Indra Nooyi: The living embodiment of an American dream

The former CEO and chairperson of PepsiCo was a star attraction at the 14th Emirates Airline Festival of Literature



Indra Nooyi. — Photo by Shihab
Indra Nooyi. — Photo by Shihab
by

Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Sun 13 Feb 2022, 10:22 PM

Last updated: Mon 14 Feb 2022, 2:23 AM

Many have chased and lived the ‘American dream’ — but how far can this great ambition take a dreamer? For Indra Nooyi, the sky was the limit.

“Those who pursue the American dream believe that no matter how much they accomplish, there is always something better to strive for,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, which captured the hedonistic jazz age in the Prohibition-era US.

Later, historian James Truslow Adams also popularised the idea in his 1931 book The Epic of America, describing the American dream as a pragmatic construct about “a better, richer and happier society for all citizens of every rank” and inimical to a “wealth gap”.

From being one of the five girls studying management in business school to becoming the first woman of colour and an immigrant to become the CEO and chairperson of a Fortune 50 company — 66-year-old Nooyi is a living embodiment of the American dream.

Her journey from Chennai in southern India to leading the soda giant PepsiCo — thanks to a scholarship at the prestigious Yale University — is well documented in her new memoir, My Life in Full: Work, Family and Our Future, which was published in September 2021.

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It is an extraordinary story of an exceptional business leader, who headed the American multinational company for 12 years, which also included weathering the 2007-08 global financial crisis.

The memoir is a saga of how a middle-class Indian girl — who as a student in Madras Christian College in the early 1970s played guitar in an all-girl rock band and even captained an all-girl cricket team — ended up helming one of the world’s biggest consumer companies. It’s an honest portrayal of her legendary career and the sacrifices it so often demanded.

‘A product of my upbringing’

Nooyi wears her success lightly. “I’m a product of my upbringing,” she said. “I had a family where men felt that women should be educated as much as the boys. We should dream big and do whatever we want. I had a mother, who wanted us to get married at the age of 18 and at the same time, she wanted us to dream and soar. It was one foot on the brake and one foot on the accelerator. In a way, that helped. It kept our feet grounded and allowed our minds to soar. We were allowed to dream big,” she reminisced.

Nooyi moved to the US in 1978 after she got admission to the Yale School of Management, where she earned a master’s degree in public and private management in 1980.

What was it like coming to America from a licence-raj India that was still grappling with its experiments with a fledgling democracy and happened to be on the back of Indira Gandhi’s draconian 18-month emergency rule?

Nooyi recalled that her initial years at Yale were “dreadfully lonely and the only community we had were other international students, who would help each other out with a mailbox or a bank account”.

In retrospect, she said: “We went through a period, what I’d call early settlers, where we had to figure out how to integrate and settle down”.

The Ganesha (a Hindu god) devotee overcame those initial challenges with aplomb and remained true to her values and social moorings. “As a vegetarian, I didn’t even know what a pizza was. In those days, as you’d know, there was no pizza in India. I never had cheese before in my life. Everything was new. It was exciting to uncover layers of complexities in American society and learn them. At the same time, it was a challenge,” she said.

A dream run

She worked for PepsiCo for 24 long years, including 12 years at the top.

Her tenure in the leadership role was seven years longer than the average CEO term at large companies, according to an Equilar study, a trusted source for corporate leadership data.

What was the secret behind such a long and successful run?

“Rather than thinking of it as a 12-year term, I see it as two six-year terms. Because in the first six years, there was a (global) financial crisis. I spent this time transforming and remaking PepsiCo, and the next six years were about reaping the benefits. So, even though it was one big 12-year tenure, when I think of it, it’s two six-year tenures. Perhaps that’s why it was possible to run the corporation for 12 years,” she said.

Away from the limelight

On October 3, 2018, she stepped down as the CEO of PepsiCo and remained the chairwoman of the board of directors until early 2019.

It’s been three years since she has been away from the limelight. Having walked into the sunset in 2019, what does a day in this power woman’s life look like now?

“As a CEO, your life is programmed, almost a year or two ahead of time. For instance, where you’d be in a year, 80 per cent of your calendar is fixed and somebody is always moving you from place to place. Everything is so regimented and you’re expected to do certain things as a CEO,” she said.

“And now I’m my own boss. I’m busier than I was with PepsiCo. But I can switch off if I want to. I’ve embarked on a wide variety of interests, unlike my time at PepsiCo where I had to focus on the company and its quarterly earnings. I have more freedom, and theoretically, more free time. But I fill in my free time with more interesting stuff to do. It’s certainly more exciting,” she added.

‘Less is more’

Nooyi got married to Raj K Nooyi — who was the interim CEO of Plan International and the retired vice-president and global head of Supply Chain Management Center of Excellence, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) — in 1980. They have two daughters, Preetha and Tara.

For over 30 years now, she has been living in the same house in Greenwich, Connecticut. ‘Less is more’ appears to be her mantra.

“Yes, we’ve lived in the same house in Connecticut for over 30 years. I’ve had a wonderful blend of India and the US. There’s lots of stuff that is Indian, including my prayer room. I am still a vegetarian and still have my south Indian food at home and a teetotaller. But there are many aspects of the home that are American, too, such as how it’s furnished and how it looks, the kind of sports and TV shows I watch. I’m a living example of the American dream — a happy blend of the East and the West,” she added.

Of the many lores around Nooyi’s time at PepsiCo, the most popular was the one where she questioned the board of directors when they gave her a raise in 2008. Nooyi is believed to have politely declined a higher pay cheque. “The board thought I was crazy,” she said, adding, “I put the corporation first before me.”

‘Performance with purpose’

Nooyi’s legacy is her unique business model — “performance with purpose”. Her initiative led to connecting the dots between what’s good for business and what's good for the world, such as healthier consumer products and pragmatic policies to conserve the world’s limited natural resources.

At PepsiCo, she thought: “What if we change the way we make money with a focus on future-proofing the company and eliminating the risks that could happen if we were to perform in any society or any country?”

She illustrated her business philosophy with an example.

“For instance, if we open a plant in a water-distressed area and use too much water, that’s going against what that society needs. Thinking of doing right by society allows us a licence to operate in that society. It’s that risk-proofing of the company that allows us to be a responsible citizen in every country and community that we’re a part of around the world,” she said.

The art of giving

Nooyi believes in practising what she preaches. Charity is an integral part of “performance with purpose”.

She chose not to name a charity, but candidly said: “My husband and I give to a lot of causes, such as the public health at Yale, the business school at Yale and all the educational institutions that educate our children."

Now, she is giving a lot to the “care economy because that's who we are”.

‘Iconic’ PepsiCo

Nooyi paid rich tributes to the ‘iconic’ PepsiCo, unarguably the most culturally advanced company in the US.

“PepsiCo reinvented itself through the years to be timely for the changes, habits and culture," she said.

"For example, when Generation NeXT was coming into their own, PepsiCo became a choice of a new generation. At every point, PepsiCo rode the wave of culture to reinvent itself,” she added. Her successor Ramon Laguarta, then, clearly has his work cut out.

Dubai: An ‘amazing growth story’

Every time Nooyi comes to Dubai, she’s ‘amazed’ at how much it’s growing, she told Khaleej Times as she recalled her first visit to the emirate over 35 years ago.

“Everywhere you go, you see growth, excitement, and it is one of the few places in the world that welcomes investments and businesses and welcomes people to come here and settle. This is the hub of the Middle East,” said Nooyi, who is currently on the board of Amazon.

It was the emirate’s ease of doing business that impressed her the most.

Nooyi was in Dubai to attend the 14th Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (February 3-13) and talk about her memoir My Life in Full: Work, Family and Our Future.

At the session, Nooyi revealed what it meant to shatter the glass ceiling and discussed how governments and corporations can create work environments that promote prosperity at a personal, societal and ecological level.

“The countries that have the best talent are the ones that will attract business,” she said. “If Dubai can make its businesses more family friendly, it will attract the best talent in the future.”

Earlier on Saturday, Nooyi, an alumnus of Indian Institute of Management, (IIM), Calcutta — she belonged to the Class of 1976 when it had only five girl students out of 100 — took part in a fireside chat in Dubai for a programme called ‘Leadership for the Future’, which was organised by PAN IIM, an alumni network. The PAN IIM event was held in partnership with Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

On Sunday, Nooyi was in conversation with the UAE’s Minister of State for International Cooperation and director-general, Expo 2020 Dubai, at the mega fair as they talked about the role women can play in global leadership.


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