The most powerful woman in the post-millennial business world is an NRI. It’s official. Forbes says so. For four years running, the distinguished business magazine has ranked Indra Nooyi at the top of its Most Powerful Women in Business list, as well as placing her third on its Most Powerful Women list in 2008 and 2009. She is the chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo. She shares a birthday with Bill Gates. She counts Henry Kissinger as a close personal friend. She is married with two daughters, one adult and one teenaged. She is an avid supporter of the New York Yankees. Still, while a profile of this remarkable woman can call upon any number of career highlights and snippets of family information, one question remains in doubt: who is the real Indra Nooyi?
“We are in an era of profound change,” Nooyi repeatedly says in interviews. By contrast, her life has been relatively straightforward. Born in Chennai in 1955, Nooyi’s southern Brahmin upbringing could be called privileged by Indian standards and gives the first clue to unlocking her character. Her father was a banker and her grandfather a district judge, and her parents wasted little time educating her in the values they expected to hold. There was a particular emphasis on thought towards the future – both her own (she and her sister had contests to see who could give their mother the best speech about what they wanted to be) and that of the world (problems of global affairs posed by her parents at the dinner table).
After obtaining her B. Sc. In Chennai and an uninspiring Masters experience at Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta, Nooyi took a job managing the production of Stayfree sanitary pads. Perhaps not surprisingly, she sought a higher calling, got herself into Yale School of Management and elected to join the NRI contingent. Several management positions of increasing importance through the 80s and early 90s revealed her to have a calm eye for the right opening and an iron will to succeed. It was inevitable that she would be picked up by a massive multinational. The only question was over which one would secure her signature first. PepsiCo won the race.
Nooyi's now-famous rise and rise through the PepsiCo ranks, helped by her connection to the enormous potential in the Indian market, has led her to the point where she is shaping social and economic trends rather than merely observing them. Watching her speak, her personal buzzwords roll repeatedly off the tongue: 'Performance with Purpose.' 'Good for you' products versus 'fun for you' products. 'How can we do better by doing better?' While she clearly sees any public stage as an advertising opportunity above all else, she never comes across as a corporate machine, but also keeps her personal life close to her chest. Her role at PepsiCo is what publicly defines her, and that is exactly how she wants it. Such a talent for self-preservation indicates that a political career beckons, probably within the next five years, probably in the United States.
What is perhaps most inspiring about Nooyi is the seamless melding of cultures she brings to work. As Americans are implored to become more family-oriented, for Nooyi, this is a constant fact of life. Example: from the start of Nooyi's tenure at the head of PepsiCo, she wrote personal notes every quarter to the spouses of her executives, but still felt she wasn't doing enough to forge the bonds of a 'PepsiCo family'. After a trip back to India, she was reminded that in the Indian family, you are always your parents' children; she realised that her executives were all kids once, too, and decided to start writing to their parents every quarter as well – something an American CEO would never dream of. The response, in Nooyi's words, was “huge”.
Again, however: who is the real Indra Nooyi? While most of her personal anecdotes are obviously premeditated to humanise her, she refuses to be drawn on more private details, such as her daughter's resentment at her focusing more on career than on being a mother. Nooyi speaks of her own mother frequently – incredibly, she had to ask her permission before taking the CEO job at PepsiCo – and hints of resentment crop up there, too, but only fleetingly. She knows that however hard her mother has been on her, it is all out of a desire for her daughter to be the best she can possibly be. Perhaps she introspects about her own failings in private so she can present herself as a well-rounded leader in public... though where she would find the time to do so in-between meetings, flights and her beloved Yankees is a mystery.
As an NRI, Indra Nooyi is something of a standard bearer, showing that it is possible for an Indian – and a woman, at that – to lead one of the largest companies in the world through times of turmoil and on to great heights. If her nature behind closed doors remains elusive, her 'rockstar CEO' public image befits her status as a widely respected leader in the business world. Her initiatives at PepsiCo have been stimulated equally by profit and social conscience and have taken them almost completely out of the shadow of Coca-Cola. It has come so far that here in India, one of the world's biggest markets, if you ask any shop-worn bakery proprietor or restaurant waiter for a 'Coke', they inevitably return with a Pepsi – though in keeping with her business-only persona, Nooyi would quickly state that “it's a PepsiCo thing, not an Indra Nooyi thing”.