Off The Beaten Track: Indra Nooyi, The First Woman Of Color To Run A Fortune 50 Company

Lessons in leadership from the former Chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo.

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"For the first time ever, other countries in the Middle East are saying we want to be a center too, so Dubai is now on the edge of whether it will preserve its dominance." That's what Indra Nooyi, the former Chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo and now a sought-after corporate strategist and advisor to entrepreneurs, executives, and governments, said to a packed audience at the 14th Emirates Airline Festival of Literature held in February this year in Dubai.

Indra Nooyi/Dave Puente

Nooyi was invited to the Festival to promote her memoir, My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future, which presents the arch of her life from being a middle-class girl from Chennai in southern India who went on to become one of only five women studying management at the prestigious Indian Institute of Management in IIM Calcutta, and then she got a scholarship for the Yale School of Management. Most importantly, she went on to build an iconic career in corporate America, and thus becoming known as the first woman of color and American immigrant to run a Fortune 50 company.

Shortly before Nooyi addressed the audience at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, I also got a chance to speak to her for a few minutes, during which she revealed that she had been coming to Dubai for more than a quarter of a century, every time witnessing "more construction, new iconic buildings coming up, more excitement, and more billboards." Nooyi said, "Obviously, Dubai is open for business. I think that this whole region is very active now, and there's a big competition among the regional countries going on here, so the real challenge for Dubai will be whether it will maintain its preeminence in the region." In true Nooyi fashion of over-delivering on a particular premise, she did also share a valuable insight which, if converted into a well-executed policy, might help Dubai preserve its supremacy as the region's main business and financial hub. However, before sharing that with all of you, I'd like to first touch upon some of the most interesting parts of my conversation with Nooyi, which sought to unravel the threads of wisdom that she made use of throughout her career path.

There are a few work-specific situations that Nooyi mentions in her memoir to which, I believe, required a very high level of emotional intelligence to properly respond to, and when I asked her how she kept her cool in those instances, she replied, "It's a small price to pay." One of those situations happened during a summer when, as an Indian intern wearing a sari at a Booz Allen office in Chicago, Nooyi was not being taken to client meetings. Or, much later in her career, when she was already the Chairperson of PepsiCo, she had to have regular one-on-one meetings with a board member, almost always having to travel to his home city to see him, during which he would oppose her opinions, only to later "repeat, verbatim, what I'd just said." "All of these were very small prices to pay. Big deal, never mind," Nooyi reiterated.

In her memoir, Nooyi further recalls male executives being "rude and patronizing," and when I asked about the soft skills that were required to overcome all of this, she put it down to self-awareness. "In that Booz Allen example, here I was in a sari, in the summer of 1979," she said. "This was long time ago, because first of all, there were hardly any women, hardly four or five women in the whole Chicago office. And there were not many immigrants either, it was a whole different time. So, I think, when you are faced with that situation, you have to be practical and understanding to say, 'If I'm not being taken to the client, that's okay, because I've learnt enough in the office.' They've all gone out of their way to teach me. They all were really wonderful people at Booz Allen. They never once commented about my sari. They treated me like one of their own. So, going to the client, or not, who cares! I think that you have to process everything that is happening around you in a way that is relevant to the circumstances of that time. For example, when I was at PepsiCo and men used to have golf weekends, I was happy that they didn't invite me, because I had family at home. If they invited me, I'd have to say no every time, and then they'd think I was anti-social. In reality, I'm glad they didn't invite me."

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Nooyi's memoir, My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future. Source: Indra Nooyi/Dave Puente

But this is not to say that Nooyi did not stand up for herself either. In My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future, Nooyi does list a few anecdotes in which she stood her ground and refused to go with the status quo. For instance, she remembers when, in management meetings at PepsiCo, her comments where labelled as "too theoretical," but once the exact same proposal was made by a man, they were viewed as "terrific, insightful ideas." Once, towards the end of one of those meetings, Nooyi leaned over to a senior operating executive, loudly asking him to "bring up a thought of mine," lest it would again be viewed as "too theoretical."

Such stories offer a perspective into how Nooyi was breaking the mold when she became the CEO of PepsiCo in 2006- at the time, she was one of only 11 women running a Fortune 500 company; in 2021, there were 41 women on Fortune's Global 500. During her time at the helm of PepsiCo, Nooyi says that she didn't think she could do anything about how people treated her personally, but she always made it a point to try to support women in the organization. One example of this was when she noticed "the and-but phenomenon" during performance reviews at PepsiCo- when managers reviewed the results of their male peers, they'd commend them on their "terrific potential," whereas when they would assess the performance of women, it would always include an explanation of an issue that "might derail her future success." Nooyi decided to turn things around in this department by not letting the managers get away with such consequence-free indictments of the women under them, and instead telling them to "to make it work with that female executive."

This brought us to an important point that Nooyi raises in her book- the need for topics like gender equality and women's progress to be discussed by all, and especially by men in positions of power, because "otherwise, it's women talking to women." Nooyi explained, "In some global meetings, when we start talking about these issues, there are only women in the room, and a few already "converted' men. The other people sitting there are doing their emails, because they didn't find any other place to sit down." To further highlight the importance of bringing men in power to the table, Nooyi shared an interesting story. "Even about this book, I have to tell you, one thing that was a disappointment to me is that men bought the book to give it to their wives and daughters," she said. "So, I look at them, and say, "Why don't you read it yourself?' Why do you think that you shouldn't read a memoir written by a woman?' I've been forcing men to read the book now. Then, they read it and they go, "Oh, I didn't realize it was so profound.' I think it's high time that we brought men to the table, and said: "Which one of you is going to be progressive enough to be able to talk about these issues?'"

For these reasons, Nooyi insists that the most profound change that needs to happen in society will come through educating men- particularly men in leadership roles- to support women in the workforce. "There are more and more women coming into senior levels, so we should call the question why those issues still exist," she said. "It is because the men in power need to pause and say, 'Wait a minute, we just took on that guy who hasn't fulfilled his objectives, but we say he's got great potential, whereas this woman has played down her potential- shall we talk about why that's the case?' Let's have men talk about why they think that women have no potential, while men have infinite potential. I think that we have to find a few male leaders who can model this behavior." While she commended more and more men publicly taking on this issue, she admitted that "until there is a critical mass of people asking for change, one person cannot do it all." Nooyi added, "But if that person is a CEO, then he can change the people, meaning if they won't change their behavior, change the people."

Such changes were hard to even imagine during her own career, which included very demanding roles at Boston Consulting Group, Motorola, ABB, and of course, PepsiCo. Nooyi once described herself as "an ideal worker," which translates into a ferocious work ethic that, for instance, made her not walk a trail in front of the PepsiCo office called the Golden Path for the first 20 years she spent at the company, because "she just didn't have time." Her professionalism is further illustrated through the story of when she flew to the Russian capital of Moscow over a weekend to help a junior PepsiCo team prepare a report that would be presented to her the following week. Another anecdote from her memoir that left me in awe of her commitment to her work describes her, after a very long day at her job, calling her husband Raj Nooyi from a Fond du Lac police precinct, because she could not pay a speeding fine with her American Express card. Then, she "spotted a neat bed in a jail cell and -I actually can't believe it now- asked if I could sleep on that bed for the night, until my husband could come the next morning with the cash."

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Nooyi became the CEO of PepsiCo in 2006- at the time, she was one of only 11 women running a Fortune 500 company. Source: Indra Nooyi/Dave Puente

At the time, all of this seemed "a small price to pay" for the fundamental changes that she introduced with PepsiCo's Performance with Purpose initiative, which resulted in its healthier and more nutritious products, limited environmental footprint, and empowered staff. Plus, PepsiCo's revenue grew by 80% under Nooyi's 12-year leadership. However, she assures me that it was not achieved without occasional failures and regular resistance at every turn. "I use failures as learning, teachable moments about what went wrong, and what I could have done better, then I learn from that and improve next time," Nooyi said. "Without failures, I wouldn't be where I am today."

This is also the ethos with which Nooyi characterizes her departure from PepsiCo, which reports have suggested happened when the company's "North American beverage unit was stagnating amid a general decline in soda consumption" (TIME), and there was growing pressure "to revamp the company's U.S. beverage business by spinning off its bottling operations, or even splitting up the company." (The Wall Street Journal). "When I had to walk out of PepsiCo, when I said, 'I'm leaving,' that was a failure of the system and of me too, because I felt like, 'What could I have done differently to avoid that situation from happening?'," she continued. "So, I think that sometimes the system fails you, sometimes you don't anticipate what needs to be done and you feel like a failure, but every one of these moments, you should make a teachable moment and consider what you could have done differently."

We touch upon the COVID-19 pandemic next, and according to Nooyi, the world is currently in a trial period of assessing what it means to have a work-life balance, and she hopes that this will lead to the embracing of a set-up that takes into consideration different needs. In fact, that is her book's "moonshot" pitch: requesting a better balance between work and family that would "enable women to rise to the top of companies, but also enable families to be built." That would explain her urgent call for business leaders to enable efforts like paid leave, work flexibility and predictability, and support systems that would allow employees to care for their young families or elderly parents. That's the way to unleash the full potential of our economies, Nooyi states, and that is also her invaluable and timely advice for Dubai as it carves out its place in the future. "If Dubai can make itself as a women-friendly and a family-friendly place, and therefore, a place that offers an incredible talent pool, you will keep and attract even more businesses," Nooyi predicts.

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