Lunch With Sumiko: Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi on how 'immigrant's fear' made her succeed

Former CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi talks about creating a sisterhood of women leaders, how to nurture talent and why ballroom dancing is on her bucket list.

Former PepsiCo CEO and chairman Indra Nooyi on how hard work can get you far

Indra Nooyi just wants a freshly squeezed orange juice for lunch and you can feel the disappointment of the waiter.

Over the next one hour, he tries several times to tempt her to eat.

Mushroom? He asks at the start of our meal.

She shakes her head.

Beetroot?

She shakes it again.

"Nothing for you, ma'am?"

"Nothing," she smiles at him. "I'm not hungry."

Lamb? He tries when he comes round again.

"I'm a vegetarian," she tells him.

"Oh sorry," he says, crestfallen. "You are vegetarian."

She asks him for his name and he says he's Vikram, from New Delhi.

She puts Vikram out of his misery and says she will have a little piece of naan from the plate he's holding.

He is delighted, then concerned.

"One only?"

She laughs. "You leave it here. You're very persuasive."

Lunch with the former CEO and chairman of PepsiCo is at the Tiffin Room in the newly-refurbished Raffles Hotel.

The restaurant serves a North Indian buffet lunch. Waiters also go round the tables offering dishes.

Mrs Nooyi, 63, was in town last month for the Women's Forum Asia.

In the world of C-suiters, she's something of a legend and certainly an inspiration, not just to women and immigrants, but CEOs too.

She's one of the rarefied few who have attained the fame - and salary - to match that of rock stars, actors and professional athletes.

She reportedly earned US$31 million in 2017 alone. Her life has been exhaustively written about and she's one CEO people want to take selfies with.


Mrs Indra Nooyi, who is known for her visionary leadership, says she relished the role of CEO as “supporter, coach, mentor” as she could teach others all the things she had learnt to get to where she was. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Born in Chennai in India, she went to the United States on a scholarship and stayed on to work.

In 1994, she joined PepsiCo, the American multinational food, snack and beverage giant behind brands like Pepsi, Lay's potato chips and Gatorade.

She became its CEO in 2006, one of the few women heading a Fortune 500 company, and later chairman of the board as well.

She has consistently made it to lists like world's best CEOs and 100 most powerful women.

When she retired in October last year, PepsiCo's revenue had grown from US$35 billion in 2006 to US$63.5 billion in 2017.

She is also known for her visionary leadership. She spearheaded PepsiCo's transition to a greener, more environmentally aware company, and stressed the shift towards healthier food to pre-empt the trend away from sugary drinks.

As CEO, she famously wrote more than 400 letters of thanks each year to the parents of her senior executives.

Mr Tan Chin Hwee, CEO Asia Pacific, of independent oil trader Trafigura, remembers how she gave the 2003 commencement speech at Yale School of Management which he attended.

"She encouraged us 'to do well and to do good' and reminded us of our moral obligation to society."

EDUCATION WAS KEY

Lunch is at 12.30pm. I'm early and luckily so because she arrives 10 minutes ahead of time.

Joining us for lunch is her Washington-based adviser Juleanna Glover, CEO of consultancy Ridgely Walsh.

At 1.75m tall and with a luxuriant head of hair worn in a short style, Mrs Nooyi cuts a striking figure. She's wearing a printed silk blouse over slim trousers and carries a dainty, silver mesh bag.

She has the self-assured air of someone who has known success for a long time and is comfortable in her own skin. But while her presence is commanding, her vibe is kindly and warm. She smiles a lot.

She's not eating because she had breakfast after a morning event. She urges Ms Glover and me to eat. "Go ahead, go get your meal, I'll watch all your things."

Retirement is suiting her well, she reports when we return with laden plates.

Mrs Indra Nooyi with her husband Raj K. Nooyi. Mrs Indra Nooyi, who is known for her visionary leadership, says she relished the role of CEO as "supporter, coach, mentor" as she could teach others all the things she had learnt to get to where she was
Mrs Indra Nooyi with her husband Raj K. Nooyi. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG 

She lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, with her husband Raj K. Nooyi. They have two grown-up daughters, Preetha and Tara.

When not travelling, she plays tennis in the morning, then heads to a nearby office where the family business is conducted. She has a full-time assistant and several part-time staff and her husband manages the business.

She sits on boards like Amazon, teaches at West Point, is on the International Cricket Council, gives speeches around the world, helps the state of Connecticut attract businesses, reads a lot and is writing a book.

She is also learning ballroom dancing, which has always been on her bucket list.

It's all a long way from Chennai in Tamil Nadu, where she was born Indra Krishnamurthy in 1955.

She grew up in a big house with lots of uncles, aunts and cousins.

Education was a top priority in the family. Her paternal grandfather was a judge and maternal grandfather an advocate. Her father, who had a master's in mathematics, did internal audit in a bank. Her mother didn't have the means to go to college but "has a PhD in her head... she is brilliant".

She remembers the adults helping the children with homework and preparing problem sheets for them to practise. "It was pretty much the world of education."

Her two siblings, who live in the US now, are also very successful. Her older sister Chandrika Tandon is a businesswoman, philanthropist and Grammy-nominated musician. Her younger brother runs a hedge fund.

Mrs Nooyi got an undergraduate degree majoring in chemistry at Madras Christian College and an MBA at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta.

She shares a childhood tidbit when I ask if she has always had short hair. She used to have two pigtails but one day while doing a chemistry experiment, one of the pigtails dipped into some acid and her hair was singed.

"I used that as an excuse to cut it off," she laughs. "Best thing I did. Easy to manage."

She worked for a while, including at Johnson & Johnson. In 1978, she applied to and was accepted by Yale University's Graduate School of Management to do her second master's in public and private management.

"The US at that time was the beacon of hope, beacon of all the great things happening in the world, and to come to the US was extremely aspirational."

She reportedly worked as an overnight receptionist to make ends meet while at Yale.

She met Mr Nooyi while working a summer job in Chicago in 1979. He was a year older, from the west coast of India and had furthered his studies in the US. Their family backgrounds were similar.

"I'd never dated anybody before. I don't believe he had dated anybody before. It just happened. We decided at the end of the summer we were going to get married." She took his surname.

Her much adored father died of cancer around that time. "He came to my wedding and it was wonderful that he was alive at my wedding. Year after, he passed away."

LOOKING AHEAD

The challenge of a CEO is to look around the bend and say where are the problems coming, how do you retool the company for the problems that could come, because once the problems hit you, it's too late to change.

FORMER PEPSICO CEO INDRA NOOYI 

She pauses then adds: "I miss him even today."

She stayed on in the US, joined the Boston Consulting Group, and later, Motorola and Asea Brown Boveri in strategy roles before moving to PepsiCo.

She did corporate strategy, became part of senior management and was involved in the company's transformation.

PepisCo had exited non-core business in the late 1990s to focus on its snack food and beverage lines. Those were exciting days with acquisitions like orange juice company Tropicana and a merger with Quaker Oats.

On the home front, her mother moved to the US to help look after her daughters. She is very close to her mum, who lives with her brother in New York.

Several times during the interview, she speaks about what a good man her husband is.

Mr Nooyi's background is in engineering and he was president of a custom e-solutions company. He now works with her in the family business.

"My husband gave up a lot to allow me to do what I was doing, so I'd always be grateful to him, always, always, always."

HARD WORK PAID OFF

I wonder if it was ambition that got her so far. "I don't know if it was ambition," she says.

What was always at the back of her mind was how she was an immigrant in the US.

"I wanted to work hard because as an immigrant, you always have an immigrant's fear," she says.

"I just wanted to work hard and do well because I wanted to make my family proud. And one thing led to another."

She adds: "It was never about how am I going to get the next two jobs. It was how do I keep the job I have and do it well."

At what point did she realise she was really successful? When she started getting those huge salaries?

"Sumiko," she laughs. "Anytime I got a salary, I thought it was huge, trust me. Because remember I came from nothing. So anytime I got a promotion and a big raise, I say: 'Wow, I got lots of money'... We were just grateful for what we have, always, always."

There must have been career setbacks, I say.

"Setbacks happen if you expect it to go a certain way and it doesn't go a certain way," she points out.

"I didn't have any expectations of it going anywhere. I just felt so long as I was doing a great job, everything would take care of itself."

She learnt along the way and had great mentors "who pulled me up".

Female mentors?

She says there weren't many senior women in the workplace then. "They were all men and they were wonderfully supportive."

How did she divide her roles as CEO?

  • WHAT WE ATE

  • Mrs Indra Nooyi with her husband Raj K. Nooyi. Mrs Indra Nooyi, who is known for her visionary leadership, says she relished the role of CEO as "supporter, coach, mentor" as she could teach others all the things she had learnt to get to where she was

    The Tiffin Room 

    Raffles Hotel

    1 Beach Road 

    3 buffet lunch @ $62: $186 

    1 orange juice: $12 

    1 chai masala: $12

    Total (with tax): $247.17

 

"I would say 30 to 40 per cent of my brain was on talent and people, another 30 to 40 per cent on strategy in the future, about 30 to 40 per cent on the operations and 30 to 40 per cent on brand. So I have 200 per cent of my brain on the company," she laughs.

"There are days you only think about talent, there are days you only think about strategy, days you only think about operations. So you have to be able to zoom out, zoom in, zoom out, constantly."

She especially relished the role of CEO as "supporter, coach, mentor". "I'll teach them all the things that I learnt to get to where I was."

She speaks highly of her successor, Mr Ramon Laguarta, a long-time PepsiCo executive.

When I ask if she was disappointed she wasn't succeeded by a woman, she says Mr Laguarta was the best person for the job.

She believes that for a company to be successful, it must pick the best and the brightest men and women to work for it. The top job should go to the best person, regardless of gender.

But it is also important that companies have an environment where men and women have equal chances to succeed.

"We want to create a level playing field that both can be successful, and that's really what I tried to do at PepsiCo," she says. "It's good for the country, it's good for companies and it's good for women."

To get more women CEOs, the pipeline needs to be built. "You can't suddenly get a CEO, you have to build a CEO."

Ms Glover signals that we need to wrap up soon. I slip in the question I need to ask Mrs Nooyi.

Do you drink Coke?

"What's that?" she shoots back, laughing.

I suppose that's the reply you always give, I remark.

No, she says. "I always say the beverage industry is blessed with incredible, iconic brands, great tasting products. Theirs is a product, ours is a product, slightly different taste, and I happen to like our taste."

We have about enough time for dessert. Vikram returns with a sample plate and is pleased to see her help herself to laddu, a floury sweet.

Encouraged, he asks: "Fruit too?"

She smiles and declines.

"The wonderful thing is, now I can do only what I want to do, not what I have to do. It's a great place to be in," she says before she leaves.

"I want to help all kinds of people. I want to help women get to the next level. I'm much more focused on paying it forward."

Seeing her tall figure striding off, I think to myself that having the smarts, then working super hard at whatever job she was given, really paid off for her.

@STsumikotan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 06, 2019, with the headline ''Immigrant's fear' made her succeed'. Print Edition | Subscribe