The former CEO and Chairman of PepsiCo was one of the stars of the 14th Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
Indra Nooyi. — Photo by Shihab
Many have chased and lived the “American Dream” – but how far can this lofty ambition take a dreamer? For Indra Nooyi, the sky was the limit.
“Those who pursue the American dream believe that no matter what they accomplish, there is always something better to do,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in his 1925 novel. Gatsby the magnificentwhich captured the era of hedonistic jazz during the era of prohibition in the United States.
Later historian James Truslow Adams also popularized the idea in his 1931 book America’s epicdescribing the American Dream as a pragmatic construct on “a better, wealthier, happier society for all citizens of all ranks” and hostile to a “wealth gap”.
From one of five daughters to study management at a business school to the first woman of color and immigrant to become CEO and president of a Fortune 50 company – 66-year-old Nooyi is a living embodiment of the American Dream.
His journey from Chennai to southern India at the helm of soda giant PepsiCo – on a scholarship from prestigious Yale University – is well documented in his new memoir, My whole life: work, family and our futurewhich was released in September 2021.
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It is the extraordinary story of an exceptional business leader, who led the American multinational for 12 years, which also saw it through the global financial crisis of 2007-08.
The memoir tells how a middle-class Indian woman – who, as a student at Madras Christian College in the early 1970s, played guitar in an all-female rock band and even led an all-female cricket team – ended up running one of the biggest consumer companies in the world. It’s an honest portrait of her storied career and the sacrifices it so often demanded.
“A product of my upbringing”
Nooyi wears his success lightly. “I am the product of my upbringing,” she says. “I had a family where the men believed that the women should be educated as much as the boys. We have to dream big and do what we want. I had a mother, who wanted us to get married at 18 and in same time, she wanted us to dream and fly. 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 recalls.
Nooyi moved to the United States in 1978 after gaining 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 after a bachelor’s-Raj The India that was still grappling with its experiences with a fledgling democracy and found itself on the back of Indira Gandhi’s draconian 18-month state of emergency?
Nooyi recalled that her early years at Yale were “terribly lonely and the only community we had was other international students, helping each other with a mailbox or a bank account.”
Looking back, she said, “We went through a period, what I would call early settlers, where we had to figure out how to fit in and settle down.”
The devotee of Ganesha (a Hindu god) overcame these 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. At that time, as you know, there was no pizza in India. I have never eaten cheese in my life. Everything was new. It was exciting to discover layers of complexities in American society and to learn about them. At the same time, it was a challenge,” she said.
A dream race
She worked for PepsiCo for 24 long years, including 12 at the top.
According to a study by Equilar, a trusted source of corporate leadership data, his tenure in the executive role lasted seven years longer than the average CEO tenure at large corporations.
What was the secret behind such a long and successful run?
“Rather than thinking of 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 that time transforming and remaking PepsiCo, and the next six years were all about reaping the benefits. So even though it was a big 12-year term, when I think about it, it’s two six-year terms. Maybe that’s why it was possible to run the company for 12 years,” she said.
Far from the spotlight
On October 3, 2018, she stepped down as CEO of PepsiCo and remained chairman of the board until early 2019.
It’s been three years since she’s been in the spotlight. After stepping into the sunset in 2019, what does a day in the life of this powerful woman look like now?
“As CEO, your life is scheduled, almost a year or two in advance. For example, where you would be in a year, 80% of your schedule is fixed and someone is always moving you from place to place. Everything is so regimented and you are expected to do certain things as 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. I got into a wide variety of interests, unlike my time at PepsiCo where I had to focus on the company and its quarterly results. I have more freedom, and theoretically, more free time. But I fill my free time with more interesting things to do. It’s definitely more exciting,” she added.
‘Less is more’
Nooyi married Raj K Nooyi – who was the acting CEO of Plan International and the retired Vice President and Global Director of the Supply Chain Management Center of Excellence, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) – in 1980. They have two daughters, Preetha and Tara.
For more than 30 years now, she has lived in the same house in Greenwich, Connecticut. “Less is more” seems to be his mantra.
“Yes, we have lived in the same house in Connecticut for over 30 years. I had a wonderful mix of India and USA. There are many things that are Indian, including my prayer room. I’m still a vegetarian and still have my South Indian food at home and a teetotaler. But there are also many aspects of the house that are American, like the way it’s furnished and what it looks like, the kind of sports and TV shows I watch. I am a living example of the American dream, a happy blend of East and West,” she added.
Of the many traditions surrounding Nooyi’s time at PepsiCo, the most popular was when she questioned the board when they gave her a raise in 2008. Nooyi reportedly politely declined a higher paycheck. “The board thought I was crazy,” she said, adding, “I put the company before myself.”
“Performance with a purpose”
Nooyi’s legacy is its unique business model — “performance with purpose”. His initiative has helped connect 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 changed the way we make money by emphasizing the sustainability of the business and eliminating the risks that could arise if we were to perform in any which society or any country?”
She illustrated her business philosophy with an example.
“For example, if we open a factory in a water-stressed area and use too much water, it goes against the needs of that society. Thinking about doing good through society gives us a license to operate in that society. It is this business risk protection that allows us to be a responsible citizen in every country and community we are part of around the world,” she said.
The art of giving
Nooyi believes in practicing what she preaches. Charity is an integral part of “performance with purpose”.
She chose not to name a charity, but said candidly, “My husband and I donate to many causes, such as Yale Public Health, Yale Business School, and all institutions of teaching that educate our children.”
Now she gives a lot to “the care economy because that’s who we are”.
Nooyi paid rich tributes to the “iconic” PepsiCo, arguably the most culturally advanced company in the United States.
“PepsiCo has reinvented itself over the years to keep up with changes, habits and culture,” she said.
“For example, when Generation NeXT took off, PepsiCo became the choice of a new generation. At every turn, PepsiCo rode the wave of culture to reinvent itself,” she added. His successor Ramon Laguarta, then, clearly has his job cut.
Dubai: an “incredible growth story”
Every time Nooyi comes to Dubai she is ‘amazed’ at how much it grows, she said Khaleej times as she recalled her first visit to the emirate over 35 years ago.
“Everywhere you go you see growth, excitement, and it’s one of the few places in the world that welcomes investment and business and invites people to come and settle here. It’s the hub of the Middle East,” said Nooyi, who currently sits on Amazon’s board.
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 his memoir My whole life: work, family and our future.
During the session, Nooyi revealed what it meant to break the glass ceiling and how governments and businesses can create work environments that promote personal, societal and ecological prosperity.
“Countries with the best talent are the ones that will attract business,” she said. “If Dubai can make its businesses more family-friendly, it will attract top talent in the future.”
Earlier on Saturday, Nooyi, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Calcutta – she belonged to the class of 1976 when she had just five out of 100 female students – took part in a fireside chat in Dubai for a program called ‘Leadership for the Future’, organized by PAN IIM, an alumni network. The PAN IIM event was organized in partnership with Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
On Sunday, Nooyi spoke with the UAE’s Minister of State for International Cooperation and CEO of Expo 2020 Dubai, at the mega fair, as they discussed the role women can play in global leadership.