A Life of Incredible Success but Just Short of a Role Model

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Indra Nooyi’s ‘My Life in Full’- published by Hachette India – is a compelling saga that captures a woman’s phenomenal rise from anonymity to global fame. Her incredibly successful and well-lived life is an inspiration to women – especially immigrant women of color. At age 65, having won a permanent place in the portals of highly successful women leaders, she now recaps her journey from nowhere to everywhere.

Resident of one of the richest most coveted and, in earlier decades, lily white American neighborhoods (Greenwich, Connecticut), with 300 million dollars of personal wealth, and dozens of prestigious awards, honors, and Board memberships coming her way, Nooyi reflects on what happened, how, why, and with what lessons for others to learn from and imbibe.

From her somewhat humble middle class beginnings in Madras to her commanding place at the head of a Board Room is a quantum leap which few women (perhaps even men) have the talent, the persistence, the support system, the guts, and the luck to make. That fortune helps those most who help themselves certainly applies to Nooyi, who succeeded in breaking not one but two glass ceilings (of gender and ethnicity) when she became PepsiCo’s CEO in 2006.

A science graduate from Madras, Nooyi did her MBA from Calcutta’s Institute of Management, later moving to Yale for a second degree in management. Her early internships in India and her resume thereafter display employment at a plethora of leading multinational companies. Eventually in 1994, she joined PepsiCo, where in 2006 after a successful upward trajectory, she ended up as 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 in the race to the top.

Heading a major corporation entailed ceaseless work and Nooyi did not hesitate to deliver. Recognizing a CEO’s work never ends, when she started lugging bags full of files and paperwork to peruse at home every day, her colleagues teased her for being a “bag lady”. Interestingly, later when a male colleague left Pepsi to head a company, he confessed he had become a “bag man” lugging bags home each evening!

Working her ass off, to use male lingo, she kept surpassing milestones and setting new records until in 2018, she decided to call it a day and stepped down. During her reign, Pepsi revenues grew by about 80 per cent, and the share price rose in contrast to the company’s prior stagnant years. Importantly, she led Pepsi to a healthier, greener, more family and gender sensitive place. Women’s importance as consumers holding the purse strings of household consumption expenditure became a prominent variable in her marketing and advertising strategies.

Though gender inequities are hard to address or eradicate, under a female headed company, a shift towards empowering the underdog female workforce becomes inevitable. As Nooyi in her own career experienced discrimination , for instance, in the granting of stock options, or access to a company jet to fly her across continents to meetings, those differences would have made her more sensitive to managing a female workforce, and making Pepsi more gender conscious.

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 work place.

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, and 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 round 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 World Economic Forum on the one hand to the Lincoln Center and the International Cricket Council (ICC) on the other. Her most meaningful accomplishment must have been to return to her alma mater Yale as a member of the Yale Corporation. That kind of organizational and personal turn-around offers few parallels in corporate history, especially as it concerns women.

But, to reverse a familiar adage, every silver cloud has a black lining. In the wake of her book release, some comments made by her in the media interviews have rankled and disenchanted some of us as women. Her claim that she never ever asked for a raise and considers such asking “cringe-worthy” distorts her image as a role model. Multiple gender disparity studies show how women get less pay because they don’t negotiate hard or at all for better pay and perks. Successful other women heading corporations have urged women to lean in and not shy away from asking for more. Nooyi’s stance on this front seems both callous and condescending.

The other fact that strikes us as hard to stomach is her claim that she was never sexually “assaulted“, although she was aware of and witnessed it. That begs the question and completely glosses over whether she was sexually “harassed”. Actual assaults are certainly less frequent, and perhaps in enlightened and stringently watchful work places even rare, but sexual harassment is rampant. By keeping silent about any harassment she may have experienced, she does great damage to women’s struggle for safety and dignity in the workplace.

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Neera Kuckreja Sohoni has a Ph.D. in economics and is a published author.

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