Community celebrates charismatic Indian-American business leader

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(Photo: PepsiCo.com)

Indra Nooyi, 62, chairman & CEO of PepsiCo Inc., whose name spells ‘food’ after she transformed the soft-drinks company into a ‘food and beverage’ giant, is stepping down after 12 years. Its big news not just because another woman, in this case, from a minority community, took an iconic American brand and raised it to new heights but because there’s anticipation she may yet go on to do bigger things. Nooyi, will remain as Chairman until early 2019 to ensure a smooth and seamless transition, PepsiCo said.

For Indian-Americans, Chennai-born Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi is a woman pioneer in the ether-world of multinationals, who along with Ajay Banga, the turbaned Sikh CEO of MasterCard, is the public face of this diverse community in the U.S. Their names pop up in daily conversations with a sense of ownership and pride by members of the community.

For her part, Nooyi often hails her Indian upbringing, wears saris occasionally, and gives interviews that don’t shy from controversy and tell it like it is for a woman to be at the top of the male pyramid of corporate power.

About her personal life and work, Nooyi has been more than honest.

In an interview in 2014, she said, “I don’t think women can have it all. I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all. … And every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact many times during the day you have to make those decisions.”

Those comments had a major impact on Suhag Shukla, founder and executive director of the Hindu American Foundation.  “She’s an inspiring woman who has been very realistic in terms of dispensing with the myth of ‘having it all’ and she’s been honest about the sacrifices she has had to make,” Shukla said. Her message has been “You can’t do it all, but you can do your best,” Shukla added.

Nooyi is very family oriented even as she is extremely hard working at her job, said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management where Nooyi earned her Masters. “Her husband Raj and the children enjoy a lot of fun, lot of laughter and a lot of music,” he added based on knowing the family since 2001.

Nooyi’s words Shukla said, have been “a source of solace and camaraderie that the troubles we women have, no matter if you are the CEO of a multinational or the head of a non-profit, many of the things that we have to balance and the means by which we do so, are shared. For me personally, her message is a relief,” Shukla told Desi Talk.

Her candid demeanor applies to her politics as well where Nooyi has faced controversy over some of her statements. Apart from openly supporting Hillary Clinton, Nooyi made comments about President Donald Trump’s victory at a New York Times DealBook conference saying her daughters and her employees were “in mourning,” following the election. That invited scathing criticism from Trump supporters, evident from her Facebook responses.  A year into the Trump administration, Nooyi joined President Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum in December 2017, in what might have been a bid to mend fences, inviting vehement opposition from some Indian-American and other anti-Trump political activists who demanded she step down.

Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO PepsiCo, with the Chairman’s Circle of Champions, Sept. 28, 2016. Photo: Facebook)

PepsiCo announced her departure Aug. 6 on Twitter saying Ramon Laguarta, originally from Spain, has been unanimously elected by the board of directors to succeed Nooyi this October. The same day, PepsiCo was named one of the top companies worldwide for Millennial women. In fact, since Nooyi became CEO, PepsiCo has been listed on the World’s Most Ethical Companies list every year.

That says a lot about Nooyi who is credited with turning the company around, diversifying it by charting new territories, and lending some credibility to its claims of being an environmentally conscious company striving to produce healthy snacks and drinks.

“Guided by our philosophy of Performance with Purpose—delivering sustained performance while making more nutritious products, limiting our environmental footprint and lifting up all the communities we serve—we’ve made a more meaningful impact in people’s lives than I ever dreamed possible,” Nooyi said in a company press release.

“She steered the ship in the right direction without derailing it,” said Vivek Wadhwa, writer and entrepreneur, and Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering at Silicon Valley, who has written about Indian-American leaders in business.

Under Nooyi’s leadership, PepsiCo has delivered strong results, the company said, including shareholder returns of 162 percent since Dec. 31, 2006, and a net revenue growth from $35 billion in 2006 to $63.5 billion in 2017, a compound annual growth rate of 5.5%

“Today is a day of mixed emotions for me. This company has been my life for nearly a quarter century and part of my heart will always remain here,” Nooyi who joined PepsiCo in 1994, is quoted saying in the Aug. 6, press release. “Growing up in India, I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to lead such an extraordinary company,” she added.

Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of Pepsico. (Photo: Pepsico PR files)

Whither Now

Where Nooyi plans to go after this is anyone’s guess. In a tweet as recently as July 11, it appeared she would remain ensconced where she was. That may happen if she transitions to lead yet another multinational.

“My mom once asked me what I would do to change the world. My answer’s been the same since becoming CEO @PepsiCo: Lead a company that’s a force for good,” she said in response to a sustainability report that gave high marks to PepsiCo.

“She has this transcendent presence she almost seems unaware of, not just in the Indian-American community, but everywhere she goes,” Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for Leadership Studies at Yale School of Management and founder of the CEO Leadership Institute, told Desi Talk. Nooyi, Sonnenfeld said, “has a deep, powerful intellect, mirth, humor … At meetings, everybody’s issues are worthy of her attention. She has no pride,” he added.

Others interviewed for this article also dwelt on Nooyi’s humility. “Indra is the best. She has been so supportive, and without any fuss, unlike most people who give but in return want special treatment,” said Aroon Shivdasani, founder of the Indo-American Arts Council, and the doyen of Indian-American culture and cinema in the tri-state area. “She is so unobtrusive, and she is an inspiration, because she has broken the glass ceiling — as an ‘INDIAN-AMERICAN-AND-A-WOMAN’ – That’s a double-whammy,” asserted Shivdasani emphasizing every word.

Deepak Raj of Raj Associates, co-founder of the Raj Center on Indian Economic Policies at Columbia University, and chairman of the non-profit Pratham USA, says Nooyi has “special qualities” which will keep her prominent. “I am hopeful she can leverage what she has built up for the good of the community and for significant issues that face all of us.”

“I congratulated her for taking this step,” said Wadhwa about Nooyi stepping down.  Her prolific reading habits (Sonnenfeld says she finishes a book every other day) are evident from the recent email she sent Wadhwa about his book “Your Happiness Was Hacked.”

“Just finished reading your new book how our happiness was hijacked. Got 50 copies to give my senior execs and Board,” Nooyi said. Wadhwa, who has written extensively about leadership of companies called her a role model.

“Liberated” from the yoke of corporate leadership, Sonnenfeld said, “I see her plunging into some kind of role assuming the reigns or sparking some kind of societal mission.”

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