What You Can Learn from Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo

Today she is the CEO of PepsiCo, one of the world’s largest drink companies, but when Indra Nooyi was born in Madras (now Chennai) in 1955, she had no inkling that one day she would become a key player in the American corporate world.

Nooyi’s father was a bank official and her grandfather was a district judge, who Nooyi said has served as a major source of inspiration throughout her adult life. Growing up, her mother would have the children play games where they would imagine how to solve major real-world problems, such as figuring out what they would do if they were prime minister. In her teenage years, Nooyi stepped outside of the traditionally strict gender roles in India by doing things like playing cricket and joining an all-female rock band.

She went on to graduate from Madras Christian College in 1976 with a degree in chemistry. Next, Nooyi went on to acquire a business administration degree at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta. After graduating in 1978, she worked at Mettur Beardsell and then at Johnson & Johnson. Then, Nooyi read an article about the brand-new Yale University School of Management and decided to apply. She didn’t think she would be accepted, but she was and she graduated in 1980.

One particularly noteworthy thing about Nooyi is that she has never been afraid to be herself. In the corporate world, the inclination is often to toe the line. But Nooyi doesn’t. First, going to Yale was a huge step outside the box. Nooyi explained why to Sarah Murray of Financial Times: “It was unheard of for a good, conservative, south Indian Brahmin girl to do this. It would make her an absolutely unmarriageable commodity after that.” Nonetheless, Nooyi did it – and it did not make her unmarriageable as she went on to marry management consultant Raj Nooyi and the couple now has two children.

After graduating from Yale in 1980, Nooyi went on to work at Boston Consulting Group. Famously, she went to the interview in a sari, which was somewhat unusual back then. She got the job, though, and it proved to be just the launch pad for a very successful career. In 1986, she went on to work at Motorola and in 1988 she became the senior vice president and director of corporate strategy at the electronics maker. Then, in 1990, Nooyi moved to Asea Browb Boveri, which is a collection of American businesses primarily related to power plant construction.

In 1994, Nooyi joined PepsiCo as the senior vice president of corporate strategy and development. In 2000, she became the CFO of PepsiCo and finally in 2006 she became the CEO.

One of Nooyi’s strategies at PepsiCo has been to shift the company toward healthier offerings. In 1998, Nooyi was instrumental in the decision to acquire Tropicana, a move which resulted in four quarters of consecutive revenue growth. The company earned a return on its investment in just two short years. Interestingly, this business decision was another example of Nooyi just being herself. She was a big fan of orange juice personally and she trusted her gut over many naysayers and ended up pushing the company into a highly profitable acquisition.

Since taking over as the CEO of Pepsi, Nooyi has expanded the company from its traditional snacks and sodas into healthier foods including yogurt drinks, hummus, and oatmeal bars. She oversaw Pepsi’s acquisition of Vitaminwater in 2007 and of Honest Tea in 2011. This year, Pepsi acquired Monster Beverage. Although Monster drinks are similarly carbonated beverages with an even higher caffeine content, they actually are seen as a less unhealthy alternative to soda as they contain less high-fructose corn syrup. As Nooyi explained to investors, soft drinks sales are down and energy drink sales are up.

Nooyi’s shift toward more nutritious products is not accidental. She specifically set a company goal to triple the sales of “nutrition products” – including items such as Gatorade, Tropicana juices, and Quaker whole-grain products – by 2020. She has spent around $6 billion in acquisitions to get the goods to sell in the category.

Overall, her healthy strategies have paid off. Since she became CFO in 2000, PepsiCo’s annual revenues have increased by 72 percent and net profit has more than doubled.

Although she hasn’t released a bestselling business philosophy book like Sandberg or Huffington, Nooyi has been widely quoted for her philosophizing about the tenuous work-life balance of a successful business executive. In yet another example of the power of being yourself, Nooyi’s refreshingly honest answers to one often-repeated question asked of businesswomen has earned her accolades in some quarters.

One of the questions that has been circulating for years is whether women can have it all. That is, can women fulfil their familial obligations and still put the same amount of energy into their work as do their male counterparts? Huffington would say yes, if you get enough sleep. Sandberg would say to focus on work anyway. Nooyi simply says that the answer is no. Although she might seem to have it all, Nooyi frankly admits that maybe she hasn’t been the best mother.

In a widely circulated interview with David Bradley, the owner of The Atlantic, Nooyi 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. My husband and I have been married for 34 years. And we have two daughters. 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. And you have to co-opt a lot of people to help you. We co-opted our families to help us. We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents. But if you ask our daughters, I’m not sure they will say that I’ve been a good mom.”

Even when admitting her faults and flaws, Nooyi is ever herself. Her honesty and ability to follow her gut instincts have been instrumental in shaping the successful businesswoman she has become. If there is one takeaway lesson from the life and successes of Pepsi’s CEO, it’s to be yourself.