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Indra Nooyi: The art of the Wonder Woman CEO

As the Pepsico chief announces her decision to step down, putting family before career, she continues to be a remarkable inspiration to millions of women and business leaders alike

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Illustration: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

After Indra Nooyi steps down as PepsiCo’s chief executive in October, there will be only 23 women left with top jobs at companies in the S&P 500 stock index.

That’s still a huge advancement from the 10 women running Fortune 500 companies in 2006, when Nooyi became the CEO of PepsiCo. With that appointment, she became the first woman CEO of the beverage behemoth — and also its first born outside the United States.

Things came a full cycle last week, when Nooyi, 62, announced she was handing the reins of the multinational conglomerate to Ramon Laguarta, a 22-year veteran of the company.

It has been a long and momentous journey for the Chennai-born Nooyi, who was mostly educated in the capital city of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Growing up in a middle class family, Nooyi’s mother encouraged her to be academically ambitious and routinely put her through a unique exercise that she credits for instilling great confidence in her abilities. Every evening, her mother would ask Nooyi and her elder sister Chandrika to write a speech imagining they were world leaders — a president or prime minister of their choice. At the dinner table, both sisters had to deliver the speech, and the mother would vote for the best one, Nooyi recalled in interviews.

But her family was also deeply traditional and insisted that girls should get married once they turned 18. Instead, Nooyi moved to the US to attend business school at Yale on a scholarship, from where she graduated in 1980. In 1994, she joined PepsiCo as the head of corporate strategy. Twice named the Most Powerful Woman in the world and five times among the Most Powerful Women in Business by Fortune magazine, Nooyi thrived in her job as the chief executive of one of the world’s most competitive companies in a business traditionally looked upon as Alpha Male heartland.

It was not an easy start.

Her credentials as the paragon of female achievement and the purveyor of an elite club of Wonder Women leading large corporations meant that her decisions often received greater scrutiny than those by her male peers. Men wouldn’t often make eye contact with her in meetings and would also cross-check her answers with a male colleague.

The US media pilloried her — as in 2011, when the company’s stock price tanked nearly 15 per cent even as that of its bittersweet rival Coca-Cola soared. Every time the company failed to hit its targeted profits, she was lambasted.

Engaging in an abrasive battle with Coca-Cola at a time when overall soda consumption was constantly on the decline, Nooyi transformed PepsiCo dramatically, expanding its presence in global markets and also moving the focus of its products to healthier choices of beverage and snacks. Today, more than 50 per cent of the company’s revenues come from those new products, up from 38 per cent in 2006. Since she took over, revenue has grown to $63.5 billion (Dh233.55 billion) from $35 billion in 2006, while PepsiCo’s share price has nearly doubled.

And all this, while caring for her family, children and her famously no-nonsense mother, who told her that at home, “you’re the daughter, you’re the daughter-in-law, you’re the mother”.

It is to take care of her 86-year-old mother and the rest of her family that Nooyi says she decided to step down.

Speaking in various interviews after announcing her departure, she said: “When you are the CEO, especially of such a large company, there’s only one priority, and that priority is being CEO. I think my family was short-changed a lot. You reach a point where you get tired ... Physically tired. And your family starts to demand more time of you. I’ve reached that point.”

A striking aspect of Nooyi is the candour with which she has described her job and personal life. “We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all,” she once told the Atlantic while discussing work-life balance, and went to describe how she and her husband, AmSoft Systems president, Raj Nooyi had to “co-opt a lot of people” to help them take care of the family at various points during their careers.

While politics is professedly not her cup of tea, she has also never hesitated to wade into political pastures. After the 2016 US presidential elections, Nooyi declared that Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump left her daughters and employees devastated. But she was quick to clarify after her resignation last week that she would not be running for office, categorising herself as a “worker bee” rather than a manoeuvring politician.

She has also frequently lamented that there are not enough women at the top rungs of management worldwide. “It concerns me in that we can actually count how many there are, as opposed to saying there are hundreds,” she told Fortune in an interview, hoping that after stepping down as CEO she would work with other women to figure out how to get them to C-suite positions as a mentor. “I see the struggles women go through, and you cannot expect every woman to be a superwoman,” she said.

While that holds true, Nooyi can certainly claim her spot in history as one — a remarkable inspiration to millions of women and business leaders alike.

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