a scholarship at Vanderbilt to help students expand their international knowledge, too.

“Living abroad and traveling allows us to experience how other people see the world,” says Roger, chairman of the board for Pinnacle Foods Group and former CEO of Kraft. “Having been born and raised in Berkeley (California) and then moving to Chattanooga in the late 1960s, I experienced quite a culture change. I went from the height of political and social activism in California to the South. It really heightened my appreciation that we’re all human beings no matter where we live; we just manifest how we do things in different ways.”

In today’s world, however, understanding and appreciating those differences is paramount to success, Roger says—in both business and in life. Therefore, the Chicago-area-based couple developed the Sandra and Roger Deromedi International Service Learning Scholarship in the College of Arts and Science. The scholarship allows students to study abroad without the hardship of loss of income from summer or part-time jobs.

The Deromedis say it was an easy decision to become involved.

“When Roger brought it up, my response was, ‘Send them. Send them, because the students will be better people for their life-changing experiences,’” Sandy Deromedi says.

The Deromedis’ scholarship supports students in the Vanderbilt Initiative for Scholarship and Global Engagement (VISAGE) program, which offers participants a yearlong learning experience regarding a global issue.

Four Key Destinations for a World-View

Roger Deromedi advises students to visit the four countries designated by global economists as the BRIC countries:

Brazil, Russia, India, China

Combined, these four countries currently account for more than 40% of the world’s population and approximately 25% of the global economy and the world’s land area. (Source: BRICs Monthly, May 20, 2010)

VISAGE students take a core course on campus in the spring and a seminar in the fall, with a field-based project or service opportunity abroad in between. Previous sites and themes have included South Africa (education, social cohesion and economic development), Nicaragua (family, community and social justice) and Australia (sustainable water resource development).

Travel Changes One’s World

Neither of the Deromedis traveled abroad as students themselves, though Roger admits living vicariously through his parents’ trips when he was younger. After graduating from the College of Arts and Science with majors in mathematics and economics, he started his career at General Foods, which later merged with Kraft. He was with the companies 29 years, eventually becoming CEO. International roles at Kraft allowed the couple to experience other cultures. They’re thankful that their own children—now ages 16 to 24—were able to catch the global bug when they were young. The Deromedis encouraged local involvement and limited English television wherever they were. “It was just a terrific experience for all of us,” Sandy says.

“Travel changed my world,” Sandy says. She laughs that Roger proposed in Paris—and then the couple squeezed in travel to five countries in two weeks.

Living overseas later, however, taught her about being American.

“Before then, I’d have to say, I never called myself an American,” she admits. “We’re such a melting pot here. When people would want to know what my nationality was, I would say, ‘50 percent Scottish’ and da-da-da-da. It was an acceptable answer. But after going overseas and meeting people who were Scottish and who were German, no longer did my 50 percent seem so important. It became, ‘I’m from the United States.’ ‘Oh, I’m an American,’ and what a wonderful thing to be.”

Listen to Other Cultures

While Roger Deromedi worked his way up the Kraft ladder, he visited factories and grocery stores in various regions and countries. There also were in-home visits with consumers, talking about how the company’s products fit into their lifestyles. Deromedi relished those opportunities.

“It’s critical that we understand how other people think and live their lives,” Roger says. “The American paradigm is not always right. I’ve learned that you have to listen, and not assume the way you may approach something is correct.”

Now he wants the scholarship to give others the same discovery. Roger Deromedi credits Vanderbilt with allowing him to engage in the program’s design in addition to offering funding. He has met several times over lunch with students who have participated in VISAGE to learn ways that the program can be more strategic and relevant.

“It’s critical that we understand how other people think and live their lives.”

—Roger Deromedi

“I think Vanderbilt has a great understanding of what it takes to develop students to be successful in the world today, and not just in the United States or in the South,” Roger says. “A program like VISAGE shows that they know what it takes to be leaders on a global platform.”

That worldwide platform affects everyone, he notes. Even if a student is going to be a farmer in the United States, he notes, commodity markets are global.

Despite his responsibilities with Pinnacle, which manufactures and markets food brands including Duncan Hines, Vlasic, Armour, Lenders, Birds Eye and Log Cabin, Roger returns to campus each quarter as a guest lecturer. He says his College of Arts and Science background gave him a good grounding and early sense of responsibility for what came next, including an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“The world is so much more connected now,” Roger says. “We see things on the news instantly. I think if you’re a student today, and you don’t have that global understanding and awareness, you’re going to have a hard time. … You need to understand the dynamics that impact our global society.”

photo credit: Dan Dry

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