Zara Ingilizian1 Credit_Matthew Bender

The Power of YES

How Zara Ingilizian parlayed her food industry expertise to revolutionize world nutrition

As one of the panelists at the 2023 AGBU Women Shaping The World Conference, Zara Ingilizian shared the secret to much of her success as one of the foremost marketing talents in the consumer marketing space. For her, it all boils down to a simple practice—challenging herself to say yes when she felt the urge to say no. “I have grown the most when I have taken on roles that were extremely demanding and were outside my comfort zone,” she shared. “One of the lessons in my life is to never say no to opportunities.”

Guided by sage advice from her father and the drive to push herself, she’s climbed the corporate ladder and is now the Head of Consumer Industries at the World Economic Forum (WEF)—a stepping stone she credits to this gut instinct to say yes. She encouraged the women in the audience to do the same, which is increasingly important in today’s job market when women are statistically less likely to apply for the top jobs than men. “If you have the opportunity to do something really challenging, don’t be afraid. It might be difficult in the beginning, but trust me, you will figure it out.”

Ingilizian moved from Armenia to the United States when she was just eleven years old, spending her formative years in Fort Lee, New Jersey. “It’s been a journey but that’s not how it necessarily started,” she shared with AGBU, recounting the chapters of her career that have brought her to the high-powered roles of her past and her position today.

The marketing expert can remember the “lightbulb” moment that completely changed the course of her career at age sixteen. Her older sister, a chemist for the legendary makeup brand Revlon, would routinely bring home makeup samples—and, as a curious teenager, Ingilizian found it both thrilling and intriguing to learn about the decision-making process in the billion-dollar beauty industry. “I remember asking, ‘How do you come up with these ideas in terms of what to make?’” Her sister explained that marketing from New York City decides what consumers are interested in. At that moment, Ingilizian knew she found her calling, satisfying not only her creative side, but also a strong strategic streak and interest in human behavior and desires.

She thinks fondly of her beginnings, back when only a handful of colleges on the East Coast offered accredited marketing courses. So Ingilizian studied her way to the top of her high school class and was accepted into New York University to study both marketing and finance. Upon graduating, she wound up at one of the leading global consumer goods companies Kraft Foods, known for its iconic brands and classic household names like Maxwell House, Jell-O, and more.

Ingilizian speaks at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils in 2016

Ingilizian speaks at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils in 2016
Ingilizian speaks at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils in 2016.

Initially, she started in the Kraft finance department and later transitioned to their marketing team, rising the ranks to become the Vice President of the cookie business, leading the $2.5 billion dollar portfolio with full revenue, market share, and profit delivery responsibility, that included iconic brands such as Oreos, Chips Ahoy, Fig Newtons, and Nilla Wafers. “My manager at the time described me as someone with strong strategic acumen and a creative mind, which is what I think in many ways makes me unique in this space,” she recalls. “A core part of driving businesses and growth in consumer goods companies is innovation. And I’ve launched, I even lost count, at least 50 plus different products over the years—and that was very exciting because it allowed me to bring my creative flair to the table. After all, so much of this is about creativity.”

Although she has worked across different industries and is currently paving the way for international forums for public-private cooperation, finding original solutions to impact change is at the core of everything Ingilizian does. “I’m passionate about this idea of innovation, that is, what I call, human-centric. It is fundamentally designed to improve people’s lives and is socially responsible—and that also means in the context of the planet.”

It comes as no surprise that the branding expert managed to successfully rebrand herself throughout her professional endeavors, motivated by her passion for consumer satisfaction and desire to innovate. “I reinvented myself three times in the consumer goods space—from finance to general management and marketing at Kraft and then to the World Economic Forum where I am advancing frameworks for responsible transformation and innovation.” The innovator has also led the branding for Diageo, managing iconic brands like Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal, and Ketel One.

Ingilizian discusses “Online Consumer Marketplaces” at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos

Ingilizian discusses “Online Consumer Marketplaces” at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos
Ingilizian discusses “Online Consumer Marketplaces” at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos.

The prominent figure in the world of social impact and sustainability is known for her extensive work in the fields of entrepreneurship, impact investing, and sustainable development. At the World Economic Forum specifically, she aims to build a better world through food—advancing responsible consumption for the benefit of society and business. Ingilizian summarizes her responsibilities by asking two crucial questions, “How do we drive impact? And how can we create a better future?” The answer, she believes, lies in sustainable nutrition.

Backed with years of experience in the consumer food industry, the executive tackles nutrition on a global scale at the WEF, identifying the core set of opportunities that companies and stakeholders in both the public and private sectors can focus on to set the standards for dietary patterns of the future, with an emphasis on, what Ingilizian has coined, “whole-body health” and wellbeing. The connection between gut health and brain health are at the forefront of this transformation, which is a fairly new development in the field of nutrition. “I think this is a very exciting conversation we’re having because we’re shifting mindsets and asking people to think about the role of food in ways that they previously have not,” she explained, describing the gut as a second brain.

“Looking at consumer industries, in many cases, they operate in what’s considered the essentials of life. If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they’re basically at the bottom. It’s these basics—food and clothing—that operate at the fundamentals of life,” she shares. “And what we are looking to do is to fundamentally improve the quality of life by empowering consumer health and wellbeing,” she says. “This is something that I’ve worked on my entire career.”

Established in 1971 as a not-for-profit foundation in Geneva, the WEF is now the leading independent organization engaging the foremost political, business, cultural, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas. With access to both the public and private sectors, the leading global actors in a food system, they bring together governments, companies, and thought leaders in academia to find sustainable solutions to accessible nutrition to have a profound global impact. In her role, Ingilizian leads a team that works to promote sustainable consumption and production practices across various industries, also prioritizing reduced waste through circular or reusable models of consumption, focused on reuse based on the broader transformation framework of reduce/reuse/recycle. “We will not solve the seismic problem of plastic waste through recycling and need transformative solutions,” she shares.

She has also used her platform to give back to her homeland, co-founding a Gyumri-based digital software company called Digital Pomegranate with her husband in 2013, used by some of the major musicians of Sony Music—which is now one of the largest tech companies in Gyumri boasting a majority female-led team of coders and project managers. “I’m always interested in how I can contribute to Armenia’s advancement both economically and socially. I’m very passionate about how I can contribute to the long-term viability of the country. Or, said differently, how to fully strengthen Armenia to ensure we have a homeland for the next 5,000 years.”

I’m passionate about this idea of innovation, that is, what I call, human-centric. It is fundamentally designed to improve people’s lives and is socially responsible—and that also means in the context of the planet.

In addition to her professional work, Ingilizian is an active member of various organizations and networks that support social entrepreneurship and sustainable development. She is on the board of the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), and in the past, has also served on the board of the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA).

Despite this overwhelming list of achievements and titles, she’s found her stride leading the change in nutrition to shape a brighter future and better life for the next generation. “The work that I do at the World Economic Forum is one of my proudest accomplishments,” she shares. “The change I am leading is designed to preventatively improve people’s health and wellbeing before the onset of disease.” She pauses to add, “I wouldn’t be who I am if I did not do this.”

Insider_v15_Power of Yes_Zara Ingilizian

Insider_v15_Power of Yes_Zara Ingilizian
Ingilizian is interviewed about Digital Pomegrante, a Gyumri-based software company she co-founded with her husband in 2013.

Originally published in the June 2023 ​issue of AGBU Insider. end character

About the AGBU Insider

AGBU Insider profiles extraordinary AGBU program alumni across a diverse set of industries and passions. With exclusive interviews and photography, each issue reveals the Armenian impact on society, community, and industry.