Author Interviews

I’m in awe of the entrepreneurial environment in India: Indra Nooyi

Vinay Kamath | Updated on September 27, 2021

Indra Nooyi. Photo: Dave Puente

Former Chairman & CEO, PepsiCo Inc, Indra Nooyi, on the start-up culture in the country, and on her time at PepsiCo

Indra Nooyi, former Chairman & CEO of PepsiCo Inc, spent 24 years in the global soft drink and foods corporation, 12 of them as CEO. She was the first woman of colour and an immigrant to head a Fortune 50 company.  Nooyi has just penned her memoirs My Life in Full: Work, Family and Our Future, published by Hachette India. Candid and sparkling with anecdote and humour, Nooyi talks about her first hesitant steps in the US as a student at the Yale school of management and how she blossomed in her career, first at BCG and then at ABB and finally in the corner office at PepsiCo.

In this interview from her home in the US, prior to the launch of her book, Nooyi talks about the direction she set PepsiCo in, encountering racism in her time in the US, women in the workplace, work-life balance and her advice for business leaders in a post-Covid world. Excerpts:

You talked a great deal about your credo at PepsiCo: performance with purpose. So does this continue at the corporation, or has it veered from the path of the values of nourish, replenish, and cherish, that you have written about?

I had set the framework and started the company towards that. The company is actually doubling down on certain areas. The amount of work that is going on in environmental sustainability is spectacular. The focus on zero calorie products is also spectacular. I think that every CEO should put their own mark on the company. But if you look at the new CEO’s umbrella strategy, it is still winning with purpose. So it is taking performance with purpose to a whole new level. I am proud of what Ramon (Ramon Laguarta, PepsiCo CEO) is doing with the company.

In the book you talk about the times you had encountered undercurrents of racial undertones when you were house hunting and then you didn’t take that house. Did you experience that in corporate America during your time there?

Yes and no. I mean I experienced it many, many times, sometimes in meetings, sometimes in interactions with people, sometimes with board members, but, you know, it was small. It was not significant racial overtones. 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. So I know that there will be some snide remarks, or comments, or some behaviour that will offend me. As long as the majority of people were welcoming and worked well with me, I never let the 10 or 15 per cent define the other 85 or 90 per cent. So I focused on the larger number of people.

The point that I’d make though is that only in a country like America could somebody like me have come in as an immigrant and become CEO of an iconic, quintessentially American company. I don’t believe that any other country in this world, this could have happened. I still look at my life here as a very positive story, not just for me, for our country too. It is still a meritocracy.

What would you say were the decisions that influenced the course of PepsiCo from your time as CEO the most?

I think over the 25 years of time at Pepsico, the world around has changed. The nature of the competition changed, consumer taste changed, government focus on nutrition and health stepped up. So, so many things changed in the environment. I honestly believe that companies should anticipate where the consumer is going and make the changes. The whole articulation of performance with purpose was because I sensed the entire market globally was going a certain way.

People wanted to, and at many times told to, eat healthier, and appropriately so. Environmental issues were becoming major, whether it was plastics or water use. I grew up with water shortage in Madras. To me, water was very personal. So we had to do something about it. People are what make us successful or not. How we treat people as assets, not tools of the trade, was also very important.

So over my time at PepsiCo, I could see, CEO after CEO, how we were making changes in response to all of these trends. When I became CEO, I just accelerated the changes. I think every CEO of any company should do everything future-back. Anticipate where the world is going; you can’t make changes overnight, so make the changes for the changing world in a gradual way so you can still deliver performance but retool the company for a future that’s going to be different. If you didn’t do that, you’ll be disrupted. You’ll become a non-factor in the corporate world.

Would you look for a role or has anything been offered in the US government? If it’s offered, would you take it up?

I am not a political person, so it’s tough for me to work in the political arena. Because, politics, by definition, requires incredible amounts of consensus building, evolving a solution that fits everybody’s needs as opposed to getting to the right answer. I just don’t have that kind of patience. I admire all the people who work in the political arena. I have great respect for them. But 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. If I have to work in the political arena, I’m not the person.

So nothing is forthcoming for you in the US government?

I don’t want to be a part of a political process.

They wouldn’t offer you an executive role?  

 I am retired. I am happy on boards, teaching at the US military academy in West Point, I sit on multiple non-profit boards, I’m having a good life, Vinay, don’t wish me anything else! (Laughs)

You’ve written a lot about women in the work-place and how important it is for organisations to step up and have this work-life balance. So, do you see things improving from the time you’ve set it in motion in PepsiCo? Do you see it improving in the corporate sector?

It’s improving but it’s slow. I think that there’s no question that from when I started in the corporate world in the US to now, things have improved substantially. At PepsiCo too we’ve seen so many changes … to make the company more supportive of young family builders, not just women. So we’re doing all the right things, whether its paternity and maternity care, flexible work hours, remote working, onsite and near-site childcare, sick baby care – we’re doing a lot of stuff to help our employees. But I think as a society we should look at this as not a female issue but as a family issue. Because, if you want the best and the brightest to work  in the economy, to further the economy, women are a big pile of the talent pool. They’re getting the best grades, they’re doing phenomenally well in schools and colleges. Women want to make a difference, they want to contribute, they want to have the power of the purse. They don’t want to be lifelong unpaid labourers. They want to have a life too. But they also want to have families. So we have to create support structures to bring them into the work place, to give them the choice to come into the workplace.

 

So how tough is it for a successful business person to retain this core value of humility?

I’m glad you said business person. In the past it was expected that the woman would leave the crown in the garage. I would argue that both husband and wife should leave the crown in the garage. There’s always going to be office work when you step into to your home, when you have senior-level jobs and are in demand 24/7. But, don’t walk in thinking everybody at home are your employees. We have to walk into the house saying, now I have a different role to play. I’m a mom, I’m a father, I’m husband, wife .. .I think we should stop saying that women should be judged on how they behave at home and men should be given a crown to wear when they come home. I think those days have changed. I think we got to say both of you leave the crown in the garage. Both of you work together. Share the responsibilities and work for the betterment of your family.

These past one-and-a-half years have been pretty unprecedented for the world. What would your advice be for business leaders in this context?

We have come out of a most destructive period. I never thought I would live to see the world shut down. I never thought I’d see pictures of big Indian cities absolutely deserted. I never thought I would see a picture of Chennai completely deserted. It was unsettling to say the least. I think that this time should have given everybody a moment to reflect, on what they want society to be. What do they want the support structures to be for families? What do they want the role of companies to be? How should they work with governments? Because, I think at the end of the day, these moments of disruption should force people to sit back and say should a new kind of company emerge where companies and governments and non-profits work closely together to improve societies.

Should we step up to be toe-to-toe with the government in addressing pandemic crises as opposed to saying this is a government problem, let me just retreat and keep my head down. How should all this work? I hope that corporates in every country reflect on this and say, what more could we have done to get out of the pandemic versus what we really did. And did we really lean in to help? Could we have done more? Because governments can’t really do everything. That’s why you have big corporations. You have NGOs and various other entities which support government. And, I think the time has come for us to think about a genuine public-private partnership. How to improve countries, societies, communities with a sense to not making the next billion dollars but thinking about the health of the people and communities, addressing inequality; all of these issues should come to the fore. I think we lost our sense of humanity. I hope it’s come back and I hope it allows us to reset the equation we all have between companies, societies and governments.

You’ve observed managements in India as well as in the US. You see Indian managements have now changed in terms of their workings ..are they more global in nature?

I think it’s changing and I think India’s has come a long way. I’m in awe of the entrepreneurial environment in India, how many start-ups and the valuation they’re commanding. I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs who are in start-ups and I advise some of them. I must say they’re brilliant, they are driven by a sense of purpose, they’re also driven by a desire to cash-up. I think we have to build enduring companies for the country.

I think that the country has to come to terms with its posture regarding FDI. Is there going to be a consistent framework to think about FDI, are companies going to be consulted when changes in laws happen. Those are all for the Indian government to figure out. All that I tell you is, as a foreign company investing in India, it is a very desirable destination. India is a country with lots of talent and understands capitalism. India is a very desirable country, but India can also be a frustrating country to do business in. I think the government is working on this. What’s the best way to operate in the country for the benefit of the citizens of India at the same time provide foreign direct investors a framework within which they can operate in a way that doesn’t sort of jerk the morale. This is very important.

Are you advising any US corporations on investing in India?

That's not my role. We have the US-India strategic partnership foundation. They do a great job providing all the resources.

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Published on September 27, 2021

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