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Leadership Lessons with Trailblazer Indra Nooyi

Indra Nooyi

It’s Women’s History Month, and we’re talking to a woman who has been making history for decades: Indra Nooyi, the former CEO and chair of PepsiCo, and the first woman of color and immigrant to run a Fortune 50 company.

Regarded as one of the foremost strategic thinkers of our time, this trailblazer is an exemplary model of leadership, and an inspiration for generations of women as we pave the path forward.

This intimate conversation explores her journey, gender equality in the workplace, how women can support each other, and what is needed to create a better future.

 


Indra Nooyi

Indra Nooyi is the former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo (2006-2019); a Fortune 50 company with operations in over 180 countries. In this role, Nooyi was the chief architect of Performance with Purpose, PepsiCo’s pledge to do what’s right for the business by being responsive to the needs of the world around us. Prior to becoming CEO, Nooyi served in various leadership roles at PepsiCo beginning in 1994. Before that, she worked for Asea Brown Boveri, a Zurich-based industrials company, Motorola, and The Boston Consulting Group. Nooyi began her career in India, at Johnson & Johnson and Mettur Beardsell, Ltd., a textile firm. Nooyi served as a member of the PepsiCo board of directors between 2001 and February 2019. Currently, she is a member of the board of Amazon and sits on the audit committee. She serves on the global leadership board at edX, is a member of the international advisory council of Temasek, is an independent director of the International Cricket Council, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. She is also a Dean’s advisory council member at MIT’s School of Engineering and a member of the MIT Corporation. Nooyi has received numerous prizes, accolades and honorary degrees over the years, including the Padma Bhushan, India’s 3rd highest civilian honor, and was named an “Outstanding American by choice” by the US State Department. Nooyi sits on the review panel of the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge, is a member of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Woman of Leadership Award nominating committee, and is a judge for the Templeton Prize for Science and Curiosity and the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award. @indranooyi

 

Celeste Headlee

Celeste HeadleeCeleste Headlee is a communication and human nature expert, and an award-winning journalist. She is a professional speaker, and also the author of Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism—and How to Do It, Do Nothing, Heard Mentality, and We Need to Talk. In her twenty-year career in public radio, she has been the executive producer of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Radio, and anchored programs including Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She also served as cohost of the national morning news show The Takeaway from PRI and WNYC, and anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. Headlee’s TEDx talk sharing ten ways to have a better conversation has over twenty million total views to date. @CelesteHeadlee

 


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Transcript of Indra Nooyi Interview on Women Amplified

Indra Nooyi:

I’m Indra Nooyi. I’m the former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, and now happily retired and an author of a book, My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future.

Celeste Headlee:

I wonder, so often in our lives we look by over our life experiences and they seem to have a different significance at different points in our life. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes you’ll look back and think, oh, I was an only child and hear how this may have affected me. I wonder, looking back at this point in your career, which of your life experiences bubble up as being really significant in steering your career?

Indra Nooyi:

Well, it’s interesting, I’ve never been asked this question. It’s a fascinating one. But if I reflect back, the fact that I was a middle child, I felt I always had to do something to be noticed. So I’d always do things to be frame breaking, whether it’s being in a rock band or playing cricket or climbing trees and being more tomboyish. I just had to be different than my sister and my brother.

And later on in life, because my sister was such a good student and good at everything she did, I wanted to prove that I could be better than her or as good as her. I was driving myself to be better and better. In many ways I think the competition with my sister helped me because it made me do more and get driven a bit more. And then later on in life, it just became my own inner clock, which said, you can do more, you can contribute more. And I kept driving myself. In many as I’d say, it’s the lessons from my childhood, from my grandfather, who said, “If you sit idle, Satan has work for idle hands.” Or “If you don’t remain a lifelong student you’ll atrophy.” For some reason, those lessons would keep playing back to me in my mind and I’d start to behave in a way that makes me a student of those lessons. I am a product of my upbringing.

Celeste Headlee:

How important do you think it was to your career and your development having an experience as an immigrant and having to fit in in a completely new place?

Indra Nooyi:

I think it drove me to higher and higher levels of performance and in many ways, in spite of the fact that I was a woman, immigrant, a person of color, people took note of me because the quality of my work was pretty good. And a lot of that had to do with the fact that I wanted to distinguish myself as a real contributor. And I always thought people put me in a hole, even though they didn’t, I assumed they put me in a hole because I was so different. I’d work my tail off to, first of all, come above ground and distinguish myself. And so I think that really got me noticed by a lot of people.

Celeste Headlee:

You didn’t the set out to write a memoir though. You’ve said that you intended to devote every ounce of your experience and intellect to a manual for fixing how we mix work and family. How did that morph into what became a memoir?

Indra Nooyi:

I was told nobody was going to read a manual written by me because lots of manuals have been written. And that’s true.

Celeste Headlee:

I don’t know about that.

Indra Nooyi:

No, seriously. I went back and looked at people writing checklist, manifestos, and they’re really good books, don’t get me wrong. But not another cluttered book on that shelf of manuals. Then I thought I’d write policy papers on how to set up childcare. And I was told that, “Yeah, that’s great, but if you really want a shelf life that’s more than a week or two, which, really doesn’t happen if it’s a dry policy paper, you’re going to have to use the arc of your life as a backdrop and then talk about the lessons leading to policy options.” I have to be honest with you, the publishers who advise me on this were correct, that it’s more engaging and more engrossing when you read somebody’s life and why they’re so driven and why they feel so committed to making suggestions for policy action. It gives more credibility to the actions I’m proposing.

Celeste Headlee:

And yet it does become a manual, right? You do have a lot of advice that’s based on your experience and your education on how we can fix that balance between work and family. As I understand you began writing before COVID began, I wonder how much the pandemic changed your views on how we can go about reaching a healthy work-life balance?

Indra Nooyi:

You see, I wouldn’t call it quite a manual. I’d say it’s more a plea. I look at this book as a plea to say, guys, this is a human issue we are talking about. We’re talking about care, paid leave, flexible work as a human issue. If we want people to have a normal life, to be family builders and nurturers and engage in paid work, both of which we need, if you want people to be not so stressed out as they are today, let’s do something about it. It’s good for society. It’s good for our citizens. It’s good for everybody all around. So, it’s a plea, not necessarily a manual.

Indra Nooyi:

But then if you really come down to talking about COVID, what it did for me is, it changed my thinking to say, the problem is not just for the office-going management worker. It applies even more for the essential worker who, look at the teachers, the nurses, the caregivers, the people who work in retail, hospitality, who don’t have workplace flexibility. They have to come into the workplace every day. Those people also need care support, they need flexibility in some shape or form, or predictability and shifts, they need paid leave. And it’s very, very important that we don’t skew our discussions only for the management layers of people to talk about how we bring women into the C-suite, but we talk about all the essential workers who are really struggling with these issues, especially post COVID.

Celeste Headlee:

So let’s talk about pay since you brought up paid work, because at this point in 2019, full-time working women earned about 546 billion less than men in the same jobs, women around the world spend twice as many hours as men doing unpaid work. And women are always told that they need to speak up, that they need to ask for better pay, they need to ask for raises, they need to make sure that they’re making the same as their male counterparts. But you’ve said that you have never, ever, ever asked for a raise. Why not?

Indra Nooyi:

So, first of all, throughout my life, except in one incident, I’ll talk about that, I’ve been paid very, very fairly. In fact, I was the only woman and I was in very senior positions, very early and people went out of their way to make sure that I was paid well. There was one time early in my life at PepsiCo where my pay was just fine, but I saw that the men were getting stock options, special grants and I wasn’t given any the first five years that I was at PepsiCo. But I didn’t know how to ask for the raise because I had never asked for a raise and there was nobody around me to talk to, there were no other women in my position. But when I became president in 2000, my boss looked at my pay and said, “I’m going to adjust everything. I’m going to give you special grants. I’m going to do everything to make sure that you are more than fairly compensated.” So, in many ways it was righted right away. But those five or six years when I watched other people get special options, I didn’t even know how to go ask for something and I’ll be honest with you, what I did mention was, in my cultural upbringing we were never taught how to go ask for a pay raise. We were always told if you put in a good job, if you put in good effort, you’ll get paid for it. So, it was a cultural problem for me. But I’ve got two daughters now and I keep telling them how they should constantly figure out if they’re being paid on par with the other people for the job done and make sure they go ask for money.

But here’s the point Celeste. If you have a good HR department, why do we need somebody to ask for pay parity? Why isn’t somebody looking at this all the time?

Celeste Headlee:

That’s a great question. Many workers do not feel that their HR department is working on their behalf, but rather working on behalf of the management, even that part of HR’s responsibilities, which I don’t think it often is, many workers don’t trust HR to do that for them.

Indra Nooyi:

Well, therein lies the problem because many HR functions are staffed by women and many CHRs are women and I think it’s time that we held them accountable too and say, look, I know that you work for the CEO, but you really work on behalf of the human resources of the company and pay parity is not something you should be proud of. Pay disparity. You ought to be driving for pay parity immediately because that’s the ethical way to run a company. If you have integrity, that’s the way you should be running the company.

Celeste Headlee:

So, you are an exception in many ways and I want to dig into how you think you were able to rise above. We have been striving. Companies have been voicing support for diversity and equity for a very, very long time, yet at this point only 1% of Fortune 500 companies have black CEOs, for example, and women of color, especially have lower salaries than even white women with similar education levels. How did you break through? How did you beat the odds?

Indra Nooyi:

It’s forced me to think a lot, Celeste, about this particular issue. And I tell you it was because of almost super human work. I worked all the time. I took no time for myself, whatever little time I had I gave to my family and my husband, who was always shortchanged, he would say. But that’s true. But I have to tell you, it was just through sheer, hard work, putting the company before me, making sure that I served my bosses well, because I was always in a very senior position and I just worked and worked and worked. I wouldn’t wish that kind of work on other people. I want other people, people of color, women, men, everybody to have some balance in their life and give some time to their families too. But since I was so different from everybody else, I felt I had to do that to distinguish myself.

Indra Nooyi:

I also felt that, being one of the few women in the C-suite I wanted to make sure I did right by the women too. I wanted to prove that women who get to the C-suite can stay there. I didn’t even know I was going to become CEO, but having gotten to the C-suite, I wanted to make sure that I would stay there. So I’d come back and say that if you really want women, people of color to succeed, we’ve got to look at them as talent first. Don’t look at them as women and people of color, just look at them as talent. If you look at everybody as a talent and say, how are they best going to contribute to the workplace? I think you will not set differential standards for performance for each of these people.

Indra Nooyi:

As I write in my book, I think that many diverse people are subject to this, and, but phenomenon, when they perform well, you go, but do they have potential? But if a man performs, well, you go, ah, he didn’t perform great and he’s got great potential. So he’s always given the benefit of the doubt and said, he’s going to do great, his potential is fantastic. And women in particular I’ve noticed are questioned as to what their potential could be.

Celeste Headlee:

You have said that the biological clock and career success are often in conflict and as you said here, but also in your book, that the corporate community needs to make it that less of attention for women. What can be done to make it easier for women to have children?

Indra Nooyi:

I think first of all, we’ve got to put families in the center of future work. What do I mean by that? I’m not suggesting we don’t work hard. I’m not suggesting we don’t innovate. I’m not suggesting any of that stuff. Now with COVID making all technologies get to a point in two years, which would normally taken 10 years, all these remote technologies, Celeste, I think it’s possible for people to go home at 3:30 or 4:00, get their kids off the bus, spend time with them, and then continue working later on through all these remote technologies. You can use the smartphone more ubiquitously. When I was growing up in corporate America, none of these existed. I actually believe that if we think about the role of families in society and the fact that we want our employees to also have a life, also be family builders and nurturers, I think we’d design work differently. I think we’d design the workforce, the workplace, work timings, everything differently.

Indra Nooyi:

And I think that thinking has to happen because our birth rates are coming down and women are putting off having kids for a long time because they’re worried about not having enough economic independence to support the family if something untoward happens to any member of the family. I think their fears are justified. And I think it’s very, very important, if we want to deploy these talents, these extraordinary talents in the workplace, we have to provide systems for young family builders, men and women, to be able to have families and come to work and paid work outside the home.

Celeste Headlee:

There is a danger though, and we have actually seen it during the pandemic, that when we have people, I guess, work in a nontraditional way. In other words, if they go and grab their kids and then they check their cell phone or their slack channel or whatever it is, what we’ve seen during the pandemic is, oftentimes that means people are working longer hours, that they end up also working after dinner and also working on the weekends. How do we balance those two things, make it possible for people to leave and go get their kids, but also make sure they’re not working excessive hours?

Indra Nooyi:

Well, you are talking about resetting the entire workplace completely to say, people are going to work only [inaudible 00:16:42] hours a week or only going to work six hours a day. That’s a rethinking of the entire cost structure of the nation. I’m not thinking that expansively only because I haven’t gotten there. I just don’t know what the consequences are. However, if technology starts to progress to a point where you can do a lot more in 20 or 30% less time, all of that is possible. But don’t forget, we also have shareholders and we have a stock market that keeps us all on our toes.

Celeste Headlee:

I want to get some more practical tips for all the women, everyone who’s listening, but especially women who also want to be able to balance their families with a career that it actually advances. I was interested that in an interview you did last year, you mentioned that you learned about the power of looking the part. What does that mean?

Indra Nooyi:

Celeste, all my life, since I didn’t grow up here, I didn’t have the benefit of people telling me how I should dress. And even when I became CEO, I look at some of the photographs of me, I had lovely clothes, but always two sizes too big. They would hang on me and I just let it go. I never cared about it. I just went that way and sometimes I’d be in dinners or meetings with other women, and I’d say “My God, my clothes look so misshapen versus everybody else there.” But I always try to overcome that problem through the content of what I was saying, the quality of my comments, but then somebody said, “Hey, I’m going to take you shopping, because I think you could really benefit for a makeover.” And I have to tell you the added confidence that gave me that I didn’t have to feel a little small because of the way I dressed was just fantastic.

Indra Nooyi:

So forget what I had to do because that was when I was CEO, but early in your life buy a few good clothes that are nicely fitted that make you look good, because it gives you that added confidence, which goes a long way.

Celeste Headlee:

Do you think also part of that is what people describe as executive presence. Is there a mindset that you think someone needs to get into which may help them cope with imposter syndrome or a lack of confidence?

Indra Nooyi:

Sometimes the environment makes you become an imposter because if people roll their eyes when you’re talking or they talk over you, you start to wonder what your place is there. First of all competence is the most important thing. Don’t forget that. But if you add dressing the part, and if you have certain people who promote you and support you in the workforce, who, if somebody talks over you says, hey, stop, she’s talking. What happens is you get tailwinds. And when you get tailwinds, it builds up your confidence and you feel more competent.

Indra Nooyi:

On the other hand, if you have headwinds where people roll their eyes when you talk that starts to impact your confidence, which then impacts your competence. It’s a virtual circle or a doom loop. It’s very important that every element of what you’re working on come to play. So prepare for the meeting, dress the part, draw attention to you as a business person, don’t try to draw attention to you as a woman, because at the end of the day, you want to show that you’re better than anybody else, not because you’re a woman, but because you’re just an awesome, awesome, awesome brain. And finally make sure you have either a brotherhood or a sisterhood that really wants to come to the table and say, Celeste is doing a great job, I’m not going to let anybody push her around. If you don’t have supporters around you it’s tough.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah. What do you think, now that you’re retired, looking back over your career, what are you most proud of?

Indra Nooyi:

Well, in PepsiCo… Two things performance and purpose is one and within that, the plank about people, how we created an environment to allow people to bring their whole self to work. We had onsite and near-site childcare and as many facilities as we could put in. All of that was great. It was the beginning of a journey. I wish we could have done a lot more when I was there, but we made great progress. So that’s one side.

Indra Nooyi:

The other part I feel proud of is a number of extraordinary people I developed as potential CEOs, CFOs, CMOs, CHROs. The industry is full of PepsiCo alum who came out of my school of hard knocks and so I’m proud of all the people I developed.

Celeste Headlee:

You mentored those people?

Indra Nooyi:

Oh my God. I mentored them, supported them, promoted them. I raised the bar for them and I taught them how to get to that higher bar. I was the best teacher for them.

Celeste Headlee:

Who was your inspiration or mentor? Who did you look to for guidance?

Indra Nooyi:

I had so many people. At every stage in my life I had a different mentor. And in my case, a mentor was a supporter, a promoter, my best critique. Looked at me as a whole person, also got to know my family. And so every job I had, I had a very, very strong mentor. During PepsiCo I had about four or five and I didn’t ask them to be my mentor. They just became my mentor because they saw the work I was doing and they said, “This is somebody I think I’d like to bet on.” So I had all of these supporters and promoters along the way, and I’m deeply grateful to them.

Celeste Headlee:

But you must have at some point realized that this person was someone whose guidance was helpful or this was someone whose opinion you could rely on and how did you know which people were going to be good mentors?

Indra Nooyi:

That’s a tricky one because if you have somebody in a more senior position, who’s giving you advice, unless you think that person is afraid of you because you might take his or her job, and it’s very hard to decipher that, you have to assume they are mentoring you because they believe in you and they want to see you succeed. Okay? I had no reason to believe that people who stepped up and said, “Indra, I’d like you to do this stretch assignment,” or “I’d like to expose you to a different part of the company,” had any other agenda, except my success in their thinking. So if people have evil intentions and give you stretch assignments, they know you’re going to fail at, there’s nothing you can do about it, Celeste. Then you’ve got to really have a gut institution that says this person has never developed anybody, why is he stepping up to develop me? There must be a hidden agenda here.

Celeste Headlee:

Once you began to rise through the ranks, did you have to let go of all of your hobbies? I don’t know if people know this about you, but our producers found out that you were actually in an all-girls rock band when you were in school and you really loved doing karaoke. Did you have to let that all go?

Indra Nooyi:

Not the karaoke because everybody in PepsiCo loved karaoke. Whenever we got together, the karaoke machines came out and then they’d form teams and we’d all be competing with each other, everyone trying to outdo the other.

Celeste Headlee:

Okay. I have to ask what was your go-to song?

Indra Nooyi:

When Roger Enrico was CEO, he wanted to sing My Way all the time and American Pie by Don McLean, three, four times in the evening, that American Pie goes on for 15 minutes. He would insist that we do that at least three or four times. And he had a Sinatra esque voice so he would sing My Way. But I have a whole variety of the ’70’s songbook. I got stuck in the seventies. My kids, my [inaudible 00:24:43], my husband, we sing everything. We have a karaoke machine that every time you perform a song it gives you a grade and tells you what grade you got. So, it’s painful because if you’re a good singer, it gives you a lower grade because he thinks you are gaming the system. And my husband always gets a 99.

Celeste Headlee:

Were you able to keep up a lot of the hobbies outside of PepsiCo? Were you able to keep up some of the things that you liked to do unrelated to work?

Indra Nooyi:

Very little. Look, when you’re in a CEO job, that you’re running such a large, global company, you have to give up a lot. What I used to do is I would do my work at home reading my mail with the Yankees on mute on TV so that I didn’t have to really listen to it, but I could see the place and if I saw something major happening, I’d take off the mute. I’d listen to music. At every available opportunity I’d be listening to music. And once in three or four months, we’d come together as a management team with a bunch of executives and we’d all sing karaoke because everybody was working hard and we felt we had to shake it off. But even going to a ball game at the Yankee stadium. I love the Yankees, but if I went to two games in a season, that would be too many.

Celeste Headlee:

I wonder if you could speak directly to some of our listeners. I got to tell you, we work so closely with so many women in all levels of their careers and many are so tired right now. Some are feeling really dispirited, many feel very overwhelmed. The last two years have been really hard on a lot of people and especially women. And I wonder, what might they be hopeful about at this point?

Indra Nooyi:

I really, truly admire all these women, especially women with families or caregiving responsibilities, because they bore the brunt of the work. It has not been easy. There’s been unpredictability in life. My heart goes out to all of them and I admire them for staying sane through this whole moment of chaos in our lives. We have never seen the world shut down the way it did the last two years.

Going forward, here’s my advice. In a funny way, getting out of the home is therapeutic. Even if you have to go work in a coworking space or go to the office, it’s therapeutic. Interacting with other people at work is therapeutic. Don’t have to do it every day, at least do it three days a week. It’s therapeutic. Learning corporate culture requires face to face interaction. So look at going to the office or to a coworking space as something that’s good for your mind, good for the soul, interacting with other people, which means that for your kids, we have to figure out what kind of a care network has to be put in place. Whether it’s attached to co-working centers, whether it’s attached to a corporate headquarters or to community organizations.

I think the single biggest challenge for states and cities is how do we put in a childcare system so that family builders can continue to engage in paid work and still build families, men and women alike. But the burden falls disproportionately on women because I believe family is not female. Family is everybody. And so husband and wife have to together figure out how best to build a family and nurture it.

I think, COVID has taught us about flexible work. Everybody’s talking about paid lead now, but if we can build a world-class childcare infrastructure, I think that’ll go a long way in reducing the stresses on women and actually allowing them to engage in paid work. And I’ll be honest with you, schools are basically places where the children are taught, but in many cases schools are also childcare centers. Because the teacher is looking after the children, right?

What’s happened is, after they’re five or six, we say they’re the responsibility of the state because we have public schools. Zero to five, we don’t have any organized system to take care of children. And if women in particular step out of the workplace for five years, it’s very hard to return. I think it’s very, very important that we find ways to work with state governments, work with community centers, work with corporations to say, let’s put in a childcare infrastructure.

Celeste Headlee:

Indra. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Indra Nooyi:

Thank you for having me on the show Celeste.