Indra Nooyi - From conservative Chennai to posh Connecticut
Indra Nooyi is best known for being on Forbes’ List of Most Powerful Businesswomen, and for making it to the TIMEs most Influential List of people for 2013. Her tireless dedication towards PepsiCo, of which she is CEO, has resulted in the company almost doubling its profits and collaborating with leading ancillary companies which in turn, reach out to more customers. She is known for her dedication to her Indian roots, which she refuses to hide or mask, and for her strict adherence to Indian customs while at home. From a young ambitious young woman who grew up in Chennai in the 50’s, to the powerful, multifaceted business magnate that she has grown to become, Indra Nooyi’s personal journey is one filled with rebellion, risk-taking, and above all, a burning passion to succeed. Nooyi fondly recalls her growing years as a young student in Chennai, India, where she studied at Holy Angels Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School. She states that her mother would encourage her sister and her to talk about what they wanted to be when they grew up, and would reward the most inspiring orator with a treat. Not known for her meekness, Nooyi was a rebel from the beginning, playing in the all-girls cricket team, and later joined a rock music band while studying at Madras Christian College. Her rebellion raised plenty of eyebrows in conservative Chennai where women, like most women in India during the mid-50’s, were rated as marriageable or not based on their conduct; cricket and rock music did not quite raise her eligibility, nor did it put her in the coveted “safe” category of women who could be restricted to household duties after marriage. Indeed, Indra Nooyi was well aware that she was destined for bigger, brighter things in her future, and while she did rebel and enjoy herself, she also made it a point to prioritize her education, and took the risk of traveling to the United States of America in 1978 where she studied Public and Private Management at the Yale School of Management. Being from a humble, middle-class background with no extra money or a network of people to fall back on in times of crisis, this move was bold, and thankfully supported by her parents who had full faith in her. A story in her life which aptly describes her shift from self-doubt to self-awareness occurs when Nooyi, fresh out of Yale, was struggling to put together $50 in order to buy a Western suit for a job interview. She is said to have been working from morning to night as a receptionist, unsure of how she was going to succeed, but determined all the same. As her luck would have it, the suit she purchased did not fit her well and only reached down to her ankles; she was distinctly uncomfortable in it. She did not get through at the interview, and turned to a professor for advice. The professor asked her what she would wear during a job interview in India, to which she replied, “I would wear a sari”. The professor then gave her the most valuable piece of advice she had heard, “be yourself”, he said. She proceeded to wear a sari for her next interview, and got the job. It was a life-changing moment for her, and she chose to follow through with believing in herself, being comfortable and not giving in to situations she was not confident about. Her professional climb began in 1994, when she broke the glass ceiling by joining PepsiCo, and quickly rose upwards to finally assume the position of its President and CEO in 2001; she was also on its Board of Directors. A lesson she learned quickly was that women had to work twice as hard as their male counterparts in order to be recognized and have their efforts respected. Considering the sheer power of a company like PepsiCo, it is safe to assume that she worked extremely hard. Since joining the company she has been involved in all strategic decision-making processes, and played a key role in acquiring fruit juice giant, Tropicana in 1998, and also in acquiring Quaker Oats for $13 billion. On a personal front, Nooyi lives in Fairfax County, Connecticut with her husband and two daughters. She plays Carnatic music and ensures that visitors take their shoes off before entering her residence. She always has incense lit in the large prayer room and is known to be a devotee of Lord Ganesha. Interestingly, a number of her office colleagues have been inspired by her faith and keep images of the God on their office tables! Despite the innumerable opportunities for Indra Nooyi to rid herself of Indian values and beliefs, she has firmly stuck to her roots and believes that she has what it takes to be successful in the corporate world. She refuses to forget the young, ambitious and rebellious girl from Chennai who broke social norms, and takes those post-dinner conversations with her mother very seriously. Known for her non-conservative approach and friendly attitude towards co-workers, Indra Nooyi will continue to don her sari and her Indian-ness with pride as she signs million dollar deals and takes PepsiCo many steps closer to becoming an even larger, more profitable company.