Four lessons from Indra Nooyi’s Inspirational Journey

By Madhavi Bhasin, Senior Director of Technovation

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi poses for a portrait by products at the Tops SuperMarket in Batavia, New York, U.S. on June 3, 2013. REUTERS/Don HeupelI’ve always been inspired by Indra Nooyi’s professional journey. Maybe because I closely identify with her cultural and social challenges. But I strongly believe that her story reflects some mantras that can be helpful for many others around the globe.

Indra Nooyi grew up in India and went to college and business school there. She played cricket — and lead guitar in an all-girl rock band. In 1980, she came to the States and got a second master’s degree at the Yale School of Management. She worked for several years in management consulting, then in corporate strategy, and joined PepsiCo in 1994, as chief strategist. Twelve years later, she became its C.E.O., and now oversees 260,000 global employees and a snack empire that includes Frito-Lay chips, Tropicana juices, Gatorade, Quaker foods, and of course lots and lots of soda.

What’s so special about Indra’s journey?  Well, she is someone who managed to rise to the top despite all social, cultural and gender challenges. Here are four episodes in Indira’s journey that have impressed and inspired me.

1. Your social and cultural norms can’t limit you.

Indira was born in a conservative Indian family and the dream of becoming the CEO of a leading American brand would seem impossible to her. However, she pursued her education and career one step at a time and today she one of the most influential global CEOs.

2. Do what you believe in and give it your 100%.

Against her parents’ advice, she came to the United States in 1978 at age 23 to earn her M.B.A. in Public and Private Management at Yale where she worked as a dorm receptionist—opting for the graveyard shift because it paid an extra 50 cents per hour.

3. Some things you can change, others you can’t. Pick your battles and converse your energy.

(This is an excerpt from an interview with Indra Nooyi)

“I got home about 10, got into the garage, and my mother was waiting at the top of the stairs. And I said, “Mom, I’ve got great news for you.” She said, “let the news wait. Can you go out and get some milk?”

I looked in the garage and it looked like my husband was home. I said, “what time did he get home?” She said “8 o’clock.” I said, “Why didn’t you ask him to buy the milk?” “He’s tired.” Okay. We have a couple of help at home, “why didn’t you ask them to get the milk?” She said, “I forgot.” She said just get the milk. We need it for the morning. So like a dutiful daughter, I went out and got the milk and came back.

I banged it on the counter and I said, “I had great news for you. I’ve just been told that I’m going to be president on the Board of Directors. And all that you want me to do is go out and get the milk, what kind of a mom are you?”

And she said to me, “let me explain something to you. You might be president of PepsiCo. You might be on the board of directors. But when you enter this house, you’re the wife, you’re the daughter, you’re the daughter-in-law, you’re the mother. You’re all of that. Nobody else can take that place. So leave that damned crown in the garage. And don’t bring it into the house. You know I’ve never seen that crown.”

4. Stay connected to your value system even after being successful.

As CEO, she has continued to pursue her unusual, and tremendously ambitious, vision for reinventing PepsiCo. She is now focusing on taking the company from snack food to health food, from caffeine colas to fruit juices, and from shareholder value to sustainable enterprise. That is an ambitious goal which she plans to attain. In doing so, Nooyi is attempting to move beyond the historic trade-off between profits and people. Captured in her artful mantra—”Performance with purpose”—she wants to give Wall Street what it wants but also the planet what it needs.

About Indra Nooyi

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“I Wasn’t Stupid Enough to Say This Could Be Done Overnight” via @freakonomics