Ex-Pep­siCo CEO talks chal­lenges re­lated to gen­der

She wants to help oth­ers tackle work-life bal­ance

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - MONEY - Swapna Venu­gopal Ra­maswamy

In­dra K. Nooyi, one of only 25 women to hold the ti­tle of CEO on the For­tune 500 list when she stepped down last week from lead­ing Pep­siCo, is not wor­ried about be­ing re­mem­bered.

“Peo­ple will re­mem­ber me be­cause I was a CEO, and there are very few women CEOs,” said Nooyi, 62, who led the Pur­chase, New York-based com­pany for 12 years.

Dur­ing her ten­ure at the com­pany, Nooyi was cred­ited with push­ing Pep­siCo to in­vest in health­ier prod­ucts through her Per­for­mance with Pur­pose ini­tia­tive. Along with Pepsi soft drinks, Dori­tos and Lay’s potato chips, the com­pany’s port­fo­lio also in­cludes Quaker Oats and Bare Foods.

Nooyi will con­tinue to serve as chair­man un­til early 2019.

What Nooyi wor­ries about now is her legacy.

“The true test is what I will do af­ter this priv­i­leged job of CEO,” Nooyi told an au­di­ence last week at a busi­ness coun­cil din­ner in Rye Brook, New York.

“My chal­lenge is a lit­tle bit more daunt­ing than be­ing a CEO be­cause if I just ride off into the sun­set and go to spas ev­ery other month and have a good time, which some­times I want to do, I think peo­ple are go­ing to re­mem­ber me for be­ing derelict in my re­spon­si­bil­i­ties,” she said.

❚ Work-life bal­ance: Her fo­cus, she said, would be work­ing on is­sues she grap­pled with but couldn’t tackle di­rectly as CEO of a pub­lic com­pany.

“Things like what we do about this whole work-life bal­ance is­sue,” she said.

As a mother of two daugh­ters, she is in­ti­mately fa­mil­iar with the topic.

“It be­comes eas­ier when you are a CEO be­cause you have a lot of money,” she said. “You can do what­ever you want. You can even bring your kids to work be­cause you are the big boss, and no­body can say any­thing, right?” she said to laughs from the au­di­ence.

Prob­lems arise when women move from the en­try level to the next two (mid­dle-man­age­ment) lev­els in the “pyra­mid,” she said.

“That’s when the bi­o­log­i­cal clock and the ca­reer clock are in con­flict,” she said. “How are we go­ing to ad­dress the two lev­els post the en­try level to help women work pro­duc­tively in the econ­omy? Be­cause we need their skills, but we also need them to have a fam­ily,” Nooyi told the au­di­ence. “Be­cause we need the birth rate to go up to keep the coun­try re­new­ing.”

From her own per­spec­tive, Nooyi said, the early years were dif­fi­cult for her as a work­ing par­ent.

Af­ter an “hon­est con­ver­sa­tion” with her hus­band on who would do what, the cou­ple dis­cussed a novel way of tack­ling the is­sue.

❚ Im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence: An In­dian im­mi­grant who came to the U.S. at age 22 to at­tend Yale busi­ness school, Nooyi had grown up in a multi­gen­er­a­tional fam­ily. Based on her ex­pe­ri­ence, the cou­ple de­cided to im­pro­vise us­ing what she termed the “Asian fam­ily model.”

“We lined up all our fam­ily mem­bers to come and stay with us for three months at a time on va­ca­tion, and their only job was to su­per­vise the day care worker,” Nooyi said. “We did this un­til the kids could tell us what the nanny did or didn’t do. And in re­turn, they got a va­ca­tion around the U.S. We couldn’t have done it with­out them.”

When Nooyi came to Amer­ica in 1978, it was the dream coun­try for school­ing and mak­ing a liv­ing.

“This was the as­pi­ra­tional dream of ev­ery high-achiev­ing In­dian per­son in those days,” she said.

And in Nooyi’s eyes, the coun­try has lived up to its rep­u­ta­tion.

“My im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence has been very pos­i­tive. I have since trav­eled around the world, and I am yet to see a coun­try that is so sup­port­ive and wel­com­ing of peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent than what I ex­pe­ri­enced in the United States,” she said.

She said she was once asked by a prime min­is­ter of a coun­try why she had picked the U.S. over the U.K when she left In­dia.

“I looked at him and said, ‘Prime min­is­ter, had I come to the United King­dom, I wouldn’t be hav­ing lunch with you.’ ”

Be­ing a woman in the male-dom­i­nated busi­ness world in the past four decades did pose its share of is­sues.

❚ Be­ing called “honey”: “Even when I was in se­nior po­si­tions, I would be called ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey’ etc.,” she said. “All of those neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences con­sti­tuted prob­a­bly 20 per­cent of my ex­pe­ri­ences; 80 per­cent was all sup­port and men­tor­ship.”

She also spoke about feel­ing fash­ion chal­lenged.

“In my early days, first, I didn’t have much money to buy good clothes, then when I had money, I didn’t know what to buy,” she said.

Her cop­ing mech­a­nism?

“I made a de­ci­sion that I will win on brains not looks. I’d buy 10 white shirts and blouses and wear the same damn thing again and again,” she said.

“I wanted to say, ‘Don’t worry about my dress; worry about my out­put.’ My prod­uct was 50 per­cent bet­ter than any­body else’s. And that took time away from fam­ily; I’ll be hon­est.”

JOHN VECCHIOLA

In­dra Nooyi says her ex­pe­ri­ence as an im­mi­grant was pos­i­tive.

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