I owe a great deal to both countries and cultures: Indra Nooyi

From a young immigrant student in a sari to the CEO of an iconic American company, Indra Nooyi has been a poster girl for Indians who come to the US chasing the proverbial American Dream

Nov 26, 2021
I owe a great deal to both countries and cultures: Indra Nooyi

From a young immigrant student in a sari to the CEO of an iconic American company, Indra Nooyi has been a poster girl for Indians who come to the US chasing the proverbial American Dream. But Nooyi, former Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, has not forgotten her Indian roots. She belongs in both worlds, the United States and India, as the first woman of color and immigrant to run a Fortune 50 company tells in her first book, My Life in Full.

“This duality is a part of me,” says Nooyi in an email interview with the American Bazaar recalling how, at a White House event, both then President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh claimed her as “one of us.”

Born in Madras (now Chennai) eight years after India’s independence, Nooyi moved to the US when she was 23 to attend Yale University.  “I owe a great deal to both countries and cultures,” she says. “And I make a concerted effort to honor both.”

But being a “female, an immigrant and a person of color” were not the “attributes that would bar me from success – they had to be reasons for my success,” says Nooyi.

Of course, she did realize she was different. She says, “But, from day one, I was grateful to be in the room. I focused on the job at hand. I over-prepared and over-delivered, so that my work spoke for itself.”

Asked why she chose to quit PepsiCo after 12 years at the top, Nooyi noted that the average tenure of a CEO at a major company is five to seven years, while she spent more than a decade in that seat.

“I was very proud of what we accomplished during my tenure at PepsiCo,” she says, “But there’s also a point at which you have to step aside and help usher in a fresh perspective.”

She was “also looking forward to ‘hanging up my boots,’ taking a step back, and focusing on other things — like spending more time with my family.”

Entering the executive suite at PepsiCo in 1994, Nooyi rose to become chairman and CEO in just 12 years and under her leadership the company’s revenue grew 80 percent and market capitalization grew by $57 billion.

Asked about the “Performance with Purpose” mission that she initiated at PepsiCo, Nooyi said, “I knew we needed to focus on three core business imperatives: human sustainability, environmental sustainability, and talent sustainability. Hence, Nourish. Replenish. Cherish.”

The “Nourish” component focused on making healthier products in a more health-conscious world. “Replenish” was about the environment, while “Cherish” focused on developing the workplace and the talent pipeline.

“We focused on diversity, inclusion, and creating a space in which women and family builders could succeed,” Nooyi says. “I wanted to change the way we made money and future-proof the company. Ultimately, we succeeded.”

She set out to write a “manual for fixing how we mix work and family,” but instead decided to write about “My Life in Full” once she realized “the most poignant way to galvanize people into action was to complement these factual analyses with shared, lived experiences.”

“There is no simple, linear roadmap” to address “the work and family conundrum,” Nooyi says, “But it begins with recognizing the problem. Our work-and-family infrastructure is broken, and the Covid-19 pandemic laid that bare.”

She called upon “our leaders — business, government, and otherwise — to take measures to build the right support systems to build healthy family lives and thrive in the workplace.”

“We need equal pay for men and women; work flexibility with the help of technology; on-site childcare facilities for company employees; viable, paid leave plans; and so much more,” Nooyi says.

“I don’t approach this issue just as a feminist, but as an economist. And I truly believe that if we can come together on this issue, we can achieve real progress,” she asserts.

Nooyi, who came to the US in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree from Madras Christian College and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta to write her success story, however, doesn’t look at My Life in Full as her book alone.

“From the beginning, I’ve said this is OUR book, not my book. It’s a book for men and women; for business leaders and policymakers; for immigrants and their children alike,” she says.

“I will say, many Indian immigrants, after reading the book, have told me that they could replace my name with their own, and the early chapters of their lives would read the same,” says Nooyi. “That is something quite special.”

The book has “lessons traversing education, business, family, and much more. There’s something in it for everyone” says Nooyi about the book tracing her journey from her childhood in India to her legendary career in America.

(By special arrangement with American Bazaar/www.americanbazaaronline.com)