Indra Nooyi Curated
Former Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo
CURATED BY :
What are some tips to become a Superwoman like you?
Why aren't we having multi-generational families?
What is the Asian house model?
What is your guidance to the people who are aspiring to be leaders in future ?
People describe being CEO is pretty brutal at times. What was the brutal side of it ?
You entered the MBA program at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta soon after earning your bachelor’s degree, a rarity these days. Looking back, do you recommend this? For those students who pursue this path, what advice would you give them?
I think to get the maximum out of an MBA program, you should work for a couple of years at least, because then you really understand what you’re studying in business school. It’s no longer just an academic experience, but learning the theory and how it is deployed and used in business. After I graduated from Calcutta, I worked for a couple of years and then came to the Yale School of Management. I have to tell you, I actually understood everything that was being taught at Yale because I now had some experience with business. Even though I had the basic theory at Calcutta, the fact that I could now apply it at work and then get that theory further refined at Yale made me a better person.
As an undergraduate, you studied physics, chemistry, and mathematics. What motivated you to pursue a business degree? How did your background give you a leg up in the program?
I loved science and that’s why my undergraduate degree was in chemistry, physics, and mathematics. I went to business school and graduated from IIM Calcutta in 1974. When I went to IIM Calcutta, there were only four reputable business schools in India. Of the business schools, the only kids who went to IIM Calcutta were students who were steeped in science. The entire business curriculum at IIM Calcutta was based on quantitative methods: operations research, production, even mainframe computer usage! Finance was also taught through quantitative methods. The reason I was motivated to get a business degree was because it represented a major challenge. It was so hard to get into business school those days. Hundreds of thousands of kids wrote the exam. 150 kids went to Ahmedabad and 100 kids went to Calcutta. Very few women were admitted, so I was motivated to break that barrier if nothing else. Because my sister had already gotten into Ahmedabad, I was determined to get into Calcutta. So I wrote the entrance exam, passed all of the interviews, and got in. Believe me, if I hadn’t had an undergraduate degree in chemistry, physics, and mathematics, I couldn’t have graduated from IIM Calcutta. Looking back now, I realize I use math in everything I do. So I am glad I had an undergraduate degree in a STEM area.
Where did you gain your this never ending confidence from ?
That confidence was reinforced to me by my paternal grandfather, a charismatic judge. If he asked me to do a job as a child and I later told him that I was unable to do it the way he wanted, he would make me write "I will not make excuses" 200 times on a piece of paper. I became grateful for this punishment when I grew older. My confidence and work ethic helped me achieve an MBA from the Yale School of Management in 1980 and to start building a successful career. Early on, men wouldn't make eye contact with me in meetings and would consistently check my answers with one of my male colleagues. But rather than wilt under the pressure, I began to call men out on their actions, and it wouldn't take long for them to realize I was highly adept at my job. In my heart I said, 'I can do this better than anyone else can, and if everything else fails, they're going to come to me and say, 'Fix it,' because I know I'm that good. Remember, I could be president of India!
We all have some life changing experiences from our childhood memory. Will you share one such memory with us that some way or other inspired you ?
Every night at the dinner table, my mother would ask us to write a speech about what we would do if we were president, chief minister, or prime minister - every day would be a different world leader she'd ask us to play. At the end of dinner, we had to give the speech, and she had to decide who she was going to vote for. The winner of the debate then signed a piece of paper that stated they had become whatever the world leader of the day was. We would laugh and have fun with it, but me and my sister came to appreciate it, even after we became too cool for the ritual when we hit adolescence. Even though my mother didn't work and didn't go to college, she lived a life vicariously through her daughters. So she gave us that confidence to be whatever we wanted to be. That was an incredibly formative experience in my youth.
How do you take your responsibilities of being both a parent and a CEO ?
I don't think women can have it all. I just don't think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all. Every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact many times during the day you have to make those decisions. We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents. But if you ask our daughters, I'm not sure they will say that I've been a good mom. I'm not sure.
What is your definition of being successful ?
Succession is perhaps the most difficult job a board can do – it is also one of the most important things a sitting CEO has to focus on. Your success is not going to be decided by how well you ran the company, it’s going to be determined by how good your successor ran the company. I was more worried about my legacy than I was about my performance as CEO. If the company collapsed after I left, it meant I didn’t build a company with a solid foundation and a solid team. My belief is that if you lay out a plan and say, “In 10 years, I want to be CEO,” then it’s a disaster. You’re so fixated on this career path, you don’t do the jobs that you’re assigned to do well. I’m not worried about where I’m going – I’m going to do whatever I have to do very well.
How do you see the 'gender-gap' in the work ?
Don’t define me by labels, define me by the quality of the output that I produce. We have to work on the environment, the labels, and experiences. When we elevate a woman, we say, “She’s terrific, but…” And we elevate the guy by saying, “he’s pretty good, and…” Those are the kinds of things we have to change as leaders in companies.
How do you maintain balance between your work life and personal life ?
Being a CEO is a full-time job. Being a mother is a full-time job. Being a wife is also a full-time job. And in the Indian context, sometimes being a daughter and a daughter-in-law are also full-time jobs. So, to expect us to do great in all the jobs is crazy. There is no easy answer. First, make sure you marry the right person. It makes all the difference in the world. I married a good one. Forty years later, I can say he’s a keeper. Even today, my husband and I plan for six months at a time on where we are going to be, who’s going to do what and how we’re going to run a family. Second, make sure you enrol your extended family. I love my extended family – I convinced them all to take short vacations and hang around our home. For three months, hang around my home and I’ll give you a ticket to visit the US – that’s how I got them all, every member of the family.
What's your opinion about whether women can have it all?
I don't think women can have it all. I just don't think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all. My husband and I have been married for 34 years. And we have two daughters. And every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact many times during the day you have to make those decisions. And you have to co-opt a lot of people to help you. We co-opted our families to help us. We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents. But if you ask our daughters, I'm not sure they will say that I've been a good mom. I'm not sure. And I try all kinds of coping mechanisms.
You often use the term “purpose” in talking about your business. What purpose your business is telling about ? What does that mean to you?
When I became CEO in 2006, I did a series of town hall meetings with employees. Few said they came to work for a paycheck. Most wanted to build a life, not simply gain a livelihood. And they were well aware that consumers cared about health and wellness. We realized we needed to engage our people’s heads, hearts, and hands. We had to produce more products that are good for you. We had to embrace sustainability. Purpose is not about giving money away for social responsibility. It’s about fundamentally changing how to make money in order to deliver performance—to help ensure that PepsiCo is a “good” company where young people want to work.
Would you be willing to accept lower profit margins to “do the right thing”?
Purpose doesn’t hurt margins. Purpose is how you drive transformation. If you don’t transform the portfolio, you’re going to stop top-line growth, and margins will decline anyway. So we don’t really invest in “purpose,” but in a strategy to keep the company successful in the future. If we hadn’t tackled certain environmental issues, especially with water, we would have lost our licenses in some countries. Now, sometimes when you’re changing the culture radically, you run into problems. Transformations sometimes hit your margins or top line because things don’t always go in a straight line. But if you think in terms of the life span of the company, these are just small blips.
Consumers seem very demanding these days. Everyday they are coming up with new needs. How do you keep up with that?
We have to make sure we’re engineering our portfolio for the consumer of the future. There’s nothing wrong, for example, with aspartame. But if consumers say they don’t like it, we have to give them a choice. We’ll offer a diet product that’s aspartame-free. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with high-fructose corn syrup, but if consumers say they like real sugar, we have to offer that, too.
Growing up in Madras, you seem to have broken every possible stereotypical expectation of a young girl in India. How do you define your journey of becoming that fearless women ?
When you’re a CEO, you can’t break too many stereotypical expectations. I wish you could, but you can’t. In those days, there was a well-defined conservative stereotype, so everything I did was breaking the framework. I played in a rock band. I climbed trees. I did stuff that made my parents wonder, “What the hell is she doing?” But I also was a good student and a good daughter, so I never brought shame on the family. And I was lucky that the men in my family thought the women should have an equal shot at everything. I’m still a bit of a rebel, always saying that we cannot sit still. Every morning you’ve got to wake up with a healthy fear that the world is changing, and a conviction that, to win, you have to change faster and be more agile than anyone else.
There was a moment early in your career when you had the chance to go to a few different companies, including G.E. and Monsanto. Why did you choose Pepsi?
Wayne Calloway, who was then C.E.O. of Pepsi, was a man of few of words. He called me at the last minute, just before I was going to join G.E., and made an amazing pitch. He was on the board of G.E., and he said: “I hear you’re going to join G.E. It’s a great company, and Jack Welch is a great C.E.O. But my need at Pepsi is greater than Jack’s. We don’t have somebody like you here, and you’ll make a bigger difference at PepsiCo.” They didn’t have somebody of my ethnicity or international outlook who was female in senior management at PepsiCo.
What were the big takeaways from your time at Yale School of Management?
The school had just started, and the basic belief, which is more relevant now than ever, was that companies are members of society, and what you do has to be viewed as through a stakeholder lens, not just a shareholder lens. They steeped all of us in that thinking.
Do you feel that companies have to reinvent themselves every few years, that competitive advantage is fleeting?
No question about it. It’s been a long time since you could talk about sustainable competitive advantage. The cycles are shortened. The rule used to be that you’d reinvent yourself once every seven to 10 years. Now it’s every two to three years. There’s constant reinvention: how you do business, how you deal with the customer.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Madras, which is now Chennai. We never lacked for anything, but we didn’t have much. It was a good, conservative Brahmin family, deeply steeped in learning and education. That was the only focus. The expectation was you would get, at a minimum, a master’s degree. If you got a Ph.D., you’re better off. We were the ultimate nerds. The only difference was, in my case, I decided to be a nerd in some ways and branch out in other ways. I played cricket. I climbed trees. I played the guitar. I did all those wild and wacky things.
Recently you have been seen focusing more on the design of the product. What problem were you trying to solve by making PepsiCo more design-driven?
As CEO, I visit a market every week to see what we look like on the shelves. I always ask myself—not as a CEO but as a mom—“What products really speak to me?” The shelves just seem more and more cluttered, so I thought we had to rethink our innovation process and design experiences for our consumers—from conception to what’s on the shelf.
What’s your definition of good design?
For me, a well-designed product is one you fall in love with. Or you hate. It may be polarizing, but it has to provoke a real reaction. Ideally, it’s a product you want to engage with in the future, rather than just “Yeah, I bought it, and I ate it.”
How do you think your work has been inspiring to the women around you ?
I think going forward, people like us paved the path for women to be viewed as equal, powerful and contributing as anybody else. And, so women should not feel like second class citizens. They should know they too have arrived on the scene. And their contributions will also be noticed irrespective of their background.
According to you, what's that one thing that keeps a business run smoothly ?
Building a network of support is key. If you don’t develop mechanisms with your secretaries, with the extended office, with everybody around you, it cannot work. You know, stay-at-home mothering was a full-time job. Being a CEO for a company is three full time jobs rolled into one. Important too, is understanding that each choice is its own sacrifice and that it will be impossible to “have it all.” Make the most of your days and make space for the loved ones who matter most.