Author Interviews

Family, education, the city all helped me succeed in the US: Indra Nooyi

Vinay Kamath | Updated on September 27, 2021

Former PepsiCo Chairman & CEO Indra Nooyi. Photo: Dave Puente

Former PepsiCo Chairman & CEO Indra Nooyi on her growing up years in Madras and on the mentors in her life

Former PepsiCo Chairman & CEO Indra Nooyi’s memoirs, My Life in Full: Work, Family, and our Future, published by Hachette India, is just out. In an interview preceding her book launch, Nooyi, speaking from her home in the US on Zoom, ruminates about her growing up years in Madras (now Chennai), her family and the values she inculcated that helped her succeed so phenomenally in the US. After her second MBA at Yale (after her MBA from IIM Calcutta), and working stints at BCG and ABB, she spent 24 years in PepsiCo, 12 of them as its Chairman & CEO. She was the first India-born female CEOs to head an iconic US corporation. In this interview around her book, Nooyi also talks about the mentors in her life who helped her get ahead. Excerpts:

 

 

What were the values that you learnt and the environment in the Madras that you grew up in, which helped you succeed so phenomenally in the US? There must have been some cultural fix which happened here in Madras which helped you in the US?

 I think I am a product of my family, my upbringing, the city, and the country. I have been reflecting recently about the times that I was born and grew up. I was born eight years after India got Independence. So, it was a time when women were just emerging into educational institutions, into professional schools, and into places of work. It was a very interesting time I grew up in. The amazing thing about my upbringing was very strict family - a good Tamilian, South Indian family, a very strict upbringing, incredible focus on education; our lives revolved around education, grades, doing well in school, and not focusing on any extra-curricular activities beyond what the school demanded. We did not live luxuriously. We never took vacations, we never ate out, and if we ever suggested to our mother that we should eat out, she would say: ‘I’ll make it!’ So, we never ate out. I don’t think we ever went on a vacation, except once in our entire life. Those were all considered frivolous.

We had a grandfather at home, who was the enforcer, and the loving enforcer, I should say. He brought structure to the family. He made us read, do our homework, taught us and was a role model. And then the most amazing thing about our family is that the girls and boys were treated equally. My father, my grandfather, and my mother would say: Dream as much as you can, you can be whatever you want, and there should be no difference between men and women. So, we were allowed to study, we were allowed to engage in extra-curricular activities that did not impact our study. I still remember my father used to drive me to French class, German class, and so on. Because, he said, as long as there’s learning, I will drive you. So, I grew up in that sort of a household.

And, finally, I would say, I have a sister who is a year older than me, the healthy competition with my sister helped. I always looked up to her, and I wanted to be at least as good as her. So, the combination of all that gave me a great start in life. I often say that I won the lottery of life.

 

There would have been many, in your growing up years, who had perhaps been from the same environment, with the same education and the family background. But something made you transcend that and go and do a double MBA in the US and stay on to work. So what made you do that?

I think it was a combination of things. At that time, the US was considered the seat of innovation, the seat of culture and music, arts, and everything. It was the most aspirational country to be a part of. There was a significant brain drain from India. All the best graduates from the IITs were all going to the US and all the friends I knew kept saying, this is just a great place to study, to contribute to, and you got think about how to come to the US.

Cover image shot by Annie Leibovitz

That never occurred to me at all because I was working in India, everything was comfortable, but the pull of the US and what it stood for, was always there in the back of my head. Then this article I read in newspaper about the Yale School of Management having just opened a new course, and that clearly put a major thought in my head, that perhaps here is a way to re-tune myself to thinking about how the public and the private should come together. Through the jobs I had, and the way I was watching the city and the country around me, it was very clear that companies alone couldn’t do everything, government alone couldn’t do everything, and they all had to come together to work to better our societies, communities, and the country. So, I thought coming to Yale and studying a programme which was a blend of public and private management, would actually enhance my learning. I applied and I got in.

You have talked about the role of having very good mentors. Who among them would you regard as the biggest mentor in your life and who have you mentored and how has their lives changed?

Most of my mentors have been men. And not only did they mentor me, they supported me, promoted me and advocated for me to be considered for bigger positions or be sent to various programmes. So, right through my life, mentors came out of the woodwork to say: I believe in this person. I honestly believe if you contribute to the job or to whatever you’re doing, people will want to mentor you because they think you’re going to go places and they want to be a part of your journey.

 

They just became my mentors out of their own choice. On my part, I respected my mentors, I listened to them, and when I did something different from what they suggested to me, I always went back and told them why I didn’t do what they had asked me to do or suggested I do. And the other thing is, I kept in touch with all of them. And so all of these people taken together are the reason I am where I am today now. I know my responsibility is to pay back. And I have spent an incredible amount of time in PepsiCo mentoring executives, men and women. I give them stretch goals but then I help them attain those stretch goals so that they too can aspire for bigger and better things. I’d say that in my last six years in PepsiCo, I produced for industry nine CEOs of public companies. So, I feel good about the track record. I would have liked them all to stay in PepsiCo, but there’s only room for one CEO in PepsiCo. But PepsiCo still has an incredible pipeline of talent.

 

You’re still continuing your mentoring role in the corporate sector?

A lot. I mentor a lot of CEOs and start-ups. I serve as an advisor to them but I don’t do it in a formal way. Anytime you have a problem, or you have an issue, or you just want to have a sounding board, call me. If I’m in a meeting with them, and they don’t quite come off right, I ask them to come and see me privately and I give them coaching on how to improve their performance. All leaders who have had a good start in life and have done well in the corporate world have to give back. Because at the end of the day, the legacy you leave behind is the people. And the more you can develop great people, the better it is.

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Published on September 27, 2021

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