Women in Focus: Indra Nooyi

indra nooyi

Indra Nooyi is an Indian-born, naturalized American who is the chairman and chief executive officer at PepsiCo, the second largest snack-food and beverage company in the world by net revenue. Apart from its most famous brand, Pepsi, PepsiCo also sells Doritos (chips), Tropicana (juices) and Quaker oats (cereals). Indra Nooyi has been consistently ranked as one of the ‘World’s 100 Most Powerful Women’.

Initial Life

Nooyi was born as Indra Krishnamurthy on October 28, 1955 in Madras (Chennai) to a middle-class family in India. Her father worked at State bank while her grandfather, who inspired her, was a district judge.

Rock Band Guitarist

A devout Hindu, Nooyi attended Madras Christian College and majored in chemistry in 1976. Her first experience with the corporate world was for the campus newspaper. A rebel at heart, Nooyi had joined an all-girls cricket team and also played guitar in an all female rock band at her college.

Soon after her college, Nooyi joined IIM Calcutta (Kolkata), one of the only two business schools in India at the time, for her masters in business administration. Her first job was as a product manager at Mettur Beardsell, a textile maker; she worked there for a while and soon joined Johnson & Johnson.

Off to the United States

The job was especially challenging for young Nooyi as she was supposed to introduce Stayfree sanitary napkins in India. The advertising of the product was banned in India. She overcame the hurdles and marketed the product to young women directly at schools and colleges. Her friends in United States convinced her to apply for Yale University, which was then only two years old. Without giving it much thought, Nooyi applied. Not only was her application approved, she also got a financial aid from the university.

Despite the societal pressures, Nooyi was able to convince her parents to move to the US. “It was unheard of for a good, conservative, south Indian Brahmin girl to do this,” she told Sarah Murray of Financial Times. “It would make her an absolutely unmarriageable commodity after that.”

This prophecy didn’t turn out to be true, as she later married Raj Nooyi, a management consultant. Nooyi has two daughters, nearly ten years apart.

Tough times

While she faced no issues adjusting to the new country, she did have a little financial trouble initially. To support her expenses, she worked an overnight shift as a receptionist and wore sarees to her summer jobs, as she couldn’t afford a suit. The management course enhanced her skills to a new level. Team-building exercises, group outing to an Arctic survival expedition was something Nooyi had never done in the past.  “That was invaluable for someone who came from a culture where communication wasn’t perhaps the most important aspect of business, at least in my time,” she told Murray.

The making of Indra Nooyi

After her masters from Yale, Nooyi joined Boston Consulting Group as director of international corporate strategy.

In 1986, Nooyi joined the automotive division development team at Motorola wherein she was promoted to vice president and director of corporate strategy in 1988. After four years, Nooyi joined Asea Brown Boveri Inc as the head of their strategy team. ABB was a $6 billion Swiss-Swedish conglomerate, which made industrial equipment and also constructed power plants across the world.

A Rising Star

A rising star in management, Nooyi was offered jobs by Jack Welch, head of General Electric and Wayne Calloway, chief executive officer, PepsiCo. As she told a writer for Business Week, the two men knew one another, but Calloway made an appealing pitch for Nooyi’s talent. He told her, she recalled, that “‘Welch is the best CEO I know. But I have a need for someone like you, and I would make PepsiCo a special place for you.'” She joined PepsiCo as senior vice president of corporate strategy and development in 1994. She soon became the driving force for changing PepsiCo brand identity and assets and was instrumental in making a number of important corporate decisions. Under her leadership, the company decided to spin off its restaurant division, KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell to a separate entity.

Nooyi also realized that PepsiCo’s core products, soft drinks and Frito-Lay chips will soon decline as the consumers were now opting for a healthier lifestyle. Hence the company decided to diversify into new products and acquired Tropicana in 1998 and Quaker oats two years later. She was promoted as the chief financial officer of the company that year. This made her the highest-ranking Indian born woman among the ranks in corporate America.

When Enrico retired due to health issues, Nooyi found herself a new boss, CEO Steve Reinemund. Reinemund had said that he would only take up the offer if Nooyi joined him in his team. “I can’t do it unless I have you with me,” she recalled him telling her, according to Business Week.

With her vision, the company grew and had a dazzling range of snack foods, beverage like Mountain Dew, Rice-a-Roni, Captain Crunch cereal to Gatorade, Doritos and Aquafina bottled water.

After Reinemund’s retirement, it was no surprise when Nooyi was named as PepsiCo’s new chief executive in August,2006. She was surely the right woman for the job and topped Fortune’s list of 50 most powerful women in US in 2006.

Nooyi who still occasionally wears sari to work also serves on the board of trustees for Yale. She resides in Greenwich, Connecticut and is great at maintaining her personal and professional life together.

Work and Home

She once quoted a story to Nandan Nilekani, ‘When I became the president, at 10 o’clock in the night I went home and said, ‘Mom I have some very important news’. To which she said ‘leave that important news, just go buy some milk’. To which, I said, ‘Raj is home, why don’t you ask him to buy the milk?’ She said, ‘he is tired’. Typical mother you know, can’t disturb the son-in-law! I was very upset, but I went and bought the milk and banged it on the kitchen table in front of her and said, ‘Tell me, why do I have to buy the milk and not somebody else.’ She just looked at me – and I will never forget it and it was a powerful lesson she left in me and said – ‘look, when you pull into the garage, leave the crown there. Don’t walk in with it, because you are first a wife and a mother. And if the family needs milk, you go get the milk. That is your primary role in life. Everything else is what you acquired or what you got because I pray for four to five hours a day.’ That is the only thing she tells me. She says, ‘what did you accomplish? You sit in a meeting on a chair all the time, and I pray for 4-5 hours.’