Off the Record: Where Politics and Economics Meet

How PepsiCo let me down: Indra Nooyi need not have been replaced with a white male CEO

Indra Nooyi’s exit from the company she reinvented throws up more questions than answers.

 |  Off the Record: Where Politics and Economics Meet  |  4-minute read |   10-08-2018
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Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi is revered and admired for many reasons.

She isn’t a global icon for only what she brought to PepsiCo — nearly doubled its revenues; share prices increased by 80 per cent; the company was given a newer, healthier image as it moved into ‘healthier’ snacking and beverage options – but she represented an idea of empowerment, perseverance and success which many women idealise but few can even dream of.

indra_081018121625.jpgThe company moved into ‘healthier’ snacking and beverage options under Indra Nooyi (Photo: Reuters)

For those of us who are at the moment struggling between ‘cannot have it all’ and ‘want it all’, she personified ‘doing it all’. She was an immigrant, a woman, an Indian and she made it to the top of one of the world’s largest multinational companies.  And that’s a journey not for all to make.

As someone who grew up in post-Independence, pre-liberalised India, opportunities were far and few. Access and exposure was constricted, stereotypical roles were more strongly enforced – she essentially blazed her way ahead on her own conviction and ambition. As a student in the United States she had to work while studying to take care of her expenses, at work — as a consultant  — she jostled for space in a largely male-dominated bastion with erratic work hours and a painful travel schedule; she has spoken about her years when her male colleagues second-guessed her all the time, but what kept her going with dogged focus and perseverance – which she describes in one of her interviews is her ‘immigrant mentality’ behind her work ethic – your job can be taken away at any time, so you earn it every day.

indra-1_081018121700.jpgNooyi jostled for space in a largely male-dominated bastion with erratic work hours (Photo: Reuters)

A very telling conversation with her mother that she recounted at one of India Today Group’s events and even shared it on her Linkedin profile was the night she came home after being named as president of Pepsi Co in 2001. Soon after she announced that she had ‘great news’ to share, her mother sent her out to get milk. And reminded her that she may be president of PepsiCo but when she is home, she is a wife and mother first.

“Nobody can take that place. So leave that crown in the garage.”

indra-2_081018121900.jpgTreading on path uncharted: The route is tougher for a woman because of various stereotypes (Photo: Reuters)

I am sure many identified with her story.

Recently, I was at an event organised by the UN Global Compact Network. I asked the audience – mostly mid-career professional women – about the biggest challenges they faced while pursuing their dream and ambition. Most replied balancing expectations from home. Many also confessed to tapering their dreams just so they could keep everyone happy.

The fact is that the route for a woman to rise up to the top is tougher and pricklier because our ecosystem is designed to aggravate stereotypes. So while there is so much talk about shattering glass ceilings, data shows otherwise.

Of all the S&P 500 companies — only 25 companies have women CEOs, and with Nooyi’s exit that number comes down to 24. Back home, in India, the banking sector has been the flag-bearer of women leadership, but most of the top women bankers have come from one stable and most of them share the same mentor. Startups are again a male bastion and one of the unsaid reasons for that is because women find it harder to convince investors that they are as committed or even more.

pepsico_081018121922.jpgPepsiCo could have chosen a female CEO in place of Indra Nooyi (Photo: Reuters)

Most boards across India Inc are male dominated and reservations to encourage more women to make it to boardrooms have largely translated into more family members of top business leaders rising to the top – nepotism isn’t the only reason for that.

There is a massive, leaking pipeline, mid-career women end up quitting before they are able to make it to the top because primary responsibilities of child care and caring for the elderly fall on the women.

Between 2004 and 2012, according to a 2017 World Bank report titled 'Precarious Drop: Reassessing Patterns of Female Labour Force Participation in India', about 19.6 million women quit (or lost) jobs. The biggest decline has been amongst two groups – illiterate women and post-graduates.

As Nooyi prepares for her new innings, she will be replaced by a male, white CEO.

I would have liked her to be replaced by a woman CEO because that would have told me that a global MNC worked on building its pipeline of women leaders – and like its CEO, PepsiCo could have been a trailblazer in setting a precedent of shattering the glass ceiling.

Also read: How Indian corporates are coming out of the lull ever since 2008 meltdown



Shweta Punj Shweta Punj @shwwetapunj

Senior Editor, India Today. Has been writing on policy for more than a decade.

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