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Episode 49 | Former CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi at Asian American Business Roundtable

When the moral core of your life and the moral code of your livelihood don't come together, there is a problem.

Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 49 from Season 4 of Rock The Boat: Making Waves, edited for clarity.

In America, there are very few women in the C-suite positions at major companies. There are even fewer women of color. One such person is Indra Nooyi, who worked at PepsiCo for 24 years. Half of her time there was as the CEO. Indra used her position to steer the company towards healthier and more environmentally friendly products. Rather than linger in the past where one model and philosophy worked, Indra pushed the company to keep up with a changing world.

In this episode, Mehmood Kahn speaks to Indra Nooyi about her experiences working as the CEO of PepsiCo and about how she approached the role. This podcast episode was made possible with a partnership with Asian American Business Development Center (AABDC) as part of the Asian American Business Roundtable series.

The following is an abridged transcript of the episode. To listen to the full episode, find us on Anchor, iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts!

I. Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo

Mehmood: So good morning. I have the daunting task of, in some ways, asking questions of Indra. But the reason I accepted this is, because for 12 years reporting to Indra, I got to answer all the questions. So when John said, "Hey, there's an opportunity for you to ask Indra questions and put her on the spot."

Brilliant. I'll do that one. So that's the reason I'm doing the tables. So if, let me kick this off. and I, this is a common question I get. How's things going? And they say, what are you doing? And I almost want to say, well, what is she not doing?

But that's a frequent question. How has retirement been freedom?

Indra: Wonderful. I mean it sort of in a positive way in the sense that when I was at PepsiCo for 25 years in 12 as CEO, you are a prisoner of the quarterly earnings. Because you had to deliver those quarterly earnings and everything else you did was around the quarterly earnings.

So we were driven by the calendar of the quarterly earnings. Now that I'm retired, I can put whatever pressure I wanted myself, but I'm not a prisoner of the quarterly earnings. So I pick and choose what I want to do. the unfortunate thing is I'm over-committed, because I just didn't know how to say no.

I give a few speeches around the world. I said I do around 10 a year. I do that. And then, I'm the cochair of the Connecticut economic commission. I worked for the governor. He and I went to school together, so he said, "Hey, you gotta help me since we both live in Connecticut, gotta bring more energy back to Connecticut."

Indra's in the National Portait Gallery!

Mehmood: I now know I'm not going to retire because if this is what after retirement

Indra: I did, the toughest part about retirement is I miss all my PepsiCo people.

Mehmood: If you look back during your tenure and your time at PepsiCo, that 24 year period was a time of tremendous change in the industry, in the business environment, business culture. Not just demographics, but our license to operate. And not only did you have to adapt and evolve, but the much greater task of taking a very large organization and an entire industry to think differently.

Share your thoughts about how you took that challenge on.

Indra: It's interesting. Many people ask me this question, how did you even come up with the program and how did you implement it?

The funny part is when we talked about performance with purpose and the first part being, yeah, we're going to deliver performance, but we have to transform the portfolio because consumer tastes are shifting.

We had reduced the salt, sugar and fat and dial up the good-for-you, nutritious stuff. Many people thought that was a waste of time because PepsiCo was about fun-for-you product, they should keep doing that. But here in lies the challenge. The reason that it was a challenge but not as big a challenge as I thought it would be is because many of our people had already changed their eating and drinking habits.

So the one hand, they were worried about what it meant for the financial results. If we had to invest in change. On the other hand, deep down inside, they were getting a lot of grief from their friends themselves to change the eating, drinking habits. And more importantly, they had changed the pattern of eating and drinking.

I still remember going to Egypt on a market trip in my first I think two or three years at PepsiCo, and I did it at night. I'd invited all the spouses of the executives and in Egypt at that time, we didn't have any females. So all the men had brought their wives along.

And I said, at dinner after dinner, only questions from wives I allowed, none of the men are allowed to ask any questions.

So silence, absolute silence. I said, you know, we'll have silence for 15 minutes. I don't care. But until the women asked the questions, I'm not leaving this place. So one woman put her hand up and she said, "Ah. My husband is probably not going to talk to me after I ask you this question, but let me ask you this anyway."

"This is Egypt. I want you to know," she said, "My husband's worked in PepsiCo for many years. Pepsi lets all the products come into the house. We love it. I now have a two year old kid. I don't allow this products in the house. What do you have to say about it?"

Think about this.

When the moral core of your life and the moral code of your livelihood don't come together, there is a problem.

II. More about Indra's business philosophy

Mehmood: So I'm going to tell a couple of interest stories during this discussion. Indra is a phenomenal salesperson and she's a great scientist.

Early on in my career with Pepsi, with PepsiCo and reporting renderer, I learned that inter reads everything, so I used to give summaries. Then I gave more detailed documents and since a lot of it was also based on science, then I started giving more science, including formulas of chemical structures. I mean this thing continued to progress.

So my question to you in there is, how do you balance that need of in depth study and analysis that I've seen you do for well over a decade directly with the environment we live in today?

Indra: I read everything because I had deep respect for everybody who worked for me. And so I felt that if you did the work and gave me the deck, it's not because it was a bureaucratic process, it's because you wanted me to read it.

So I read every page because you put effort into developing every page.

So that was my first rule. The second is, as I would read the deck, if there was a particular slide I didn't understand, I needed the backup. So I'd go find the backup. And if I didn't understand the backup, I found the backup to the backup. So I did this process of discovery because you keep asking the question why or how several times until you truly understand what needs to be done.

Because if you really want to effect change, it's no longer brief the top and train the bottom. It's train the top and brief the bottom. The pyramids actually reversed because when it's a normal chain management and life's just going on the top doesn't have to know that much. But if it's a transformation, the top has to drive it.

III. Driving and motivating factors in Indra's life

Mehmood: If you look back at your own education, your training, your cultural heritage, you to pick one or two things that now you reckon, reflect on and say, these were the driving or motivating factors that allowed you to achieve what you did? What would you look back at?

Indra: That's interesting. In writing this book, I, you know, started off as we want a memoir. I said, I'm not going to write a memoir because my family said they don't want to be part of it.

Writing this book about integrating work and family, there's stories that come that get woven in because without that, nobody's going to buy the book. And so you reflect back on how you managed to balance everything and how did you get to where you are?

And it's taken me all the way back to my childhood, how I was brought up, how I managed life through the many years and where I am today.

And I think if you asked me about the one thing that was common across, Mehmood, believe it or not, it's the Asian values and the Asian heritage. And more and more I'm coming to terms with the fact that that has played a much bigger role in my life than anything else in my life. As a kid, my grandfather would say, Satan has worked for idle hands, so you will not have sit idle anytime.

The other thing, the importance of family. I couldn't have had kids and had a job if I hadn't had my family to support me. The Asian values that we have, the intergenerational support exists.

We can't walk away from that. We have to nurture it. We have to advance it.

And in my family, the men and women were treated equally, and I know in many Asian families, increasingly that's the case. If that had not happened, I wouldn't have been where I am today.


Show Notes

For more information about the AABDC, check out their website.

For information about the Asian American Business Roundtables, go to this page. Other speakers on their 2020 slate include Nancy Yao Maasbach at the Museum of Chinese in America, Priya Udeshi Crick at New York Life Insurance, Jean Luna Lau at J.P. Morgan Private Bank, and Lisa Chang at The Coca-Cola Company.

This is a short version of the episode. Listen to Indra's full episode on Anchor, iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts!

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