In this week’s episode of Art of Power, host Aarti Shahani sits down with Indra Nooyi, who became the first woman and immigrant to head a Fortune 50 company when she was named CEO of PepsiCo in 2006.
Nooyi and host Aarti Shahani discuss her unusual family – where the men pushed her to be more ambitious. Aarti asks Nooyi how she manages to stay so light-hearted when people cut her down at work. (It’s something she does over and over again.) Her answer? It’s not what Aarti expected.
Indra Nooyi’s book, My Life In Full, has a provocative passage. Describing the times she’s been invited into rooms with the most influential people on the planet, she writes: “The titans of industry, politics and economics, talked about advancing the world through finance, technology, and flying to Mars. Family – the actual messy, delightful, difficult and treasured core of how most of us live – was fringe. This disconnect has profound consequences…In a prosperous marketplace, we need all women to have the choice to work in paid jobs outside the home and for our social and economic infrastructure to entirely support that choice.” (emphasis added)
Aarti dissects that call to action with her. It sounds like the call of a feminist or labor leader. Nooyi posits her argument is simple economics.
“If you think like an economist, not a feminist, then you say you want the best resources available, which means that men and women, the best talent, have to be in the service of the economy,” Nooyi says. “And that requires some social support. … If you don’t provide them a support structure, and then lament about the great resignation, it’s crazy.”
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JANE PAULEY, JOURNALIST: She embodies the American dream.
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LILAH JONES, MODERATOR: The first woman trailblazer to hold a CEO position in a Fortune 50 company.
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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: One of the world’s most powerful women and still remains.
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SARA EISEN, JOURNALIST: Wall Street knows her for building Pepsi into one of the biggest food and beverage companies in the world, growing sales 80% over her 12 years as CEO.
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INDRA NOOYI: I run PepsiCo. I’m the chairman and CEO of PepsiCo.
AARTI SHAHANI, HOST: From WBEZ Chicago, this is Art of Power. I’m Aarti Shahani. Today: Indra Nooyi. She became the first woman and immigrant to head a Fortune 50 company when she was named CEO of PepsiCo in 2006. She explains how living financially within her means has given her the freedom to be her boldest self at work.
INDRA NOOYI: If you don’t like it, and nobody’s going to listen to you, and you’re not contributing, and people are focused on taking you down, I’ll just leave.
NOOYI: And I don’t want another job, I won’t leave for another job. I’m just going to leave and then figure out what to do.
SHAHANI: We discuss her unusual family, where the men—everyone from grandpa to her husband—have pushed her to be more ambitious. We talk about her efforts to make PepsiCo more sustainable, well before climate change was a near-universally accepted fact. And we discuss her take on how women get equality at work. Do you need to think like a feminist or an economist?
NOOYI: If you think like an economist, not a feminist, then you say you want the best resources available, which means that men and women, the best talent, have to be in the service of the economy. And that requires some social support.
SHAHANI: When you became CEO of PepsiCo, I read this detail and literally laughed out loud, you wrote letters to the parents of your employees?
NOOYI: When I went home to India right after I became CEO, I noticed that all the family and relatives that came to visit would just say hello to me and go to my mother and say ‘Congratulations, you did such a good job.’ And so I sat back and I said to myself, I’ve never thanked the parents of my senior executives, the people who reported to me. So when I came back to the U.S., I wrote all my direct reports’ family a letter and thanked them for the gift of their child to PepsiCo. I told them, so-and-so is doing this fabulous job, running legal or running sales, whatever. And you know, for all my direct reports, Aarti, I actually went and visited them.
SHAHANI: The parents personally?
NOOYI: I visited every parent personally. The 16 people that reported me.
SHAHANI: Wow, that is unusual.
NOOYI: They were so proud to see their parents beaming with pride about their children, and the parents had this letter. They went around showing people saying, ‘See what the chairman wrote about my son or daughter.’
SHAHANI: Yeah, no. I mean, it totally makes me think of, like, Parent Teacher Day from school. And like, as a kid, I loved those days. I just, as an adult, I’ve never experienced anything like that.
NOOYI: But just imagine if somebody wrote your parents, your boss’s boss’s boss wrote to your parents and said, ‘Aarti is just fantastic. She’s doing a great job. Blah blah blah.’ What do you think your parents’ reaction would be?
SHAHANI: I mean, I’m literally beaming, just thinking of it.
NOOYI: Exactly right. Now here’s the fast forward. David Rubenstein interviewed me for his book on how we lead. So the story of me writing to parents was featured in that. A lot of male executives started calling me here in the US and saying, ‘Indra, we love this idea. Can you send us a draft of the letter you wrote so we can get a sense for how you wrote that letter?’ Because one of the things I say is you can’t just write a letter. It has to be authentic.
SHAHANI: And so they’re like, can I have the carbon copy of your authentic letter?
NOOYI: Not carbon copy. How did you frame the letter? They did it their own way. They just wanted to know how I approached it. And then they called me back and said the reaction we got from our employees and their parents was just unbelievable.
SHAHANI: Huh. And you emphasized the male CEOs reached out to ask you that. Why did you emphasize that?
NOOYI: Well, because none of the women have called me.
SHAHANI: Indra Nooyi’s book, My Life In Full, has a passage that I want every leader, aspiring or established, to read. She describes the times she’s been invited into rooms with the most influential people on the planet. And she writes: “The titans of industry, politics and economics, talked about advancing the world through finance, technology, and flying to Mars. Family – the actual messy, delightful, difficult and treasured core of how most of us live – was fringe. This disconnect has profound consequences.” And then she goes on to say, “In a prosperous marketplace, we need all women to have the choice to work in paid jobs outside the home and for our social and economic infrastructure to entirely support that choice.”
NOOYI: To me, I look at this as motherhood and apple pie. To me, I looked at this paragraph and I said, ‘This is so basic, yet we don’t practice it.’
SHAHANI: You could say so basic. But I mean, I’m going to emphasize here that for women who choose to work, there should be “social and economic infrastructure to entirely support that choice.” I mean, you sound here, frankly, like a labor leader or feminist. You don’t sound like what I associate with a CEO.
NOOYI: Numbers don’t lie. Seventy percent of high school valedictorians are women. MIT graduates 47 percent women engineers; professional schools are more than 50 percent women. If you think like an economist, not a feminist, OK, then you say you want the best resources available to be in the service of the economy, which means that men and women, the best talent, have to be in the service of the economy. However, we also need young kids, so the economic reality is that we need everybody engaged and paid well, but we also need young children. People have to have families. So when we put that additional burden on women to carry the child and deliver it, we have to do two things. One, we have to start off saying family is not female. Family is both male and female. They both have to support family building. And we need that smart woman and man deployed in the economy, and that requires some social support in terms of caregiving, paid leave, flexible work hours in order to make this happen. So I’m not talking like a socialist or labor leader. I’m just talking as an economist.
SHAHANI: I mean, that’s not a widely held or articulated view.
NOOYI: Today, it’s becoming more widely held when we have a huge labor shortage and we’re desperate to get people back.
SHAHANI: You can say it’s becoming more widely held, but at the same time, we’re talking at the exact moment when a federal effort to actually institute paid family leave and subsidized child care is failing.
NOOYI: Well, it’s high time we had the conversation, so let me give you another example. The jobs of the future that cannot be automated are caregiving, nursing, retail, hospitality. Many of these jobs require high touch, high human touch. And many of them are female-oriented, like teachers. Women are participating in those jobs in large numbers. If you don’t provide them a support structure, and then lament about the great resignation. It’s crazy. To me, any discussion of the great resignation has to be followed up with a discussion of the great reenrollment. So we have to find out who’s leaving. Why are they leaving? How to bring them back? And we know who’s leaving now. We see women leaving in large numbers, but how to bring them back?
SHAHANI: You have emphasized this is the perspective of an economist, not a feminist. Why is that important for you to emphasize? I identify with both.
NOOYI: I think that it’s important to think of this issue as economists because men in power need to come to the table. All men need to come to the table and look at this as a national priority to take all the resources we have and grease the skids for them to contribute to the economy. So it’s an issue that everybody has to worry about, men and women.
SHAHANI: And you think that the F-word will basically push people away?
NOOYI: It’s viewed as just women complaining about women. No, it’s not. It’s about taking the best talent and putting it to work for the economy. All the studies show that the economy can grow another point or two of GDP if we can deploy them. So stop talking about, you know, women fighting for women’s rights. That’s an outcome. OK, but if you think like an economist, you will realize that obviously the women have to have an equal say at the table. They’re so wicked smart, they’re all highly educated.
SHAHANI: And the numbers tell you they’re dominating anyway.
NOOYI: Let’s stop arguing about this, right?
SHAHANI: Interesting. Yeah. I’m not going to pretend that I totally agree with you. I’m processing what you’re saying about how you bring more stakeholders to the table, specifically in this case. How do you bring men in to have a rational conversation about family when it’s instantly thought of as a woman’s issue, even though it’s obviously not a women’s issue?
NOOYI: But here’s the point, Aarti. The minute you use the word feminist, it’s no longer about family. It’s about single women screaming for a cause. I’m saying that family is family. Family is not female. And the more we offer maternity and paternity leave, the more we start talking about how do we rebuild our society to make it more family-friendly? Because family is the core of society. In any shape or form, I don’t care what shape it’s in. It’s the core of society. Otherwise, you know what’s going to happen. We’re going to have a loneliness problem.
SHAHANI: We already have a loneliness problem.
NOOYI: It’s only going to get worse. With 10,000 people turning 60 or 65 every day. The boomer generation, they’re going to have a mighty big loneliness problem if we don’t somehow figure out between families and caregivers. How do we bring the human touch back again?
SHAHANI: And your observation is that many people have compelled themselves to basically stay single and not having families because they felt like it was an impossible choice to have both, to have it all.
NOOYI: I mean, women are delaying having children, freezing eggs and record numbers. It’s the fastest growing industry. And you know, our birth rates are dropping.
SHAHANI: I’m currently pregnant.
NOOYI: Congratulations, Aarti!
SHAHANI: My first pregnancy and I am 42 years old. I’m feeling great. I’m feeling great. But clearly I bring that up to say, I am an example of what you were saying.
NOOYI: I have daughters too remember.
SHAHANI: Yes, that’s right.
SHAHANI: Indra Nooyi was born in a free India in 1955, eight years after British colonial rule ended. She came from a comfortable middle class family that is also Brahman – the highest caste, and widely revered as the most educated. She points out, she also grew up in a family where the women AND men believed in gender equality.
NOOYI: I did win the lottery of life on those points. I will never, ever say that I wasn’t helped along by that.
NOOYI: The society at that time, most of the people, especially in our communities, at 18 they had arranged marriages for their daughters. That was a typical pattern. And then they got married, had two or three kids and lived a comfortable life. It was a very simple, uncomplicated life. Now, Indra and Chandrika come along, my sister and I come along as two daughters in this family, and our grandfather and father say, ‘Dream big, soar, do anything you want to do. Study; we will help you with your homework and making sure that you’re on top of all your work. But we want you to do whatever you want. If you want to stay home and get married and have kids, that’s also fine. But we want you to do whatever you want to do.’ You know, it was just a great upbringing where we all debated, fought, screamed, argued issues, and we were encouraged to do that.
SHAHANI: And what was the big dream for you? What did young Indra think her big dream was?
NOOYI: I had no big dream. I just knew that I wanted to be somebody.
SHAHANI: Interesting. You did not, as a little girl, dream of being the CEO of a Fortune 50.
NOOYI: Don’t even know what that is.
SHAHANI: Uh-Huh. You’ve been married now for 40 years to Raj Nooyi.
SHAHANI: Excuse me, 42 years. Did he have those same values as your father and your grandfather did? Or was it more of a, you know, a struggle pulling him along?
NOOYI: Oh no, no, no. He was very much of that himself. You know why? Because when we got married, my father-in-law pulled me aside and said, ‘Keep working. We are there to support you. Don’t worry about it. We are proud of the fact that you’re educated, and please do whatever you choose to do. Just know you have our support.’ So did my mother-in-law. And even today, I would say my husband’s family, Aarti, is even prouder of me than maybe even my extended family. They really, really take pride in me.
SHAHANI: I’m happy to hear you say that, and I’m also kind of wondering, is it really that rosy for you because, you know, you married somebody who is also career driven? And I just have to assume that the family in the corners were whispering to each other, ‘Hey, can Indra be more supportive of her man’s career?’ As opposed to like, ‘She’s a beast. She should go for it.’
NOOYI: You know why? Because my husband never gave off the impression that I was not supported. Raj always told his family that we are equal partners, and we work it out. Not to worry.
SHAHANI: You know how bizarre and unique that sounds, right?
NOOYI: I am now beginning to understand it’s bizarre and unique because many people in our extended families, communities, all encourage their girls to go and work and study and move ahead. And so, for families that don’t do that and sort of put chains around their daughters or daughters-in-law, I wonder why.
NOOYI: Aarti, I want to go back and correct a comment that I don’t want misconstrued in any shape or form. Everything I’ve talked about, looking at issues is an economist, not a feminist, because I think that has universal appeal and we can all understand that we need to take all the resources we have to put it in the service of the country, right? And I think men and women should come to the table and think that, right? I am not knocking feminism at all.
SHAHANI: Mmm hmm.
NOOYI: Ok. People dismiss feminists only because they think it’s not an issue that benefits everybody, just benefits women. But it should. It should, because women need equality. Feminism has a role in society, and women need to make a case for themselves. Don’t even get me wrong. A lot of men need to be feminists, too. They need to make a case for women. It’s just that making the case as an economist has broader appeal. And that’s all the point I’m making. I’m not at all knocking feminism. Don’t get me wrong,
SHAHANI: We will not quote you as Indra Nooyi, anti-feminist.
NOOYI: Absolutely not.
SHAHANI: What I do believe I hear, and this is maybe where I have a bit of a disagreement as I listen to you, is, you know, when you say, speak like an economist, it has the most broad appeal. I think that it has a different purpose. You know, I identify as a feminist and what what that means to me is equality. I also fully appreciate that for many people, feminism is associated with man-hater and the single female with a pink hat with no regard – I understand the sort of images that that conjures up. At the same time, when you’re part of a community that is under attack, having an identity for that community, having a convening space, having a shared language. It’s a really important thing to have internally as you try to build power. And so I kind of think we need feminists and economists. But I take your point, and I didn’t hear you as attacking my identity in that way.
NOOYI: I have two daughters, and they are feminists. Oh my God, they are. Just as I am. OK. I want women to rise. I want talented women to be equal with talented men, OK. I want total equality in society. I’m all for it. I just believe that in the corporate world in particular, in society in general, when you make the case that an economist saying, ‘You’ve got incredibly smart women coming up.’ Don’t just say we have to have quotas for women. Just say the best and brightest should be in the deployment, you know, in paid work.
SHAHANI: I hear you. And so the only thing that I’m saying in addition to that is Indra, I love my family. I did not grow up in a family as enlightened as yours. And so, from an incredibly early age, I think seven years old, I learned that word and that identity of, oh, women’s rights, women’s equality, and I held on to it because it was this thing I needed to identify other like-minded people in a context where we were not treated equally. And so I think that there’s so much value to that word and that identity. Though I take your point about how it will absolutely turn off certain people, not just men – men and women – who we need at the table. I get it.
NOOYI: And that’s the only point I’m making, which is I am a feminist to the extreme. I mean, I want equality. I want my daughters to be in a society that’s equal. But I want us to think much broader than that because I want everybody who’s talented to be brought in equally. And I tell you that if you did that, there would be hell of a lot of women.
SHAHANI: Let’s talk a little bit about your own experience with this. The word I use sometimes is gaslighting, but this sort of being cut down in the workplace. You dealt with discrimination, that was a thing for you. Can you just describe something you went through? Because thus far the image I have of Indra Nooyi is: blessed for extraordinary luck in family. I want to understand some of the friction you had to deal with.
NOOYI: Well, you know, many, many slights. I’ll give you one. Early in my career in corporate America, but it was still very senior. I was not the junior-most person in the room. I was in a senior executive meeting. People expected that I was going to write action items in the meeting because I was the only woman there. There were a lot of junior men there, but they assumed I was going to write the action items.
SHAHANI: You’re a stenographer of their thoughts.
NOOYI: Or just the most junior person that’s going to record the action items. So I said I was amused that they thought I was going to do that. So I said, ‘OK, I’ll write the action items, no problems.’ So I took the action items. I went back to my office. I crafted the action items into a beautiful document as to why this action item, by when should it be delivered, to what level of detail. And I sent the memo out. So people came back and said, but we didn’t agree on these dates. I said, yeah, action items I’m used to having dates, so I added dates. And they said, ‘But was this the context in which we talked about?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we didn’t have a conflict. So I put it in context for you guys, I’m helping you.’ That was the first and last time they asked me to write action items.
SHAHANI: They felt like she’s giving us orders.
NOOYI: Or she caught us, OK. Because what happens typically is people like to talk about what are they going to do, people like to talk about dates, but not link the two.
SHAHANI: Yeah, yeah.
NOOYI: OK, you know, I linked everything and provided a structure. Another one would be, you know, in planning big strategy meetings. OK. I remember with one CEO, Roger Enrico. I would ask a lot of questions because I’ve read all the material. So I’d ask about three questions. When I got to the fourth, he’d look over at me and say, ‘Your three question limit is up.’
SHAHANI: And did everyone have the three question limit or it was just you?
NOOYI: Oh, he was just pulling my leg. I didn’t know I had a three question limit, but that’s OK. I just gave him the same smile. That’s OK. I asked my three questions. But I have another five, and I just smiled. And at the first break, everybody came to me and said, ‘Indra, can you give us your other five questions?’ And so he’d watch this. He watched everybody coming right up to me and saying, ‘Indra, what were the other five questions?’ So you know I don’t give a damn what he said. I have those eight questions that need answers.
SHAHANI: I love the playfulness in what you’re describing these challenges. Like, you’re like, you’re literally smiling. I see the mischief on your face. You’re like, ‘and that’s how I got them there, and that’s how I got them there.’ These are good war stories. At the same time, Indra, you also wrote about nearly quitting your job at Pepsi because of how you were treated.
NOOYI: There was just one incident, but let me – there was a series of incidents that led to that outcome. Reason I’m smiling about these things is that – the same Roger who would say, ‘You only have three questions. Your time’s up’ – Roger was my biggest mentor and supporter. But let’s go back to the incident where I quit. I felt, in every meeting when I was presenting these numbers, one or two people would say, ‘You know, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I think you’re trying to take over our forecast,’ or something like that. Roger didn’t say. He just allowed these guys to decimate me in every meeting. And when we were in London, this happened and I just left halfway through. I said enough. I’ve had enough I’m going home.
SHAHANI: You left London?
NOOYI: Yup. I left London and took the flight back. But I was so pissed off. And then when I came into the office, I walked up to him and said, ‘Roger, I’ve had enough of this. I can’t deal with this constant complaining about my forecast and how these guys go at me. And you don’t say anything, so after this, I’m quitting.’ He just looked at me and his pencil twiddled for a while. He said nothing but the meeting that afternoon was delayed three hours. And after that, there was no looking back.
NOOYI: Meaning everybody was nice to me after that.
SHAHANI: Mhm. So he understood like, ‘Oh, she’s pissed.’ Like this is the breaking point. And then similarly to your husband who signaled to the family, ‘Everything’s great here.’ He used his voice to signal to everyone, ‘You better stop doing this.’
SHAHANI: In moments where you have the right to be offended. But to not be offended, that can be really hard. Was it ever hard for you or does this sort of playfulness, this jocularity, does it come naturally to you?
NOOYI: You can’t be playful all the time, Aarti. Ok. If you see blatant discrimination, you will get angry, of course.
SHAHANI: And so what is the actionable lesson, though? Because I’m sitting here and I’m listening to your enormous capacity to be playful in the face of passive-aggressive discriminatory behavior. And I’m wondering, OK, what can I replicate or learn from that?
NOOYI: So, my husband and I decided that we would never live beyond our means. We would live a lifestyle that we can support with just one salary. And it doesn’t have to be the highest salary. We would support it on one salary. So we live very simply most of my life. And so when you go to work, it’s like, if you don’t like it and nobody’s going to listen to you and you’re not contributing and people are focused on taking you down, I’ll just leave.
NOOYI: And I don’t want another job, I won’t leave for another job. I’m just going to leave and then figure out what to do.
SHAHANI: So this is not the answer I expected, but basically you’re saying, you’re knowing that, ‘We’re not living beyond our means. These are not golden handcuffs. I can walk away.’ It helped you keep it light.
NOOYI: And I also said, ‘Hey, I think I’m pretty competent. I put the company before me. And you know, you should want to keep me.’ And they all did.
SHAHANI: Right, right.
NOOYI: What did you expect?
SHAHANI: Well, I thought that you were going to tell me something a little bit more rah rah about, you know, take deep breaths, think about a funny moment from childhood, let yourself emotionally be ready to smile. But what you’re saying is, ‘No, the reason I could smile is because I didn’t need to be there.’ And so long as you have that freedom, it gives you the freedom of the range of emotions that can be mobilized in any moment.
NOOYI: So it’s that freedom and also the confidence that you can find another job. You should have both.
SHAHANI: After the break, when Indra Nooyi had massive, life and career-changing news, she told her mom … and her mom told her to do some house chores.
NOOYI: You know what it’s mom, she grew up in the 30s and 40s and 50s, Am I going to change her now? I don’t think so.
SHAHANI: This is Art of Power. I’m Aarti Shahani.
SHAHANI: The night you find out that you are president of PepsiCo, you come home and you tell your mom and her reaction is.
NOOYI: Hey. Go get the milk.
SHAHANI: Your mom tells you to go and get milk
NOOYI: At 10 o’clock in the night. Go get milk. And I’m just sitting there going, ‘I have great news for you. Why do you want me to go get the milk first? Can’t you listen to what I have to say?’ ‘I don’t care what the news is just go get the milk.’ So I go get the milk, come back. I say to her, ‘Mom, why can’t you wait till I have big news for you? I shared my news with you. I’m going to be president of the board of directors of PepsiCo.’ And she goes, ‘I don’t know what that all means. But I will tell you that as far as I’m concerned, when you walk into the house, the wife or the daughter, you’re the mother or daughter-in-law and all of those rules. So do me a favor. Just leave your crown in the garage when you come home, just play the role you are supposed to play.’
SHAHANI: Ughhhhh [Laughter]
NOOYI: So you know, at that point, I was mad for a brief moment. On the other hand, Aarti, she was right. When I come home, I have a different role to play, and I’m okay with that.
SHAHANI: But would she have said that if you were her son?
NOOYI: No, probably not. But that’s OK. You know what, she’s mom. She grew up in the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s. Am I going to change her now? I don’t think so. She’s the same mother who allowed me to cross the oceans and come to the United States. OK. So I think it’s very, very important that we put this whole thing in context.
SHAHANI: In 2006, PepsiCo promoted Indra Nooyi to CEO of the company. It was historic. She became the first woman and immigrant to run a Fortune 50 company.
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STEVE INSKEEP, JOURNALIST: One of their own was just named the most powerful woman in American business by Fortune Magazine. Indra Nooyi.
SHAHANI: And when she came in, she did not rule conventionally, like someone trying to hold on to the job for as long as possible. She announced a big, bold, unexpected initiative.
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INDRA NOOYI: And as part of a new operating philosophy, what we call “performance with purpose.”
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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: What prompted you to come up with the concept of performance with purpose.
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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Did you just wake up one morning and say you were going to change the mandate of Pepsi.
SHAHANI: She was way ahead of her time – acting years before environmental sustainability was en vogue and climate change was accepted science.
NOOYI: Oh, it was just the way to futureproof the company. I’d codified all that into performance with performance, which included human sustainability, how to start moving our portfolio to including healthier choices, environmental sustainability, how to replenish the environment, and talent sustainability, how to truly cherish our people. So performance of purpose was not about corporate social responsibility. It was changing the way we made money. Without performance, we couldn’t find purpose. Without purpose, we couldn’t deliver performance.
SHAHANI: What was the reaction when you announced that?
NOOYI: The board bought into it fully. Fully. There were some holdouts, people who said If it ain’t broke, why fix it.
SHAHANI: So why rock the boat, Indra.
NOOYI: Why rock the boat. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Those are the kinds of things.
SHAHANI: But a place that you identified to be broken was simply the enormous amount of waste the company was pumping into the environment, for example, plastic bottles everywhere. For example, use of water supply greater than it needed to be. What were you able to do? What could you accomplish specifically with regards to those environmental issues?
NOOYI: We were using, I think, two and a half liters of water to make a liter of Pepsi in 2006. Over time, we brought it down to one point eight, one point five, and we were awarded the Stockholm Water Prize for best performance and water replenishment. It’s like a Nobel Prize for water. And on plastics, we started to incorporate recycled plastic in our bottles. We built solar fields next to many of our plants. We went to hybrid trucks. We placed large orders for electric trucks.
SHAHANI: I do want to ask. And let’s note, your efforts have absolutely been acknowledged – you cited the award around reducing the amount of water consumption. At the same time, let’s talk, for example, about single use plastics. I went to my local supermarket and picked up a bottle of Pepsi, and I was fascinated. Pepsi Mango. That was not a thing when I was a kid. And in there, something I noticed on the bottle is it says, and you can kind of see it. It says, ‘please recycle.’ It’s misleading. Because this bottle that I’m holding in my hand, I can as a consumer spend water rinsing it out to remove the sugars, put it in my recycling bin, but it’s not going to get recycled.
NOOYI: Oh, yes, they do get recycled. So the PET bottles get picked up and they get broken up into pieces. Some of it comes back into the next PET bottle. Because 20 to 25 percent of all plastics in a beverage bottle is recycled plastic, and the rest of it goes to making fleece jackets, carpets, all of that stuff. So more and more towns are establishing closed loop systems that actually recycle all of this. We want more recycled PET. The problem we have now is getting enough recycled PET.
SHAHANI: In your efforts to be more sustainable, for example, in 2010, you set out the goal of: along with other US beverage makers, we want to engage in recycling 50 percent of the plastic and glass bottles and cans we use by 2018. You set that goal in 2010. By 2018, 50 percent of these bottles should be recycled. 5-0. Your partners in that effort, a couple of groups called You Sow and Walden Asset Management, they ended up writing a very blistering report, and they said not only did PepsiCo fail to achieve that goal, but the amount of recycling actually dropped by two percent over the course of that time.
NOOYI: So recycling is an industry initiative which requires cooperation from towns and municipalities. It cannot be done by the beverage industry and one company, individually. If municipalities don’t put in a closed loop recycling system, individual companies cannot do it on their own. I can’t go to the grocery store to separate out a Pepsi bottle from other bottles. I can’t do it. And so, you know, in most cases, the reasons that these initiatives don’t work is because, you know, many, many towns in the country don’t have separation of waste.
SHAHANI: And so in that period of time where you set out this goal and you know, you strike me as someone who actually wants to achieve the goals that they set, you set out this ambitious goal. And frankly, in this respect, you didn’t make it. According to your partners, in this effort, you actually fell even further behind. How do you size that up?
NOOYI: You’ve got to put it in balance. Everything has to be put in balance with the successes also. I don’t know if the report talked about the role of municipalities. I don’t know if it did.
SHAHANI: It did not.
NOOYI: And, you know, I don’t know if you dug deep enough for it. But then if somebody understood how the recycling industry works, without municipalities leaning in to separate the waste, you cannot do any recycling. And so, you know, this is where, you know, when people choose to criticize, they just criticize. They don’t think about the issue holistically. The amount of time we spent lobbying states and municipalities to really separate the waste and recyclables is enormous.
SHAHANI: I have seen you say, Indra, that you do not pick mentors. Mentors pick you and I saw that and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s very different from my approach to life,’ because I think that I have this tendency to like, aggressively knock on the doors of people who I think can teach me something. And I was like, ‘What does she mean, you don’t pick your mentor as mentors pick you?’
NOOYI: So my book, I write about all the mentors I’ve had. They didn’t just give me advice. They supported me. They are also your best critics. But for somebody to play such a profound role in your life, they’ve got to feel like, if they hitch their reputation to you, they can then say, as you rise, ‘I had little say in their success.’ And I’m talking of those kinds of mentors with a big capital M. Ok? They’re way more than just supporters. They play a profound role in your life. I too have lots of mentors I just call now and then and get a piece of advice or run something by them. That’s not who I’m talking about. I’m talking about these individuals in your life who play a larger than life role who feel vested in your success. And those people find you. It’s an unusual person. It takes a special person to be a mentor, because the mentors that I’m talking about have to be secure enough that they’re willing to develop that next generation of people.
SHAHANI: Mm hmm. What you just described, I could think of maybe a handful of people who play that kind of role in my life, and I’m grateful I can think of that. If you don’t yet have that yet, how do you get that?
NOOYI: You know, Aarti, there are some people who are going to move up and ascend some corporate ladder. They may not all have this mentor with a capital M. They may have lots of little people that help them along the way. Which is OK. Just because, you know, I get letters every day saying, ‘Will you be my mentor?’ I don’t know what that means. I don’t even know that person. How am I going to be a mentor to them?
SHAHANI: Mhm. It’s kind of like, Will you marry me?
NOOYI: Not even an arranged marriage. ‘Will you marry me?’ ‘Ok, I don’t know who you are!’
SHAHANI: A Craigslist marriage? Right?
NOOYI: I guess, yeah, right.
SHAHANI:I spoke with one of your mentees, a woman named Anjula Acharia. And what’s so funny is, you know, she’s your mentee. And she’s also just a beast, right? She is a leading Silicon Valley tech investor, manager of actress superstar Priyanka Chopra. And Anjula Acharia, she was downright giddy. I mean, like little girl giddy talking about how you met in a crowded room, and you bothered to take the time to say hello to her. And then she described the flavor of your relationship. I want you to listen to this.
ANJULA ACHARIA: She invited me and Priyanka to go to her house, and she fed us dosas, and we would just talk about everything from business to personal. She’s not just interested in you one dimensionally. She’s interested in everything about your life. She asked me about, you know, who I was dating, who I’ve met. What was interesting about them? What was not interesting about them? And then she would ask me about what projects and things I’m working on.
NOOYI: [Laughter] Oh, Ang. That’s right. Mm hmm.
SHAHANI: She had said that your approach to her really changed her approach to others because she is like, ‘Before Indra, when I was mentoring people, I would just talk to them about their professional life.’ Almost like she was allergic to hearing about the personal. Like, here’s a wall, we’re going to stay in these confines. And then by way of your approach, it actually kind of helped to loosen her up to be more interested in the whole person.
NOOYI: The people who mentored me knew me, my family, everybody that had a major role in my life. They got to know them, too. I mean, I know Ang, I know her very well. And you know, I’ll ask the uncomfortable questions that she doesn’t have answers to. She’ll think about them, go back and say, ‘You’re right. I didn’t think through this.’ But you know, I take the time. I love her, and I take the time to show her that I care for her and love her.
SHAHANI: My lessons from Indra Nooyi. One. When developing professional relationships, be open to connecting to the whole person, even their parents. Unusually personal gestures can build extraordinary loyalty. And it’s fun!
Two. Avoid golden handcuffs. If you’re living within your means, if you know you can afford to quit, you’ll have the freedom to be even bolder in your current position. It’s an interesting paradox.
Three. When someone tells you: Leave your crown in the garage. Be the stenographer of the meeting. Don’t ask more than three questions … do not get rattled by other people’s rules. Smile through their bullshit.
This episode of Art of Power was produced by Heena Srivastava, Justin Bull, and Aarti Shahani. Our intern is Sylvia Goodman. Our executive producer is Kevin Dawson. If you liked what you heard, give us 5 stars on Apple Podcasts. It’ll take you a second. Go there, click, it’s easy. Or share the episode with a friend! Nothing like word of mouth. Tell us what you think! On Instagram and Twitter, I’m at @aarti411. For exclusive offers, you can sign up for the Art of Power newsletter at wbez.org/aopnewsletter. See you next week.