Long before she became president of Pepperidge Farm and senior vice president of global baking and snacking for the Campbell Soup Company, Irene Chang Britt — nudged by her mother to leave the world of competitive cycling and get a graduate degree — arrived at orientation for new students at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. Wearing pink spandex and biking cleats, she had ridden there, of course, on her bike.

“I didn’t know business school was like this,” she recalled thinking. “I’m so intimidated.” Britt, whose undergraduate degree was in anthropology, went home and cried.

At the end of her first semester, which she failed, Britt received a letter from the school. It suggested she pursue another career path. Dejected, she met with her counselor, an accounting professor, who called her bluff.

“OK, you chicken,” he said to her. “Don’t be here.” The counselor knew, Britt noted, that if he pushed her buttons, she would fight.

And she did.

“I finally figured out that business wasn’t about all those complex theories that people were talking about,” Britt said during her keynote address at the recent Wharton Women in Business conference. “And I finally [thought], ‘Oh my god. This is about people. I get this.’”

She graduated on the dean’s honor list.

At the Wharton conference, Britt recounted her zigzag path to business success while encouraging the women in attendance to embrace risky opportunities and, above all, to take action. Through her 28 years at Fortune 500 companies — she also had stints at Kraft Foods and Kimberly-Clark — Britt has come to the conclusion that “there are many great minds in the industry that are wasted because they never did anything. And the big prize goes to the person who is going to act.

“[Women] have got to keep on just pushing and doing, because we will be second-guessed. I’ve [spent] a lot of years in this game … and I still face it: Guys are going to assume you’re not going to do anything.”— Irene Chang Britt

“If you never get to a decision to actually act, run for the hills,” Britt noted. “Do not be in a company like that. Because the worst thing that you can do in business is have no action.”

Britt said this is especially true for women. “We have got to keep on just pushing and doing, because we will be second-guessed,” she noted. “I’ve [spent] a lot of years in this game, and I am female, and I still face it: Guys are going to assume you’re not going to do anything. There are still a lot of women who are really brilliant [but] who say, ‘Oh, I would have said that. But I didn’t. Somebody beat me to it.’ Don’t let yourself be one of them.”

Pepperidge Farm, which sells breads, cookies and crackers (including the popular Milanos and Goldfish), was acquired by Campbell Soup Company in 1961. But the commercial bakery was founded in 1937 by a Connecticut housewife named Margaret Rudkin.

Britt recounted the story of Rudkin’s rise — Rudkin had baked bread at home so her allergic youngest son could enjoy it; her Wall Street broker husband took loaves with him to the city to be sold in specialty stores. When Rudkin got home after having sold 10 loaves to the owner of a local grocery store, the store’s owner had called, asking her to return with more bread.

“She was prepared,” Britt said of Rudkin. “She was prepared with her bread-baking. She was prepared to go back with more loaves. She was prepared to say, ‘Wow, I’ve got a business here.'”

That business now has annual revenues of more than $1.5 billion.

‘Grab Opportunities’

One of four children, Britt was born in Taiwan and was raised in Canada. She has lived for the past 20 years in the United States and is an American citizen, fluent also in French and Chinese. She met her husband 29 years ago, when she sat behind him in a class at business school. Married for 27 years, they have a daughter, who is a junior at Kenyon College in Ohio, and a son, who is a high school freshman.

“Grab opportunities, no matter how they come dressed, because there’s always a chance to learn something else.” –Irene Chang Britt

Along the way, her family has lived in, among other locales, the Netherlands, Paris, Vancouver and New Zealand. “Lest you think that I have career ADD,” Britt said, “the theme of this is, grab opportunities. Grab opportunities, no matter how they come dressed, because there’s always a chance to learn something else.”

She was a competitive cyclist when she started undergraduate work in anthropology at the University of Toronto. Her brother also was a competitive cyclist. Neither had a job that summer, so they decided to open a cycling store. They rented space in a rat-infested building, but ultimately they expanded to run two stores and a mail-order business, surpassing $1 million in sales before selling the company.

When asked by a student how much planning went into her career, Britt was blunt.

“Absolutely zero,” she stated. “You have to know yourself. So here’s what I planned: I used to own my own company. I said when I went into a Fortune 500, ‘I’d like to run a company again.’ That’s about as much planning as I did. And so every single thing that came along, even the opportunity to go run a plant, I’m [thought], ‘Ooh, I’ve never run a plant before. I’d really like to understand manufacturing; yeah, I’ll do that.’ … I figured when I became CEO that it would be great to know how to run plants. And it’s worked out pretty well.”

Britt extolled the challenges inherent in turning around a business division or brand. (Her 12 years at Kimberly-Clark included time spent as “toilet-paper queen” — she was director of the washroom systems business, integrating the Scott Paper organization upon its acquisition by her firm.)

“Take the crappy assignments,” Britt said. “Some of the best opportunities come disguised looking like work. If it’s broken, I like it better, because then I can go fix something, right? Awesome. I don’t know anything? That means I can go in and study like crazy and figure it out, and then go do something about it. When you turn it around, you’re an absolute hero.”

Learning to Let Go

She also broached a topic that was something of a thread at the conference.

“Some of the best opportunities come disguised looking like work. If it’s broken, I like it better, because then I can go fix something.” –Irene Chang Britt

“Women need to learn to let go,” she noted. “In your professional life, absolutely, because what that does is it helps build other people. We tend to keep it with us, saying, ‘Oh, well no one would do it as fast or as good.’ And what you’re doing is [keeping] other people from learning what you already know. And so women need to be able to let go. We need to let go in our business lives and start to grow other people, and we need to learn to let go in our personal lives. So that dirty sock is on the floor? Yeah, whatever. It’s not going to kill anyone…. You not only help the next generation grow, but you also unlock a ton of capacity in yourself.”

Asked about balancing motherhood with work, Britt pointed to the success she has had in her own family life, and mentioned several female colleagues who similarly have prevailed. But there is, she clarified, no true balance.

“There is juggling,” she said. “There is generally being happy and satisfied. But it’s not really about balance on one given day.”

A few years ago, as Britt spent more time traveling overseas, her husband decided to retire so he could be home with their children. Focusing on people is a theme which Britt, who initially studied to be an anthropologist, returned to often during her talk.

“I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned as an anthropologist is that we should never, ever forget that it’s all about the consumer,” she said. “Everybody wants to make this really, really hard. You know what it is with food? [Consumers] have to go to the store, they have to pick up your package, they have to pay for it, they have to get home, open it, put it in their mouths, chew it, swallow it, like it, repeat. And everybody forgets that. It’s about human behavior … and [whether you can] be smart enough to figure out the bundle of benefits to give to a human being [so that] he or she says, ‘Hmm, I want to do that again.’”