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Interview: I always thought I was founder of PepsiCo, believe in pay parity with a passion, says Indra Nooyi

In an exclusive interview with Moneycontrol, Indra Nooyi talks about her views on pay parity, her Indian roots, the flourishing startup ecosystem, and how she wants to give back to her country of birth.

November 03, 2021 / 01:34 PM IST

“Many times, as I tried to get some work done, with the baby sleeping on my legs and Preetha (other daughter) snoozing beside me, I wondered what I was doing. I started to ask myself: Should I keep working? What would be the consequences if I quit? Would I have regrets and resentments that created a negative environment at home?” reads a passage from My Life in Full, a powerful memoir by Indra K Nooyi, the former Chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo, and one of the most powerful leaders in the world.

It’s candid anecdotes like this one that make Nooyi’s book resonate with many women (and hopefully men). Women want to have it all, strive to do it all, but are often hamstrung by the lack of a support system at home or office, guilt, anxiety and sheer exhaustion, making them drop out of the workforce just when they are beginning to ascend the corporate ladder.

It was no different for Nooyi, who writes that she worried and struggled to sleep, but kept going.

In this interview with Moneycontrol, Nooyi spoke about what motivated her in moments of self-doubt, her views on pay parity and why women should ask for more, her Indian roots, the flourishing startup ecosystem, and how she wants to give back to her country of birth. Edited excerpts:

The book lives up to its title: My Life in Full. How difficult was it to lay your experiences bare on the personal and professional front? Were you worried about being judged for some of these decisions, in hindsight?


I think that when you’re in a position of such high visibility, as I was for so many years, I was being judged every day — every minute of the day somebody was judging me. And people would form their own opinions about me; without even knowing my background, people would assume certain things about me.

In some ways, I’d say writing this book was a bit cathartic because you just got out the whole story. Remember, this is not a tell-all, this is more of an informing that I want to do through the arc of my life. So, I was just talking about the arc of my life and talking about stuff that I’ve talked about publicly in the past. I’ve talked about it in bits and pieces in different interviews, they all came together (in the book). And they come together to tell a very complete story.

So, when I actually read this book myself after it was done, you’re right, it felt a bit uncomfortable. But then after a while, you realise that it’s all out there, you know... 80 percent of the book is out there somewhere in the YouTube world.

Were you also wary that this could be seen as a memoir written by a woman leader for women? Because when I read the book, I wished that more and more men would read it...

It’s interesting that here in the US, a lot of men are reading the book because many, many corporates here are buying books in bulk and giving it to their people. For some reason, India doesn’t have that mindset.

If I were a corporate leader in India, I would buy a couple of thousand copies and give them to my employees — the men also — and say, ‘let’s have a conversation about it’. I mean, most of the CEOs have it, but they should do it. Men in power should read these books, and say: ‘what are we missing?’

As a woman and as a person of colour in the US, you have written about the challenges you faced in the corporate world. Yet, you took them in your stride. Has this always been easy? Was it also a reflection of your upbringing? Your mother always came across as someone who would encourage you to reach for the stars, yet kept you grounded.

At the time I came to work, there weren’t many women, there weren’t many woman bosses, there were no support systems for women... or for international students, people of colour, there was nobody in the senior ranks. And, so I was breaking ground in so many ways. So, in many ways, I had to take it in my stride.

Because, you know, unbeknownst to me, I was creating new frontiers. And I was just happy to be at the table. You know, as an immigrant person of color, I was just happy to be in that seat of power. So, to me, it felt like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m sitting here around this boardroom or sitting around this table, and I have to earn my seat in this place.’ So anything that I felt was in retrospect, discriminatory, I just took it in my stride and said, ‘I’ll show them that good work will overcome all of these biases.’ I had my family as support you see, I could always come home and my husband and kids were there. My mother was there, my in-laws were there. So, they all provided the support structure; it made a huge difference.

But what really kept you going? On one page in the book, you paint a picture for us. You have your younger daughter on your legs, your older daughter snoozing beside you, and you’re busy working. And you ask yourself, ‘what am I doing? Is this all really worth it?’ Now, if you were a founder or an entrepreneur who had skin in the game, you could tell yourself to keep at it but as an executive, as someone who’s working in the company, what did you tell yourself when you had these moments of self-doubt, to motivate yourself?

Therein lies the issue, because I actually thought I was the founder of PepsiCo, that’s the way I felt every day. It was funny, I never felt like the hired hand. I felt like, ‘this is my company. There are 250,000 people and their families that depend on how I lead this company. And I cannot let them down. I owe this company a duty of care.’ So, I never one day thought about this, as just a company. I walked into the office every day saying ‘this is my company’. And that’s where I was different from most because to me PepsiCo is very, very personal.

But how does one really build that entrepreneurial mindset at work? Because it’s also a reflection of the workplace, the bosses you have, the teams that you work in. So, can one do that at an individual level?

There has to be an enabling environment. If the environment constantly bats you down and ignores you and does not treat you well, you can’t develop that level of affection and commitment to the job. In my case, I had bosses who were just unbelievable, made me feel welcome. Of course, I did my part, don’t get me wrong. But they made me feel welcome. They challenged me. They told me I did terribly if I didn’t do well, but they also gave me a lot of compliments when I did well. And I felt like they included me in every major decision. And, so in many ways, I am a product of that mentorship I had from those people.

Your view on salary hikes caused quite a stir and you subsequently clarified it to say that it’s more to do with your upbringing and cultural values, that you wouldn’t ask for a hike. But this is a larger issue. I remember Sheryl Sandberg spoke about this a few years ago when she was writing ‘Lean In’, saying that women always hold back from asking for what they want at the workplace. Because either they are not heard or they are judged for being too aggressive. Would you do it differently if you were working today?

So, I have two daughters. Both are working, and I keep telling them to make sure they are paid at parity with their male counterparts. I always tell them, if you’re not, you better go ask for it. Because there’s no way you should not be paid as much as the men are for the same job. So, I believe in pay parity with a passion.

In fact, I write in the book about how I focused on pay parity. I have total conviction that pay parity should have happened a long time ago. Second is, I don’t think women should even ask for it. Because HR departments should be looking at this constantly. Why should women have to find out they’re being paid less? That’s why you have the HR department.

Until I was President, I was clear in saying that I saw other people get stock options, I didn’t. But I was getting a lot of money. Don’t forget, at the senior levels, I was making a lot of money. And I was just happy to have a seat at the table. Thank God, I kept my seat at the table, I can be a role model to you guys. And my cultural upbringing was: ‘you do a good job, people will take care of you.’ That’s how you know you were brought up in Chennai; I was brought up that way. So, I didn’t say anything. Once I became President, my boss adjusted my salary massively and gave me stock options. After that my salary is public record, the board decides that, I don’t. When you’re making 10s of millions of dollars, the last thing you think about is: ‘Can you give me half a million more?’ I think that’s stupid. I was being paid very well. And I was doing a great job. And that was all that was important to me.

In terms of the leadership skills that a CEO of a multinational company would need today, compared to a few years ago, what would it be? How has it changed?

In today’s world CEOs are being asked to do more and more and more. You know, 5-10 years ago, you had to have a China strategy. Now, people are questioning what is your China alternative strategy, you needed to have a Russia strategy. Now, nobody talks about a Russia strategy. So, geopolitics is entering into how companies have to run their business more and more and more.

Now, we’re thinking about supply chains differently. For companies, it’s very hard to swing the pendulum, you can’t just move assets overnight. And so, one big requirement for CEOs is they have to understand foreign policy.

Second, I think CEOs have to increasingly become people who understand social issues and how to react to them. In the US, they have to figure out how to navigate through all of the issues very, very carefully. If they speak out, they are criticised, if they don’t speak out they are criticised.

They have to learn how to do talent management. And then, the other one I’d say is, with technology changing so much around us, CEOs have to become tech savvy, so that they can adapt and adopt the company. You know, adapt the company and adopt technologies to move the company forward. So, CEOs today have to be lifelong students who understand technology,

And what’s your take on the increasing wokeism that we are seeing not just in the political sphere, but also in the corporate sphere in the US? I remember former US President Barack Obama called out the woke culture and said: ‘It is a messy world. There are ambiguities and there are very good people with flaws.’

When we put labels against everything, it sounds awful. Don’t put labels; go behind the label and find out what is the issue. Why are people feeling like they’re discriminated against?

So, at every point, I’ve chosen to forget all of these hashtags. And these labels like everything is woke. All that woke means is that I woke up one morning and found out this is an issue. That’s all woke is. People make it look like woke is cancel culture; no, it isn’t. Relax. You know, you woke up one morning and found out this was an issue. My point is to go behind the labels and say, ‘what’s the issue?’ And once you go behind the labels, you have a very different appreciation of what the issue is. And then you can really talk about how to address it. That’s a very different approach than saying, ‘I can’t deal with all these, you know, hashtags.’ That’s a cop out.

If you were a Gen Z, or a millennial today, what would you do differently?

The world is changing rapidly around you. All the technologies you have, like even this technology you and I are talking through, didn’t exist when I was there. Had I had these technologies, I would have gone home at three o’clock, been with my kids and then hooked back to the office . I didn’t have any of those technologies and had to travel all the time.

And so, I think you can actually think about how to juggle work and family in much more profound ways than we could. So, I think technology may have its dark side, but by and large, it can also be used to help young family builders, somehow juggle the home and work life a lot. So, I’m telling young people to be optimistic about the future

Right, you’ve led me to my next question, which is, what would your advice to women be? I know you’re asked this a lot. You were the only one who said a few years ago that you can’t have it all, you have to prioritise because it’s impossible to be a superwoman, who has 48 hours in a day when everyone else has 24 hours. So, what would your advice be for women who want to have it all in the current scenario, because ironically, the number of women leaving the workforce in the last year has actually gone up despite this technology we talk about, despite remote working, because women are just exhausted around the world.

So, first of all, I think women left the workforce because there was technology, but children were not in schools. I think we found out that school is as much childcare as it is a place of learning.

I think we as women have to let go of perfection because we all want to be perfect at everything. We have to let go of perfection, we have to make sure our partner is an equal partner, not a silent partner in helping with the household chores and family, caring, and everything.

My husband and I, we divide responsibilities equally: household management and children management. That has to happen because children are family, not female. It’s important that both the people who created the family have equal responsibility. And where there is multi-generational living, multi-generations have to help, not hinder the young woman from working. And all that I say is today, more than ever, all of you are so talented, Don’t forget that. Keep those hopes and dreams. And let’s figure out how to create the support structure around you.

You wrote in the final part of the book, ‘I left India over four decades ago, but India has never left me.’ In terms of your habits, in terms of how you are as a person, it’s always remained an intrinsic part of your identity. When you look at India today, what concerns you and what makes you optimistic?

What makes me optimistic is that India is becoming more entrepreneurial. There are a lot more startups, lot more unicorns coming out of India, I see the innovation coming out of the Indian entrepreneurial system. It’s very India-specific, and scaling up fast. So, I feel very, very good about that. I also feel good about the fact that while India’s traditional values have evolved, they’ve evolved in a sensible way.

What do I feel worried about? I still believe there’s a lot more work to be done regarding women in India. It’s interesting that we have more laws on the books in India than any other country, that helped women, The problem is if you can’t implement those laws in a timely way, or the laws are circumvented, and it’s an even bigger affront because you have the laws and you can’t be protected by the laws.

How similar or different are you from your mother, as a parent? You’ve described her as a study in contrast: she would want you to become the Prime Minister of the country, but she also wanted you to get married early and have children.

I can’t afford to do that. Because I’m in a different culture, my children are born in a different culture. So, whatever I think, I swallow. I’ve got to make sure that I’m sensitive to my children, who were born and brought up in a different culture because I chose to come here, right? My children didn’t choose to be born here, I chose to build a family here and give birth to them here.

I would say that there are elements of my Indian upbringing that I imbibe into them. How we run the household and things like that. But otherwise, all that I’ve told them is to dream, do whatever you want to be. And when you get married and have kids, I’m here to help.

In terms of your leadership style, have you always been pragmatic? You don’t seem to be stuck on things, you try to find a solution or move on.

I think I may have always been like that. But it was always: ‘the job has to get done’. And lots of obstacles will be thrown at you and you have to get the job done. So, you’ve always got to reconceptualise the situation.

I’m not going to go to somebody and say, ‘Oh, I have too many barriers’. I can’t go to my boss. In fact, I would argue that that’s a skill that all people have to learn when they’re given a job to do. Focus on getting the job done. Don’t ever go to your boss and talk about the obstacles. Sometimes I can’t stand it when people come to me. ‘Well, I couldn’t get it done because you know, this temperature was too high’ or ‘I had this problem coming here’. Figure out a way to just get it done. That’s what differentiates a great leader from just another player.

Do you have political ambitions?

Zero. I have great admiration for people in politics, I really do. Because it’s tough to be in politics. I have great admiration for all of those people. But I want to observe them from afar because I don’t have the skills that they do.

Finally, in terms of how you would like to give back to India, will you join the boards of companies, getting involved in initiatives here?

One of the things I would like to do is think about how to develop India, especially in communities that are not wealthy, the frontline workers. For people in rural areas, create centres where they can have childcare, maternal care, like the anganwadi system. But take it to the 4.0, not what it does now. I say 4.0 because I want to reimagine it and do some test cases in some parts of the country to see how to support those women who desperately need to work, but don’t know where to leave the children when they go to work. And therefore these children miss out on a lot of school in the early days.
Chandra R Srikanth is Editor- Tech, Startups, and New Economy
first published: Nov 3, 2021 01:25 pm
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