Well into her engrossing and deeply insightful memoir My Life in Full, the former chairman and CEO of Pepsico, Indra Nooyi, mentions moments when she would feel extremely upset – ‘mad’ – during meetings when people didn’t quite get what she was trying to do. At such moments, she writes, she would retire to the private washroom attached to her office, look into the mirror and give vent to her emotions. “And when the moment had passed, I’d wipe my tears, reapply a little makeup, square my shoulders, and walk back into the fray, ready, again, to be.”

Dressed in an elegant red and white dress, India-born Indra smiles when I ask her whether those emotional outbursts were rare.

“Oh no,” she says, in an exclusive video interview from her office in the US. “Those incidents happened quite a few times. Look, what else do you do? There’d be many men who’d bang the table, throw things, use four-letter words… I couldn’t do that. It’s not expected of women to do that. So all I could do was go to my private washroom and get it all out, then dab my make-up and come right back [to the boardroom].”

For a woman who consistently figured on Time magazine’s and Forbes’ list of the world’s 100 most powerful women – she was also named second most powerful woman on the 2015 Fortune list – those incidents only serve to highlight the very human person behind the persona. But then apart from working unimaginably hard to take Pepsico to enormous success, the woman who Time magazine described as a ‘world-class leader’ is also known for adding a personal, human touch to several areas of the business.

For those who came in late, Indra, who will be attending the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature next month, was Pepsico’s first female CEO assuming the position in 2006.

During her 11-year tenure, she boosted the company’s revenues by around 80 per cent while also leading in the acquisition of Tropicana, directing the merger with Quaker Oats Co, and acquiring Wimm-Bill-Dann, a Russian company, the largest acquisition in Pepsico’s history – some of her strategies that helped steer the company to the forefront of the business.

As part of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Indra Nooyi will be addressing book lovers on Saturday, February 12, from 7pm to 8pm at Al Habtoor Ballroom, Habtoor Palace, Al Habtoor City. For tickets, visit tickets.emirateslitfest.com. Indra, along with Reem Al Hashimy, will also be speaking on February 13 from 5.30pm-6.30 pm at Dubai Millennium Amphitheatre, Expo 2020, Dubai

One of her initiatives, Performance with a Purpose, was structured to, among other things, redirect the company to focus on environmental concerns and sustainability – reduce waste, conserve water, and opt for renewable energy sources.

What was your biggest achievement professionally and personally? I ask the 66-year-old Padma Bhushan winner.

“Let me be honest with you,” she says, leaning forward earnestly. “It was only while writing my book that I realised what a major accomplishment it was to become the CEO of Pepsico; what a major accomplishment it was to run the company and retire without a blemish.”

While it was happening though, Indra, who was born in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, and has a PG diploma from IIM, Calcutta, and a Master’s from Yale, admits she often experienced moments of cold fear. “I kept hoping things would go well; I wanted to make sure I don’t do anything wrong.”

A lonely joourney to the top

She makes it clear that in some ways, it was a lonely job. “I didn’t have too many people to talk to. I was guided by this sense of incredible responsibility and fear. I’d say it is the immigrants’ fear, an irrational fear, that I hope I do the right things. But now, in retrospect, I realise it was a major accomplishment.”

Did she have to try harder because she was a woman?

“Of course,” she says, without batting an eyelid. “Woman, immigrant, ethnically different, of course [I had to try harder].”

Perhaps there were two things at work, she explains. “People assumed I shouldn’t be in the room; that I shouldn’t have a seat at the table. And even if they didn’t project that, I assumed they were doing it. So half of it was my problem, and half of it their’s. I dug myself into a big hole [and then] had to climb out of that hole and do better.”

On the flip side, she is proud of having put in her best and working really hard to create a work product that was ‘very good’. “I worked ultra hard. It was a tremendous commitment of time and when I think back, for over 45 years all that I’ve ever done is work. And now I don’t know how to stop.”

Not that she has. She is now on the boards of Amazon and Philips; is an independent director of the International Cricket Council (the only female in the governing body of cricket – “quite a journey since that day in 1973 when I walked on to the field in Madras in my whites”); is a member of the American Academy of 
Arts & Sciences; and is on the Dean’s Advisory Council at MIT’s School of Engineering. She also helps enhance the ability of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership and the US Military Academy to fulfill the mission of developing leaders of character.

If her career graph is anything to go by, it is clear that hard work is something the mother of two was devoted to- constantly pushing herself to do better and more.

‘Didn’t want to bring disrepute’

Was it always in you to keep proving yourself? I ask, referring to a section in her book where she writes “my inner compass always tells me to keep pushing on with my job responsibilities… I sometimes wish I were wired differently”.

Indra takes a deep breath. “I don’t know if it was about proving but I did not want to bring disrepute to my people or [be seen as] a burden on any country. I wanted India to say ‘she was born here but she did well in this great democracy called the US’.

“I wanted the US to say ‘this Indian American has done India proud; has done America proud’. I didn’t ever want my family, parents or extended family to be viewed in a negative light.” (That surely didn’t happen: Indra describes how in 2009 during a meeting of business executives, the then US President Barack Obama rose up to introduce her to the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who was visiting the US only for the Indian PM to exclaim “Oh! But she is one of us”. Without missing a beat, Barack Obama responded: “Ah, she is one of us, too!”)

Did the desire to make people proud of her lead to a lot of stress?

“No,” says the woman, who has some 10 honorary doctorates and degrees from universities including Yale, North Carolina, Miami, Warwick and New York. “It was not so much as stress as my inner compass which says ‘no, I don’t want to be a burden’. I did not want to abuse the welcoming mat that the US had rolled out for me or forget my country of birth and my family.”

Finding Mr. Right

And what are her achievements in her personal life?

“The fact that I married the right guy,” she says, leaning back in her swivel chair and guffawing wholeheartedly. “I take credit for having chosen the right guy. Oh yes, I’m going to take full credit for it.” (Indra was 25 when she married Raj K Nooyi, an Indian-American who has worked with leading technology and services companies in the US.)

She views staying married as a major personal accomplishment. “In today’s world it is hard to stay married, have a career, kids… [but] we made it all work. It was not easy but we made it work.” She pauses for a moment. “I would not call it an accomplishment; I’m just glad it worked out… glad it is all ok. That is very important because the family is who I am.”

Indra, who has held managerial positions at Johnson & Johnson in India where she began her career, and was vice-president and director of corporate strategy and planning at Motorola, underscores the importance of encouraging women to “dream big, very big. We need to tell the women in our home – daughters, sisters – to study as much as they want to. Whatever you do with your son, do the same with your daughter,” she says. 

Why are there still very few women CEOs in multibillion corporations? I ask.

The former corporate chief is quick to answer: “Men in power should stop shaking the confidence of women. How do they do it? By talking over them, rolling their eyes when she is talking, judging her by saying things like ‘oh, I don’t think she has much potential’.”

The notion of unconscious bias is a way of stripping away a woman’s confidence which, in turn, strips her competence. “It becomes a doom loop.” Downers are put on women purely because of their gender and that has got to stop, she stresses, admitting that while the situation is changing “the change is glacial”.

Corporate ladder

Is the women’s corporate ladder a lot different from that of men?

“Oh, yes,” she says. “The men’s corporate ladder is like everyone pushing you up; the women’s is like everyone pushing you down.”

Do women, too, push women down? I ask her.

“Let me put it this way, I don’t think women help women come up in enough numbers. It’s gotten better but we need to do more.”

Indra remembers people asking her why she didn’t consider replacing herself with another woman when she was stepping down from Pepsico. “It was a great question,” she says. “But only 8 per cent of Fortune 500 companies have a woman CEO. The point is nobody asks the 92 per cent men to replace themselves with a woman CEO.”

Indra during the Fortune's Most Powerful Women conference in Washington in 2017. The conference brought together leading women in business, government, philanthropy, education and the arts for conversations to inspire and deliver advice

Then, not without a hint of pride, she says a lot of women who left Pepsico went on to become CEOs of smaller corporations.

“We have to come to a point where we bring enough women to the senior-most levels so when the selection happens to pick the CEO, there is not just one woman and 10 men to pick from but there are as many women as men.”

Striking a balance

She believes the bigger issues in corporations occur when women who enter the work force move up to the second or third level. That’s the stage they usually get stuck at because it’s the time they usually have a family. They then struggle to strike a balance between professional and personal life. “Even today, a woman is expected to take on the entire responsibility of the family and that might not be possible if she has aspirations and hopes.”

How did she balance both? I ask the woman who was also a senior vice-president at Asea Brown Boveri, reminding her that in her book she uses the term work life ‘juggle’ rather than ‘balance’.

“In my case, my husband was an equal partner. Sometimes he did more than half, sometimes, I. It was an agreement that we had and without even explicitly stating it that we would support each other,” she says, with a smile.

Indra is all in praise of the technology available today that has made professional life a lot easier. “When I [first arrived] in America, there was no technology like the one we have now, like the one where we are able to speak like this,” she says, referring to the video call. “Internet was in its infancy; the smartphone was not even around. Graphs, for instance, we did manually. Now of course, there’s software for it.”

Travel was frequent, and the hours away from home were significant. “So there was no life-work balance; you just juggled all these priorities.”

Technology, she says, has allowed us to go from work-life juggling to work-life balance, “provided one learns how to use the tools judiciously. You can figure out how to do flexible work – return home in the afternoon, pick up your kids from the school bus and go back to working from home. Also, thanks to video calls, you don’t need to travel as much”, she says. “I’m optimistic about what technology can do for quality of life, particularly for families.”

'I couldn’t have gone faster'

Do you nurse any regrets? I ask.

“I wish I didn’t have to contend with the financial crisis and other issues in my fist six years as CEO,” she says. If it wasn’t for that, she says, her strategic Performance with a Purpose initiative would have been better developed leading to a lot more changes in the company. “Just as Covid is a tail wind for beverage companies, the economic crisis was the strongest head wind. My regret is that I couldn’t have gone faster.”

Another regret is that “there were some executives I should have pushed out of the company sooner. I didn’t do that”.

Emerging technology is clearly something that interests her deeply. “I wish I was CEO now,” she says, pleased with how tech is being increasingly used in corporate set ups.

The woman who last year was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, an institution that lists such illustrious names as Helen Keller, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Maya Angelou, among others, leans back in her chair and pauses for a moment. “But you know something,” she says. “On balance I am ok. Personally, even though I was a pretty good mom I wish I had more time. I do have deep regrets about the times I could have been home. [But] if these technologies existed at the time, 50 per cent of my travel I wouldn’t have done.”

As we come to the end of the interview, I ask her why people should read her book.

Indra leans back in her chair. “Let me put it this way,” she says. “In 2019, I was inducted into the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery. It was a new experience for me because I didn’t know why we needed such a gallery.” She was told that the idea was that even generations later, people could look at the portrait and say “I too can be that person”. “It’s an aspirational thing,” says Indra. “Portraiture is a way to lift people and have them dream. When they look at Michelle Obama’s portrait they should think I want to be like her one day. When they see my portrait they should want to say ‘I want to be like her one day.”

“This book,” says the author, “is a written version of that portrait; to say you too can be anything you want to be – entrepreneur, author, scientist, activist... including a family builder – if you set your sights on it, work hard and focus on the five points I mentioned for leaders. So this book is about hopes, dreams, aspirations and the fact that people in power can make a difference.”

How managers can nurture talent

Nurturing talent is one of the most difficult and pressing needs today, says Indra Nooyi. “You cannot not worry about talent as your key driver... your key competitive advantage going forward.

“Talent does not happen when you turn on the switch. It’s a process that has to be deliberate and thought through over many years. You need to identify talent, nurture and give them assignments that push them to develop further. You need to promote them a little bit ahead of their time to see how they deliver. By this I mean you have to stretch people. It’s only then that you know what they are capable of. Very often you allow people to atrophy in a job [or] move them to another job where they don’t shine because they view it as just another rung instead of another exciting new avenue for development. You need to push them into uncomfortable areas. However, it is also important you push them a only a little bit ahead of their time and not way ahead because if they fail, you don’t want them to [feel dejected] and down. The push should be just so they’ll grow and develop in profound ways.

With former US President Donald Trump and leading CEOs during a Strategic and Policy Forum meeting at the White House in 2017

“If I’m an employee today, I’d put my hand up for the toughest assignment. You need to do that. Move out of your comfort zone. In Pepsico, we would plan succession 15 to 20 years ahead- [nurture] a bunch of promising young people who could become CEO in 20 years. Some will drop out, some may enter this group, but you have to worry about that funnel. Management of the funnel to develop global leaders is a very important assignment and that took a lot of my time at Pepsico.”

What companies can do to allow women to rise

Reds are goal-oriented and competitive, Reds believe achieving results is everything and they work towards it, often seemingly bullish and even aggressive.

Yellows are happy, cheerful, optimistic and believe the glass is half full rather than half empty. They are solution driven, enjoy life and look for opportunities to make their life better.

Greens are loving, friendly, and willing to care and share. They are ready to lend their shoulder for you to cry on. Good team workers and keep the team tight knit. The flip side is some people perceive them as imprecise and as pacifists.

Blues believe in analysis and are detail-oriented. Perfectionists, they seek facts when tackling projects. Keen to give their best they demand the best in everything. The flip side? Not great conversationalists, too stone-faced, and nit picking.

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