Ever wonder how to be influential and reach the top of the world?. Here’s the inspiring story of CEO of PepsiCo and the Fortune / Time magazine’s most influential women in the world – the Chennai born Indra Krishnamoorthy Nooyi:
It’s a simple story of a powerful woman. A story of an Indian girl who came from conservative Chennai to pursue higher studies in the US with little money and no safety net. If she failed, she failed. A story of this determined girl, who while studying in Connecticut, worked as a receptionist from midnight to sunrise to earn money and struggled to put together US$50 to buy herself a western suit for her first job interview out of Yale, where she had just completed her masters. Incidentally, she wasn’t comfortable trying out a formal western outfit and ended up buying trousers that reached down only till her ankles. Rejected at the interview, she turned to her professor at the school who asked her what she would wear if she were to be in India. To her reply that it would be a sari, the professor advised her to “be yourself” and stick to what she was comfortable with. She wore a sari for her next interview. She got the job and has followed this philosophy for the rest of her career. She’s been herself, never tried to change her basic beliefs, derived strength from her traditions and believed in who she is. As she says, “I’m so secure in myself, I don’t have to be American to play in the corporate life.” She worked hard and in time was counted as one of the most powerful women in the world by Forbes. In this edition of ‘My Story’ we present Indra Nooyi, President & Chief Financial Officer PepsiCo, Inc – a story that is both inspiring in its simplicity and grand in its achievement.
It all began years ago in Chennai, where she studied hard in school to get her grades. She remembers how her mother would, after meal every day ask Indra and her sister what would they like to become when they grew up. They would come up with different ideas and their mother would reward the best idea each day. It forced Indra to think and dream for herself. It was this dream that led her to be a part of the 11th batch of IIM Kolkata. After two years of work with Johnson & Johnson and Mettur Beardsell in India, it was this fiery urge that took her to America in 1978, when she left India with barely any money to pursue a management degree from the prestigious Yale Graduate School of Management.
Starting off with Boston Consulting Group in 1980, she knew it would be harder work for her than others for two reasons – one, she was a woman and two, she wasn’t an American but an outsider. She spent six years directing international corporate strategy projects at the Boston Consulting Group. Her clients ranged from textiles and consumer goods companies to retailers and specialty chemicals producers. Six years later, she joined Motorola in 1986 as the vice-president and director of corporate strategy & planning. She moved to Asea Brown Boveri in 1990 and spent four years as vice president (corporate strategy & planning). She was part of the top management team responsible for the company’s U.S. business as well as its worldwide industrial businesses, generating about one-third of ABB’s $30 billion in global sales.
An interesting tale surrounds her joining PepsiCo in 1994. At that time she also had an offer from General Electric, one of the world’s best run companies under Jack Welch. The Pepsi CEO Wayne Callloway, in a bid to lure her, told her, “Jack Welch (GE’s legendary boss) is the best CEO I know, and GE is probably the finest company. But I have a need for someone like you, and I would make PepsiCo a special place for you.” Nooyi agreed.
She broke the glass ceiling when she was appointed senior vice president, corporate strategy and development after joining PepsiCo in 1994 but she knew that getting there was one thing while staying there was another. As she says, “If you want to reach the top of a company, I agree that it can only happen in the United States, but you have to start off saying that you have got to work twice as hard as your (male) counterparts.” Not only did she work harder than her counterparts, she also made her way up the ladder to become President and Chief Financial Officer of PepsiCo, and was also appointed as a member of board of directors of PepsiCo Inc – which she assumed in 2001.
Nooyi was 44 when she joined PepsiCo. Ever since, she has been involved in every major strategic decision the company has made in the last few years. That includes the drive to spin off PepsiCo’s fast food chain in 1997, acquiring Tropicana in 1998, and the US$ 13 billion move to acquire Quaker Oats. PepsiCo chief Roger Enrico announced her elevation following the Quaker acquisition saying, “Indra’s contributions to PepsiCo have been enormous and she will make a great President. In addition to her new role as President and CFO, Indra will also be nominated for election to the Pepsi board. She is a terrific addition to our world-class board and her perspective will be invaluable.”
Indra attributes a lot of Pepsi’s success to its great employees. She believes that a company remains great when there is a strong competitor, like Coke. She believes if you have no competition, a company will atrophy. Nooyi has a unique formula that keeps her work-life balance. She feels that you must have an extended family at work to give you that balance. To keep a company running at top speed, you need to attract the best employees.
At PepsiCo she has ensured that employees actually balance life and work. She views PepsiCo as an extended family and everybody at the company is there to help in every way possible. Sometime ago, when Indra was traveling, her daughter would call the office to ask for permission to play Nintendo. The receptionist would know the routine and ask: “Have you finished your homework? Have you had your snack? OK, you can play Nintendo for half an hour”. She then left a voice message for Indra saying “I gave Tara permission to play Nintendo”. Unheard of in most corporations, it’s a team Indra has built up at PepsiCo which knows each other so well.
Despite the monumental successes of her career, Indra Nooyi remains a quintessentially Indian woman who has combined the high-octane energy of her job with the calm, collected demeanour required to manage the equally central responsibility of a mother and a wife. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Fairfax county, Connecticut. If you ever visit her Connecticut home, do remember to take your shoes off before entering. If you forget, at least remember to take them off before entering the large puja room where a diya is lit and the inviting air of incense greets you. She keeps an image of Ganesha in her office, and in fact, some PepsiCo officials visited India and received similar images besides being told of the Hindu belief about Ganesh being the symbols of auspicious beginnings. Many of them now keep images of Ganesh in their offices! Nooyi attends PepsiCo board meetings in a sari; for she believes the corporate world appreciates people who are genuine.
At work, Nooyi is in the pressure cooker world of intriguing business maneuvres and frenetic multi-million dollar moves but when she enters her home, it is like entering a sanctuary of calm. She says Carnatic music plays in their home 18 hours a day, and the feeling is much like being in a temple. Does she think her religious convictions help her to do a better job in the corporate world? “I don’t know about a better job, but it certainly makes me calm,” she says. “There are times when the stress is so incredible between office and home, trying to be a wife, mother, daughter-in-law and corporate executive. Then you close your eyes and think about a temple like Tirupati, and suddenly you feel ‘Hey–I can take on the world.’ Hinduism floats around you, and makes you feel somehow invincible.”
Is it tough being a mother and a corporate executive? Nooyi admits it is difficult, “You can walk away from the fact that you’re a corporate executive, but you can’t walk away from the fact that you are a mom. In terms of being a mother and a corporate executive, the role of mom comes first.” She believes that her husband has been a great source of strength for her. Adds Nooyi on a perkier tone, “Always pick the right husband. I have a fantastically supportive husband.” What sees her through tough times? “My family and my belief in God. If all else fails, I call my mother in India when she’s there–and wake her up in the middle of the night–and she listens to me. And she probably promises God a visit to Tirupati!” Nooyi has always seen the world through the prism of her mother’s faith and beliefs and calls her the guiding light in her life.