The former PepsiCo chief credits her family, her upbringing and the city she grew up in — Madras — for her success
Former PepsiCo Chairman & CEO Indra Nooyi believes a confluence of forces helped her succeed so phenomenally in the US to be the first woman of colour and an immigrant to head a Fortune 50 company.
In an interview from her home in the US prior to the launch of her book, Nooyi says it’s her family, her upbringing, education and the city she grew up in, Madras, which helped in her success. “I was born eight years after India got Independence. So, it was a time when women were just emerging into educational institutions, professional schools, and into places of work. It was a very interesting time I grew up in. Ours was a good, Tamilian, South Indian family, a very strict upbringing, incredible focus on education. Our lives revolved around grades, doing well in school, and not focussing on any extra-curricular activity beyond what the school demanded,” she recalls.
Also, having a sister, Chandrika, a year older than her and the healthy competition with her helped. “I always looked up to her, and I wanted to be at least as good as her (both graduated from MCC, and while Chandrika went on to IIM-A, Indra joined IIM-C). So, the combination of all that gave me a great start in life. I often say that I won the lottery of life,” says Nooyi, laughing.
Despite a large number of people of the Indian Diaspora holding key posts in the US government, Nooyi says she’s not a political person. “It’s tough for me to work in the political arena. It requires incredible amounts of consensus building and I just don’t have that kind of patience. I am a corporate type, I need to work on a project, get it done, and move on to the next. If you want something done fast and done efficiently and objectively, I’m the person,” she elaborates.
Asked if she’s been offered any executive position, Nooyi says, “I am retired. I am happy on boards and also sit on multiple non-profit boards, I’m having a good life, don’t wish me anything else!” Nooyi says in her long years in the US, she has experienced racial overtones many times, sometimes in meetings, or in interactions with people, with board members. “You can feel it, sometimes people make snide remarks, or they treat you differently because you are so different, but that is inevitable. I made a choice to come to a country where people were very different from me. And I tried to fit in as much as I could, but I also kept my individuality. As long as the majority of people were welcoming and worked well with me, I never let the 10-15 per cent define the other 85-90 per cent,” she says.
However, she emphasises that only in a country like the US could somebody like her have come in as an immigrant and become the CEO of an iconic, quintessentially American company. “I don’t believe that in any other country this could have happened. I still look at my life here as a very positive story. It is still a meritocracy,” she says.