Indra Nooyi: I focused on job at hand, over-prepared and over-delivered


Book: My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future

Author: Indra Nooyi

Publisher: Portfolio


In an exclusive interview with The American Bazaar, the former PepsiCo Chairman and CEO speaks about her book, career and life as an immigrant.

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.”

Indra Nooyi
Indra Nooyi

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.

Here in an interview with the American Bazaar, Indra Nooyi tells it all:

AB: In the introduction of your book, you mention how at a White House event both President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh claimed you as “one of us” and that you “belong in both worlds” — US and India. How did you manage to balance this “duality” in various facets of your life?

IN: This duality is a part of me. I was born eight years after India’s independence into the world’s now-largest democracy. I moved to the US, the world’s oldest democracy, when I was 23 to attend Yale University. I owe a great deal to both countries and cultures.

My upbringing and education in India let me thrive in the US, a land with unprecedented opportunity and possibility. You’ll always find in me the young immigrant student who wore a sari to her first job interviews, and the CEO who ran an iconic American company.

And I make a concerted effort to honor both.

AB: How did you negotiate the top executive floor as a “female, an immigrant and as a person of color,” as you put it?

IN: I couldn’t dwell on these as attributes that would bar me from success – they had to be reasons for my success. Did I realize I was different? Of course.

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.

And I was fortunate enough to have allies — mentors and colleagues who lifted me up and trusted me for my character and business savvy.

AB: Your decision to quit Pepsi kind of stunned Indians and Indian Americans alike. Why did you choose to hang your corporate boots after 12 years at the top of an iconic company?

IN: Twelve years is a long time. The average tenure of a CEO at a major company is five to seven years. So it really was a privilege for me to spend more than a decade in that seat.

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

AB: Can you tell us about the “Performance with Purpose” mission that you initiated at PepsiCo and with what results?

IN: Performance with Purpose was my mission to make sure that PepsiCo was a company that would carry on long after me. A company should be built so that it long outlasts the tenure of any single CEO.

I knew we needed to focus on three core business imperatives: human sustainability, environmental sustainability, and talent sustainability. Hence, Nourish. Replenish. Cherish.

With the nourish component, we had to focus on filling out our portfolio with some healthier products. The world was changing — people were becoming more health-conscious. So we combined ‘Fun for you,’ with ‘Better for you’ and ‘Good for you’ products.

This involved expanding and adjusting our range of offerings, cutting sugar and salt in some core brands and adding products like hummus, flavored waters, and juices.

Read: Indra Nooyi wins Outstanding Woman in Business Award (March 5, 2020)

Replenish was about the environment. We initiated an ambitious plan to reduce water-usage, greenhouse gas emissions, and plastic – and, overall, run a more sustainable business.

And lastly, Cherish focused on developing our workplace and our talent pipeline. We focused on diversity, inclusion, and creating a space in which women and family builders could succeed.

Much of this may seem obvious in today’s business landscape, but I received tremendous criticism for many of these initiatives. But I stuck with it. I wanted to change the way we made money and future-proof the company. Ultimately, we succeeded.

AB: You mention that you set out to write a “manual for fixing how we mix work and family.” So why did you switch track and decided to write about “My Life in Full”?

IN: When I retired from PepsiCo, I was adamant that I would never write a memoir. Instead, I intended to write a set of policy papers that would address the conundrums around work and family.

But it came increasingly clear that this research and analysis already existed — in spades. I decided to take a new approach, one I hoped would encourage people to truly stop and pay attention to these issues.

So I wrote My Life in Full to tell this story through the lens of my own life. I realized the most poignant way to galvanize people into action was to complement these factual analyses with shared, lived experiences.

AB: You mention that a “leader’s fundamental goal should be to shape the decades ahead, not just the present”. What is the future that you envision and how do you propose to realize it? Also what roadmap would you suggest to address ‘the work and family conundrum’? 

IN: There is no simple, linear roadmap. But it begins with recognizing the problem. Our work-and-family infrastructure is broken, and the Covid-19 pandemic laid that bare. We want people to build healthy family lives and thrive in the workplace – but we haven’t created the right support systems to allow for this.

It’s incumbent upon our leaders — business, government, and otherwise — to take measures to build this infrastructure. 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.

I often get asked why this all matters. Family has long been considered fringe in the halls of power. But it’s an issue relevant to all of us. Without families, we have no way to sustain our economies, our workforce.

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.

AB: Who is your primary audience? And what lessons your experiences hold for immigrants, working women, aspiring business leaders, students and others?

IN: 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.

With regard to the lessons, I won’t spoil it — you’ll have to read the book! But the lessons traverse education, business, family, and much more. There’s something in it for everyone.

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. That is something quite special.

AB: How would you compare your life growing up in India and your daughters’ in the US?

IN: I grew up in a different era, and India was a fledgling democracy when I was born. I grew up in a time and place where I was fortunate to have elders who believed women should soar – that was unusual. I could have never imagined the opportunities that lay ahead.

My daughters have had a very different life, but the new generation faces their own set of obstacles and challenges. I think the contrast between childhood and adulthood is less stark for them; the opportunities are more tangible. (My husband) Raj and I are grateful to have built a beautiful life for our daughters.

AB: Any regrets? What you might have done differently?

IN: If there were one regret, it would be the Pepsi Refresh campaign, one that was near and dear to my heart. We dedicated funds to consumer-created ideas that focused on advancing social causes.

Unfortunately, we discontinued the project in 2012, and to this day, I wonder what would’ve happened if we had kept it alive. It was a very special initiative.

Other than that, I’m not one for regrets. I’m very grateful for the experiences I’ve had — the good and the bad. In either case, you learn something.

READ MORE:

Indian American trailblazer Indra Nooyi inducted into Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (November 20, 2019)

Indra Nooyi shortlisted by White House to lead the World Bank (January 16, 2019)

Indra Nooyi praised as a pioneer, mentor (August 7, 2018)

Indra Nooyi, Nikki Haley, Priyanka Chopra among Forbes list of most powerful women (November 6, 2017)

Satya Nadella, Indra Nooyi, Bhavesh Patel in list of highest-paid CEOs (April 29, 2016)

Indra Nooyi becomes Yale’s biggest alumni donor (January 13, 2016)

Indra Nooyi is the third highest paid female CEO in the US with $22.5 million in fiscal 2014 (April 15, 2015)

‘Dare to dream to tackle water, climate challenges’ (March 24, 2021)

2 Comments

  1. Indian American

    Ms. Nooyi has been an inspiration for not just Indian AMericans, but all immigrants and women as well.

  2. Dr. Anil Namboodripad

    kaun chhutiyo pe focus kar rahe ho yaar, go interview someone young and inspiring. Fresh blood that serves as a beacon not some pissant that graduated in 1950s for Chrissake. Stop rehashing same shit again and again.

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