When two world leaders, i.e., Barack Obama and Manmohan Singh, claim someone “as one of their own” as they did Indra Nooyi, you can be sure you have ‘arrived’. Nooyi, who broke not one but two glass ceilings (of gender and ethnicity) when she became PepsiCo's CEO in 2006, has much to celebrate.
Her life (‘My Life in Full’, published by Hachette India) – incredibly successful and well-lived – makes for an interesting and compelling story. Except the dry telling of it that makes it less than exciting. When you hire a skilled but dispassionate writer to narrate your life, she or he is able to recreate the events but misses the spark that lights the fiery essence of the one whose life story is being told.
Without the passion and pain of what a person – especially a brown, immigrant female transplanted into an alien culture – actually feels and endures, the narrative recalling Nooyi’s life remains dry and distant – nothing tactile that one can touch, sense, or share.
Starting in Madras as a science graduate, Nooyi got her MBA from Calcutta’s Institute of Management, later moving to Yale for a second degree in Management. Her resume thereafter is beyond impressive with top companies in her occupational portfolio. Eventually, Nooyi was wooed by and joined PepsiCo in 1994, topping her successful career 12 years later in 2006 when she was named the company’s CEO.
Only the fifth person to serve as CEO in the company’s 44-year history, she was the first woman to hold that august position. That promotion immediately catapulted her to the elite ranks of rare women who have managed to leave men behind and to finally head a major corporation.
She didn’t rest on her laurels. Working her ass off, to put it crudely in male lingo, she kept surpassing milestones and setting new records. After stewarding the company ship for the next dozen years, when she stepped down in 2018, she had achieved substantial success. With company revenue up by about 80 percent, and the share price on the rise in contrast to the company’s prior stagnant years, her contribution drew acclaim.
Realizing a CEO’s work never ends and that the CEO’s work day is not determined by sunset or sunrise, she quickly took to carrying bags full of files and paperwork to peruse and dispose of at home – in that way – bringing new prestige to the otherwise pejorative term “bag lady.” Years later, a Pepsi colleague who used to tease her about her being a bag-carrying CEO, told her he was doing exactly that after he left and became a CEO in another company!
Being a woman poses challenges in any setting – work or home – but female leaders manage to win silently and subtly when they are in a position to bring their unique talent with potential for changing a company’s culture. This feminization of the workplace and gradual shift to women-centric corporate optics occurs subtly as well as distinctly as the company headed by a woman consciously seeks out more power and growth opportunities for women.
Though gender inequities are hard to address or entirely eradicate, under a female headed company, a shift towards empowering the underdog female workforce becomes inevitable. As Nooyi in her own career experienced discriminatory handling in terms of, for instance, grant of stock options, or assignment of a company jet to fly her cross-country and across continents to meetings, those differences would have made her more sensitive to handling the women workforce.
A distinctly feminine optic and intuition seem to have guided her entire career beginning with one of her earliest stints when she worked with Johnson and Johnson in Mumbai. There, she drew on her inner feminine self to effectively launch and sell sanitary napkins to a then close-minded conservative Indian consumer market. Carefree gave women and girls using sanitary napkins a truly liberating experience. In later jobs, that intuition worked again as she moved Pepsi to consumer-and-gender-sensitive designing and marketing, and a family friendly workplace.
Profits and technology may come easy to male leaders but it takes a woman to focus on product design, consumer psychology, and female power – both as consumers and as members of the workforce. When Nooyi sought to make Pepsi younger, more hip, but also cleaner and greener, her sensitivity drew her to support the emerging causes of sustainability, conservation, and preservation of earth’s resources. After initial cynicism, the Board got around to accepting the value-added impact of a green technology-centered company on its image but also on its bottom line.
When she left Pepsi, she had already built enough stature to move quickly to fill Board positions in key enterprises ranging from Amazon and the World Economic Forum, on the one hand, to the Lincoln Center and the International Cricket Council on the other. Her more meaningful accomplishment must have been to return to her alma mater Yale as a member of the Yale Corporation.
Thus does life come full circle, even for a woman!
(Neera Kuckreja Sohoni is an Indian American published author and opinion writer. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.)