The Future is Female
Claudia San Pedro
I would wager that there are very few, if any, Oklahomans who don’t have fond memories of a stifling summer night made more bearable by a Sonic cherry limeade. For Claudia San Pedro, the newly elevated president of Sonic Corp., the order is now an iced tea with blackberry and lime, and maybe an onion ring or two. “I’m the kind of person who lives to eat,” she says. “There are people who eat just to live, just to get through the day. I’m not one of those people,” Claudia laughs gently at herself. The new president exudes warmth and genuine Oklahoma hospitality, even in corporate surroundings.
Born in Mexico City, Claudia moved to Baltimore as a toddler with her family so that her father could attend medical school. After he took a cardiology fellowship in Oklahoma City and then opened his private practice in Norman, the family became honorary Okies. Claudia’s teenage years spent piled into a car, ordering beloved drink concoctions and cheese tots, felt like just part of this newfound territory.
Our go-to orders may have changed, but the nostalgic love of Sonic burns eternal in the Sooner state. Retro reinventions of comfort classics show no signs of slowing down on high-end restaurant menus, but long before tater tots were served with truffle oil in bougie hipster enclaves, they were served at Sonic, with chili and cheese on top if you preferred. And who didn’t prefer them that way? Claudia grew up with Sonic, like most of the rest of us. “What’s fascinating to me, though,” she reflects over a quiet conference room table, “is that while we’re a sixty-plus year old brand that has a lot of great history, I think we’re relevant now more than ever, and we’re all about the future.”
Sonic’s newly released “blended” burger, for one, combines ground beef with one of the food sustainability movement’s favorite darlings: mushrooms. The first of its kind in a national market, Sonic touts the burger’s flavor and its reduced fat and caloric load. It’s admittedly slightly smaller than the all-beef versions, but its carbon footprint is undeniably smaller as well.
There’s something else futuristic going on at Sonic headquarters, though, that has nothing to do with mushrooms. The C-level leadership team, so frequently a sea of male faces, boasts a gender parity that’s nearly unheard of in the business world, as does the board and the rest of the corporate office team. On and on this gender make-up goes, even down to operators and supervisors of individual franchises. Claudia attributes this to an ingrained company culture: “It’s a tone of ‘Let’s attract the best and the brightest people. Let’s make sure that we attract people who may not always think like we do, or may not always look like we do, because if you want the best discussion and the best debate, you need to have diversity of perspective and diversity of background.’”
Claudia is no doubt one of the best and brightest. Educated at Smith College in economics, she also holds an MBA from OU. In 1992, she joined public service as a budget analyst for the state senate before becoming assistant director at the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, which oversees the state budget. In 2005, she was appointed director of the state finance department—the first time the position had been held by a woman or Hispanic person.
When Claudia wanted to shift gears to the private sector, Sonic topped her list. Now, after eleven years with the company, she couldn’t imagine anywhere better. “We get spoiled. Talking to other friends in different environments is a good reminder that I do belong to a special place because not every environment is like this.”
She’s right: only 14.6% of executive positions in the United States are held by women. “When you think we make up over half the population—I mean, you know the obvious. We have just as much to contribute. We’re just as smart. So why aren’t we seeing more women in leadership?” According to her, what’s so often missing is a commitment from the top. “It’s not about just meeting a number,” she explains, “but having a commitment to recognizing that good talent comes in every single weight, shape, gender—everything.”
Sonic’s culture is grounded in that commitment, and its new president seems poised to steward it into the next generation. “Economic empowerment is so important for girls and women. When we look across our landscape at the number of women who are the sole supporters of their families, being able to provide opportunities for survival and success for them is important, and I’m proud that we play an important role in that.”