In October of 1955, a banker and his wife welcomed their baby girl into the world in Madras (now Chennai) southern India. At that time it was generally accepted that a girl would follow a certain path to marriage and motherhood. This mother saw things differently, however, telling the girl ‘I want to get you married when you are 18, and make sure you aspire to be the prime minister.’ The mother developed games based on world problems and had the children develop solutions. Having a keen focus on school grades was common to their culture and the girl excelled.
Her grandfather, a district judge, was also a big influence in her life. It was he that believed his granddaughters could be whatever they chose to be – even in a society which was very gender driven. She embraced that philosophy and began to play cricket – not watch – play. She showed even more conviction to follow her interests regardless of expectation when she became the lead singer and guitarist in an all-girl rock band. She continued to pursue excellence in school and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1976 having majored in chemistry and followed that with an MBA degree two years later.
She became a product manager at a textile firm but quickly moved and held the same position for Johnson & Johnson. There, she was given the challenge of launching Stayfree sanitary napkins in India – a task made even tougher as that product could not be legally advertised. She succeeded by going direct to the consumer in a variety of ways. After two years she applied to Yale University without any real expectations – but she was accepted and offered financial aid. In spite of extreme societal pressure – this path would make her unmarriageable – her parents fully supported her plans.
At Yale, she thrived – enthusiastically embracing management concepts which, to her, were unique. She was eager to learn – even partaking in a survival expedition to the Arctic as part of the team building ideas being taught. Her interest in ‘bat and ball’ sports led her to learn baseball and become a fan of the Yankees. She learned the sport but also the lingo often used in business – e.g. hit a home run. She followed the Chicago Bulls to learn about leadership. Through it all she held dearly to her Indian heritage – her identity.
Successful stints at the Boston Consulting Group and Motorola led to her becoming a Senior VP of Strategy at Asea Brown Boveri – a company she later described as a $6 billion startup. She had become known in the corporate world and was highly sought after for top management positions in a variety of companies. PepsiCo brought in a former CEO who had been raised in India to help persuade her to join their company. It worked. She joined Pepsi in 1994 as the senior VP of corporate strategy and development.
Her experience, education and management skills led her to drive some mega deals. She orchestrated the spinoff of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut. She drove the acquisition of Tropicana and Quaker Oats. She was named CEO in 2006. The following year she added chairman of the board of directors to her resume. PepsiCo thrived. She has been named to numerous lists compiled by respected organizations such as the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Time – most recently being named the third Most Powerful Women in business on Fortune’s 2014 list. To the surprise of some, she has also been married for thirty-four years and raised two highly educated and motivated daughters.
Her amazing list of accomplishments is not what defines her brand – rather she achieved so much because Indra Nooyi is a fearless brand.
Fearless Brands don’t seek a job – they follow their calling.
Nooyi has shattered most stereotypes, crashed through barriers and dismissed the societal concerns which existed in her native culture. Throughout her career she has remained authentic – true to her heritage, committed to her personal interests and driven to achieve large-scale success for her company. Pepsico had a a strong interest and need to diversify by gender and ethnicity. Hiring Indra Nooyi did that – and more.
Nooyi has never shied away from her ethnicity – her being Indian. She has summarily dismissed reports that she wears a sari to the boardroom – or even to work for that matter. She not only believes that doing so would be distracting but that she has an obligation to fit in with the norm – quoting the old saying that ‘when in Rome….’
One question she is often asked is – “Can women ‘have it all’?” According to Nooyi, being a CEO has to be a calling – that it’s not a career. It requires you to be ‘all in’, to love what you’re doing, to be totally consumed. It is her passion to make Pepsi bigger and stronger than it was. She has to determine at any given moment if she is going to be an executive, a mother or a wife. There has to be somewhat of a balance – but being a successful CEO takes a lot of time, focus and effort.
Indra Nooyi is a nearly perfect example of a fearless brand as evidence by these four factors –
Authenticity – Nooyi remains a woman proud to be Indian; continues to love her music, singing often; loves sports, especially cricket and wears her native dress when appropriate. Yet she has been able to integrate her heritage into her current profession, geography and culture.
Passion – She loves what she does – as she says, it’s a calling. That passion allows her to give her all to Pepsi – to her professional pursuits.
Skills and education – From her early childhood she has been a voracious learner. Nooyi has embraced her talents yet done whatever was necessary to continue learning – expanding and improving her talents.
Relevance – What’s the result of this combination of passion and skill? Powerful and relevant leadership and strategy – and a highly successful company.
It’s not necessary that you join a band or follow sports to successfully build your fearless brand. What is required is to be authentic – find what motivates you, sharpen your skills, be relevant, simply put – matter. Matter to yourself and matter to those you serve. Make sure you find your calling.