(July 3, 2022) On October 28, 1955, a boy named Bill Gates was born in the USA, while a girl named Indra Nooyi was born into a Krishnamurthy (Tamil Brahmin) family in India. Named after the Hindu king of gods, she went on to become the chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, world’s second largest food and beverage company. A sought-after corporate strategist and advisor to executives, entrepreneurs and governments in her post retirement life, she is leading her life by example. Global Indian turns its spotlight on the business diva, who was named the third most powerful woman in business by Fortune.
At an address in her alma mater IIM Kolkata, the Indian-American business leader remarked, “Candidness, confidence, boundless energy, unending hope and an energising vision encapsulated in a compassionate world view,” are the qualities that can take a person at the top of the hierarchical ladder.
Indra’s life in India
The first woman of colour and an immigrant to run a Fortune 500 company, Indra spent her childhood in the bustling area of T Nagar in Madras. A student of Holy Angels Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School, she excelled in every subject as this was expected of her by her grandfather, a retired judge. Such was the pressure that if she failed to score a 100 in math, her mother would cry. This gave way to Indra’s unparalleled desire for success. She calls her mother “greatest role model” as the never-ending urge to break boundaries was instilled by her.
Life as an immigrant
Moving to the US to earn her master’s degree in Public and Private Management from Yale University came with its share of teething troubles. However, the support system that she found in other international students is what kept her going. She felt that the United States did her a big favour by allowing her to come in. “For whatever reason, that’s how I felt. And I felt that I had to prove that I was worthy of being a member of this country, so I always worked hard,” she said in an interview while talking about her life as an immigrant.
Hard work in DNA
In an interview with McKinsey Global Publishing, she told:
“Hard work is in my DNA. I worked hard my entire life because I wanted the US to say, ‘She did good by the United States.’ I wanted India to say, ‘She did good by India, because she didn’t bring any disrepute to the country.’ And I wanted my family to say, ‘She never, ever let down the Krishnamurthy family,’ which is my family of birth, and then, subsequently, the Nooyi family. I had all of these imaginary responsibilities that I took on.”
How Indra’s story resonates with women is the fact that she always believed in integrating work and family, a value that the majority of women possess or are at least raised with. “It’s a slog. Whether you like it or not, to hold your job at the senior level, you’ve got to work extra hard. At that level, it’s either up or out. To compete with others, and contribute, and be noticed is a tremendous investment of time and energy. That’s why I think, the hope is that by the time you reach that level, your kids are already going to college, so you can have all the time to focus on the job,” is Indra’s advice to women as she mentions in the interview with McKinsey Global Publishing.
Women in leadership roles
After becoming the fifth CEO in PepsiCo’s five-decade history, Indra served the organisation from 2006 to 2018. Since her induction in 1994, a lot has changed. From seeing no women in the role of CEO to having 41 women CEOs by 2021, things started looking up. “Have we made progress? Optimistically, we’ve got 41 CEOs. That’s a big number. But it’s less than 9 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs,” she remarked in an interview. Indra has been propagating the idea that there is room for women to grow and ascend in their chosen field. She has seen the change in professional desires of women and has expressed happiness on various platforms about the fact that hopes, dreams, and aspirations of women have been flying high. They want to be entrepreneurs, start companies, run NGOs and be in other powerful positions in society, which is a good sign.
Indra’s strategy – performance with a purpose
As CEO of PepsiCo, Indra was not just driving organisational growth but also leaving a positive impact on people and the environment. She strategically reclassified PepsiCo’s products into three categories: “fun for you” (products like regular soda and potato chips), “better for you” (diet or low-fat versions of snacks and sodas etc.), and “good for you” (oatmeal etc.). These initiatives garnered massive funding for the organisation. She also moved corporate spending to healthier alternatives, away from junk foods, improving health quotient of even the “fun” offerings like removal of aspartame from diet Pepsi.
As second part of her strategy of ‘Performance with a Purpose’, she focused on environmental concerns and sustainability – conserving water, redesigned packaging to reduce waste, switching to renewable energy sources and recycling.
The third component of the strategy involved creating a culture where workers were encouraged to stay with the company. She even wrote to parents of her leadership team and visited their homes to create the personal connection.
The giving back phase
After retiring from PepsiCo as its chairperson and CEO in 2018, she has been involved in giving back activities that make her life fulfilling. Understanding her stature, she knew that she is one in a chain of women leaders who can help move the fraternity forward for generations to come. So, she set out to write a book.
“I thought I would devote every ounce of my experience and intellect to a manual for fixing how we (women) mix work and family.” – Indra Nooyi
She envisioned the book, My Life in Full: Work, Family and Our Future as a tool for the next level of progress so that the society as a whole is able to blend work and family successfully.
But this wasn’t enough for Indra. “I give back here in the US, and I give back in India. I’ve rebuilt all of the labs in all of the educational institutions that I studied in, from high school or middle school to college, to the Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata. In the US, I give back to every educational institution that I, my husband, and our kids have been involved in. So, we’re in this giving-back phase, both in terms of money and time,” she said in the conversation with McKinsey Global Publishing. Earlier, her work gave her the feeling of an accomplished person, and now it’s the philanthropy that makes her feel complete.
Active after retirement
Indra, who stays in Connecticut with her husband Raj Nooyi, took up the responsibility as co-director of the newly created Connecticut Economic Resource Center, a public-private partnership with the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, in 2019. She is also the co-chair of Connecticut-based non-profit organization AdvanceCT and international corporate strategist associated with brands like Amazon, Phlips and other business organisations, academic institutions and charitable organisations.
From living a simple life in Chennai to making it to world’s top 100 powerful women list, Indra Nooyi is a perfect example of persistence and perseverance. Her story is an inspiration to all, offering the life lesson that hard work can help you climb the ladder of success, and that anything is possible. Just keep going!