Indra Nooyi’s office in Greenwich, Conn., looks like a shrine to rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, one of the most iconic brands in the world, was something of a rock star herself in her native India.
“I was in an all-girls rock band when I was in high school,” she told correspondent Mola Lenghi. “Remember, I was in a Catholic school, so songs that were appropriate to those nuns, but they were good songs!”
“The nuns picked the band name?” Lenghi asked.
“Nuns picked the name Logarithms, because we were studying Logarithm Table.”
“Nothing says rock ‘n’ roll like nuns picking your band name!”
Nooyi went on to become a rock star in the corporate world. Tapped to lead PepsiCo in 2006, she was one of only a handful of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies.
“In 2018, when I retired as CEO, of the Fortune 500, out of 500 companies there were 41 women CEOs,” she said. “Now, you can read it as great progress, from zero to 41. Or, you can say in 25 years we moved from zero percent to about eight-and-a-half percent. Is that progress? Yes and no.”
Though technically retired, she’s still hard at work trying to improve not just one company, but all companies. How? Simple, really: more women.
“Women are 50 percent of the population,” she said. “Women get more college degrees than men. They’re 70 percent of high school valedictorians. They are over-represented in professional schools.”
But at some point, their career paths derail. Today, women account for roughly a quarter of senior leadership jobs.
Nooyi takes aim at this disparity in a new memoir chronicling her self-admittedly improbable rise to becoming, as Fortune magazine described, “one of the most powerful women in the world.”
Lenghi asked, “Do you consider your time as CEO of PepsiCo a success?”
“I’d say it was a pretty good success,” Nooyi replied. “Did bold things, did transformational things, did things that people at that time criticized before, but now call it prescient.”
She pushed the more-than-100-year-old company to put families first by focusing on challenges facing women in the workplace, offering generous paid family leave and help with childcare.
Nooyi said, “The biological clock and the career clock are in conflict. Some people are delaying childbirth for many, many years, freezing their eggs, or just not having children at all. Others are saying, ‘I can’t keep working, I can’t go through this rat race.’ So my point is, we’ve got to make it less of a rat race.”
Her ideas on family are rooted in her own experience – one that began in a strict but loving multi-generational home in Chennai, India: “[Being] in a family that believed the girls should be allowed to soar as much as the boys made a huge difference, huge difference.”
In 1978, Nooyi was accepted into Yale Business School, so off to America she went, some 8,000 miles from everything she had ever known. One of the few women (and even fewer minorities) in her class, she arrived on campus to a rude awakening.
“Nobody’s smiling to welcome you. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ And I’m starving. How do I get food? I go to the grocery store. Ultimately, I bought a loaf of bread, a tomato and some potato chips, and I ate it crying, saying, ‘What have I done?'”
Turns out she knew exactly what she was doing. Nooyi graduated, got married to her husband, Raj, and had two daughters, Preetha and Tara, all while working more than full time, eventually landing a job at PepsiCo and climbing the corporate ladder.
In 2000 she was appointed president of the company. She rushed home to tell her family the news, but was quickly humbled by her mother: “She said, ‘You know, I don’t care if you’re president or on the board. I don’t even know what that means. But let me just tell you, when you walk in this door, you’re a mother, you’re a wife, you’re a daughter, you’re a daughter-in-law. That’s all you are in this house. So please, do me a favor, just leave that crown in the garage.'”
She says it was a critical life lesson: “That’s why I always say work and life is not a balance; it’s a juggling act. And how you juggle this every day is the big challenge.
“Look, tradeoffs are part of everybody’s life. Being a mom, being an executive – how do I be the best at everything? – are painful, emotional tradeoffs. So, I think back at some of those and there is hurt. I feel pain, I feel a loss.”
While she has forgiven herself, the reminders of time with family that she traded for time in the office are still present. She show Lenghi some of the sacred artifacts are at once a mother’s mementoes of her children, and a CEO’s lesson in the sacrifices made for success.
“When I found them, there was so painful and poignant and emotional. I thought I should keep them very, very carefully.”
“Dear Mom, I really love you. I really would appreciate if you came home early. Please, please, please, please, please, please. If you say yes, I love you again.”
Lenghi asked, “You kept these things, all these years. Why?”
“I don’t know, I cannot get myself to not look at them regularly,” she replied.
Despite the tough choices, Nooyi said she has no regrets, and wants the same for other women. And while her mission is gender equity, she insists it can also be good business.
“I approach it as an economist first rather than just a feminist, because it’s such a lost opportunity. Women are smart. They’re driven. They want the power of the purse. They want to work. They want economic freedom. Let’s harness their capabilities.”
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Story produced by Amol Mhatre. Editor: Remington Korper.
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