The release of her memoir allows us to dive into what has been an extraordinary life. In a candid, deeply-engaging conversation, and through various personal anecdotes, Indra Nooyi opens up about the subjects in her book – her family, career and her thoughts on leadership.
“...I grew up with Healthntrends. To me, in those days, it was an aspirational magazine, and I can see you have maintained the quality, so I’m just thrilled to be in it.” These were the opening lines, from Indra Nooyi, as the interview accompanying her cover began. A pause to deliberate. The achievements of this global icon and personal hero to many might take a while to assemble, but a few highlights off a very long index. This is the erstwhile CEO of PepsiCo – her tenure was an exceptional one. She’s currently on the board of Amazon, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and Philips. An independent director of the ICC and a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. A fixture on the “World’s Most Powerful” lists, the recipient of innumerable accolades, honorary degrees and awards – including the Padma Bhushan – she now adds author to the roster, with her thoroughly-engaging memoir, My Life in Full: Work, Family, And Our Future. It is an indisputable fact that Indra is a visionary leader. Her introductory statement, however, reinforces a quality distinct to her – genuine power that is complemented by grace and humility.
Interestingly enough, she also didn’t set out to write a book at all. “I was going to write about how to lift women in the workplace, how to provide support systems so they can have a family and work. How do you give women the power of the purse? Those kinds of issues, because those are the questions that people asked me as I was in PepsiCo and when leaving. So, I was going to write a series of articles about that and sort of get a policy discussion started,” she reveals. “My publisher, several publishers and my book lawyer came to see me and said – look, if you want to write about those issues, that’s great, but there’s credibility and readability only if you inform it through your life. People want to know about your life. People want to know how you managed it. They want to know if there’s a manual for doing all this and, maybe, it’s your manual they can use.” The result isn’t a memoir or a tell-all, per se. It’s a book filled with lessons informed by Indra’s story – of what she’s taken from each of the stages of her life, and what she intends to do for the next phase.
Reading My Life in Full, and through this opportunity to meaningfully interact with Indra, it is apparent that her substantial foundation has been built on an equally strong base: family. Growing up in Chennai, her paternal grandfather – her thatha – was a cherished teacher; one who had a profound impact on her life. “If I think of him now, I get emotional. I think, as kids growing up, he was the most central figure. He was the head of the household and he ruled over it with a firm hand and a big heart. He adored the three of us – my sister, my brother and I,” says Indra.
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A man who devoted his life to his grandchildren, their success was his happiness. It’s also evident where Indra gets her sense of equal ownership from. Progressive thought, especially regarding the education of women, was a central tenet in their household, a space where intellectual curiosity, analytical debate and the freedom to express a point of view were encouraged. Various chapters illustrate how that ethos manifested itself in Indra’s outlook growing up, from her school days at Holy Angels Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School, to Madras Christian College (she was in an all-girls band, the LogRhythms) right up to the Indian Institute of Management in (then) Calcutta, and, later, at the Yale School of Management. “He made sure, along with my father and my mother, with the men in our family, to always say – ‘The girls cannot be treated any differently than we would the boys. We must let them fly. We have to let them dream – (do) whatever they want to do’. He pushed us to be more than what we would have been had he not pushed us,” Indra reveals. This translated to lessons, to not sitting idle. He encouraged them to expand their thinking outside of schoolwork, making Indra read the newspaper to him. “Not because he couldn’t read it,” she says. “Because he wanted me to get into the habit of reading a newspaper article and understanding what it said.” It’s also proof that multi-generational living, if executed correctly, is what really helps the family unit thrive, as she explains, “That could be fantastic for the grandkids. Because, you know, parents are always busy. My mother, had she been solely responsible for us girls, growing up, we would have had a tough time because she had so many other things to do. But, having my grandfather as a single dedicated source for us, or with no other worries, was just fantastic. I won the lottery of life with my thatha.”
Indra has always said that family is the foundation and the force that has propelled her in many ways, and the book is filled with anecdotes, memories and lessons from her grandparents, parents, siblings, husband and children. A particular line also stands out, over the many stories that fold over the pages of her life, and it is that her mother would have made a great CEO. It’s a thought – an understanding – many women, across the planet, have about their mothers, or matriarchal figures, but have never quite found the words to summarise. Indra, when asked about where that belief germinated from, laughs, “In so many ways, I’m my mother’s daughter. In some ways, I’m not. Let me talk about both. Mum was brilliant. Mum is brilliant. She’s still, at her age, writing and doing amazing research on topics. When people read what she writes, they are amazed that she has such a brain. She knows how to organise herself, how to give orders, how to extract work from people. She’s just remarkable. She’s a tough boss. She doesn’t give compliments easily at all, except to the grandkids. To her kids, no compliments. That didn’t enter her vocabulary at all.”
It’s such a deeply personal insight about mothers – closer to home, South Asian mothers – who are devoted to their families, highly capable at juggling multiple schedules and tasks, and cementing their love through action, if not always through their words. Indra adds, “But you know, she wasn’t allowed to go to college because her family could not afford to send her. Had she gone to college, and, if the times had been different, she would have risen because she just works until it gets done. She never sits still for one minute. Never, ever. She has to keep doing something all the time. I am that way. I have to be reading or doing something all the time because I feel like there’s only so many hours in our life that we’re given before we depart, and I want to maximise how I use those hours in my life.” She also recognises how she is, at her core, her mother’s daughter, with this admission and her next. “Now, I will tell you the bad thing is that I’m always in action. And, sometimes, my kids will say, ‘Mom, just chill. Don’t do anything for a week.’ I don’t know what it is to not do anything for a week. I just don’t know. And even if we talk about going for vacation, my mother will say, ‘You’re going for a whole week? Don’t you think that’s too much?’ You know – are you going to relax for a whole week? Why don’t you do some more work? And so, even today, my mother is a very different person in terms of how busy she is and how she wants us to be pushing our brain, thinking, reading, learning. I am, in many ways, my mother’s daughter that way.”
There’s a certain credo that Indra has shared over the years – “leave your crown in the garage” – instilled by her mother. One that can be interpreted in many ways, depending on circumstances. She explains, “In a way, I’m happy she said what she did because she didn’t say – you don’t have a crown. She said – you have a crown, but leave it in the garage.” She explains this inherent push and pull, adding, “On the one hand, she’s saying – I’m here to help you with your kids, so you can go somewhere to put on a crown and behave in whatever way you want. When you come home, leave your crown in the garage. I think our life is about brakes and accelerators. Our lives are about putting the crown on, taking it off. It’s all an imaginary crown, but it’s feeling important sometimes, feeling you are part of the team at other times.”
Most people must juggle multiple personas, especially between their careers and home, and, while boundaries do tend to get blurred, it’s an important reminder to honour the relationships you have and the roles you play in the different facets of your life. For Indra, this translates into knowing when to take the metaphorical crown off, because that is what keeps a person even-keeled. “At every point in time, don’t walk around with this crown in your head, saying – I’m the greatest. Listen, talk less, absorb what’s going on around you. And, you know, enjoy the crown while you have it, but don’t try to make it a fixture in your life,” she says. “The big difference, though, is, I would say, that that expression applies to both men and women. I think both husband and wife should leave their crowns in the garage when they come home. Because I don’t think one person should wear the crown and another person should feel like I’ve got to leave my crown in the garage. I think young people – couples – should work together to develop the family and that means there is no crown beyond the garage.”
It is those empathetic, equitable traits that are such a hallmark of her leadership style. As PepsiCo CEO (and at all her previous roles, from the Boston Consulting Group to Motorola), she found a way to balance compassionate action and foresight with the absolute rigour that is required to make massive decisions with far-reaching consequences. “My belief is that people, your executives, in particular, have to be engaged in the company – head, heart, and hands. Typically, people focus on the head and the hands. I believe that increased loyalty to the company, to me, to the team, will happen if they feel emotionally committed to the company,” she expounds. True alchemy occurs when people believe in what they’re doing, and in the company they’re at, in profound ways. Indra engaged their hearts. She got to know her people… as people. This also involved getting to know their families – parents and spouses, included.
“I did that because I wanted their families to realise that their spouse or their child was part of a larger organisation and had a profound impact on Corporate America. And that I truly appreciated the hours that the family member was putting in at PepsiCo. Just know that your CEO’s grateful,” she says. “So, when the family knew that the CEO was not just using their spouse or their child as another tool of the trade, but as a genuine contributor, all of a sudden, the relationship changed. And I think, in a way, we all must put empathy back in the job and look at each individual as somebody who’s got family, who’s got issues, who’s got joys and sadness and allow them to bring themselves to work. It is not inconceivable for me to be in a meeting and find that one employee is looking glum and unusually quiet and not making eye contact. I’ll call a break, pull that person out and say, okay, tell me what’s up. And they’ll say, ‘You noticed?’ Yes, I noticed. Then they’ll tell me what’s going on.” It’s also not inconceivable for Indra to then tell them to take a break, to leave and go home to sort out their issues. “Because, at the end of the day, you know, they’re people too. All of us are people,” she affirms.
It is abundantly clear that Indra’s always been ahead of the curve – a leader far ahead of her time, in a way that’s almost prescient. She also credits having wonderful mentors along the way – “talk about being dealt a great deck of cards,” she says – who helped her form her own outlook, her own methods, whether it was SL Rao during her early days at Mettur Beardsell (he’s in Bengaluru, and they still talk), and, later, Norman Wade. There were forces of nature like Gerhard Schulmeyer, when she was at Motorola, and Steve Reinemund, who was one of the CEOs at PepsiCo. “Mentors pick you. You don’t pick them. And they pick you because they see something in you that they think they can work with. I didn’t know that these were my mentors until later. I reflected on the profound impact they had on my life and how they pushed me to do the tough assignments, how they never really complimented me, but they never critiqued me or criticised me when they’d give out harsh feedback. So, by inference, I would say that’s a compliment,” she relates. These mentors supported her, not just intellectually, but also in making decisions that would change her life. Norman Wade encouraged her to go to Yale, and he and SL Rao would show up with food and coffee as she stood in line for many hours, at her visa appointment. However, there is a crucial aspect of this relationship that she highlights. “With mentors, if they give you some advice and you choose not to take it, you should go back to them and tell them why you’re not taking their advice. Because, if they keep giving you advice and you ignore it, why should they do it,” she asks. “I think one thing that people have to understand is that being mentored is a privilege, but a responsibility for you too. You owe your mentor updates. You owe your mentor an answer if you goof up so that they know that you’re going to learn from those mistakes. Most of the mentors I have feel vested in my success, every step of the way.”
Indra walked into PepsiCo on March 20, 1994. Before, at a pivotal moment in her life, she found herself between the company she would end up joining, and another giant – GE. It was a phone call with the then CEO, Wayne Calloway, that cemented her decision. “He spoke for a minute, and I spoke for 59,” she laughs. She was also moved by his humility, saying, “It was clear to me that he was valuing me. It was clear from the way he talked, the way he committed to developing me, told me the environment at PepsiCo needed somebody like me. He was making me feel part of a bigger entity… that, together, we were going to make this company even greater. It was that humble outreach with an entreaty for me to be part of an ecosystem that I could help improve that touched me beyond anything that I expected.”
Company culture, and the importance of valuing an individual – again, aspects that really speak to Indra – sealed the deal. “Companies are nothing but a collection of people. There are companies where the culture is impersonal, where they look at people as tools of the trade. And there are companies that look at people as assets, real assets for the company. I think in BCG [Boston Consulting Group], I was looked at as an asset. Then, when I came to Motorola, people like Chris Galvin (the CEO, at the time) looked at me as an asset. He really mentored me and treasured me, and then Gerhard was perhaps the single biggest force who gave me the most tailwinds,” she recalls. “At PepsiCo, there was Wayne or Roger Enrico [also the CEO] or Steve. Again, the culture of the company was one where we treated our people very well. You don’t really work for a company. You operate within the culture of a company and that culture is manifested in certain people. If you end up with the right boss, it’s a great place to be. And I think I ended up with a great set of bosses.” PepsiCo, in her opinion, was an unusual company, right from the start. “There’s a special sauce in that company. It’s youthful. Everybody’s smiling. There’s joie de vivre there,” she says. Through the lead-up to CEO, people like Bob Dettmer (the CFO), Calloway and Enrico built a sort of fort around her, allowing her to grow and thrive. Then, it was time to fly by herself. And fly she did.
Indra stands for so many things and has always been vocal about how society needs to unlock the tremendous potential of women. When asked if she’s witnessed the needle move forward, she answers, “Yes and no. I actually think from when I started to now, we’ve come a long way. The number of women in senior leadership positions has gone up. The number of women in colleges and universities and professional schools has gone up a lot. In all those metrics, we’re making great progress. People are now beginning to recognise and realise that women are getting all the top grades. They’re driven. They want to contribute to the economy. And, if you don’t bring in the talents of the women, the economy cannot thrive.” There is a flipside, however. “Where we have not made much progress is the environment inside companies for women to work without facing unconscious bias or lack of pay parity. We still have too many headwinds on women as opposed to giving them the tailwinds to soar. And we have done nothing to build a support structure for them if they want to have a family,” she expresses. The last two years have proven that remote work is achievable. Flexibility can be worked into schedules, which is imperative for women with young families to balance work and their responsibilities. Not nearly enough has been done in terms of childcare, and, in many families, the woman is still expected to come home and shoulder the full burden of housework and upbringing.
"Around the world, I think that approximately 137 million girls are still not educated. The reason they’re not educated is because society believes that these women have to perform certain jobs that don’t require education. That’s not true"
“We’re talking about the educated parts of society. Around the world, I think that approximately 137 million girls are still not educated. The reason they’re not educated is because society believes that these women have to perform certain jobs that don’t require education. That’s not true,” she details, further expounding, “Families are fragile. And, if the family breaks up for whatever reason, what is that woman supposed to do with the kids? I don’t know. I think we ought to think holistically about women and we’ve got to give them part of the purse. You’ve got to give them the ability to keep a job, support their families. And we’ve got to make women equal partners in this whole economic equation. I think we can evolve new work styles because of our families and allow women and men to have a family and build a career. I think what we have to do is make sure that families are the source of strength, not a source of stress.” The purse she’s referring to is something Indra has passionately advocated – “the power of the purse.” Women across the world are still beholden to men for basic allowances. “I think as long as that’s a productive relationship, it’s not a problem. Again, it’s the choice of the woman. But there are many situations where women are held hostage and treated badly because they have no independence – financial or economic,” she says. “We constantly have to think about how to educate women, bring them into the workplace, give them the support systems to develop a family, but then allow them to be economically independent so that they feel like they’re not just unpaid labour for their entire life.”
"My foundation came from India – family, respect for elders, role of teachers, intergenerational responsibility, multi-generation living, all of the things that have been drilled into my head."There’s a certain anecdote in the book that speaks so eloquently of the life that Indra has earned and created for herself and her family. It speaks of the duality inherent in her – of India and the United States. In the abridged version, she met both President Barack Obama and Dr Manmohan Singh in a story that’s, well, one for the books. “That experience was surreal for me because President Obama was introducing his team and he said, ‘Indra Nooyi’s the CEO of PepsiCo’. And Prime Minister Singh just said, ‘No, but she’s one of us’. And President Obama didn’t blink, he just said, ‘Yeah. But she’s one of us too’,” she laughs. Herein lies her story, past, present and future. “My foundation came from India – family, respect for elders, role of teachers, intergenerational responsibility, multi-generation living, all of the things that have been drilled into my head. The large family that didn’t have much but loved being together. Togetherness was everything,” she reminisces. “That, I think, gave me a great start in life. But my wings were added on in the US. This was the seat of culture, innovation, the forward-thinking technologies, where women could thrive as much as men. From where I came from and where I ended up in PepsiCo as a CEO, it could have happened only in the United States. Now I think we should not forget that this country was open for the best and brightest to come and thrive, and it’s a meritocracy to the extreme. At the margin, there might be issues, but everybody has issues. But, at the core, this country is a fantastic country for people like me, and I’m always grateful for the start I got here and for the continued mentorship I had from people here that allowed me to be who I am now.”
"I’m always grateful for the start I got here and for the continued mentorship I had from people here that allowed me to be who I am now."
On the day of the interview, Indra was up at 4 AM – one of her habits. It’s not because of stress. It’s because the sun’s going to come up, and Indra enjoys getting a head start to the day. The world is asleep, and there’s utter stillness for her to enjoy her cup of South Indian coffee, while reading. It’s because she was wired this way – as only Indra can be – that she overcame the challenges life brought her and created something truly substantial. She does it all, keeping all the multiple tracks running, whether it’s her kids, family, work and office. How? She smiles. “Everything was somehow running in my brain, and it just worked out.”
Photographs: Vikram Pathak | Styling: Anondita Paul
Also Read: Indra Nooyi Turned Around Pepsico With Strategic Redirection