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Transcript: “My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future” with Indra Nooyi

MR. IGNATIUS: Welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m David Ignatius, a columnist for The Post. Today our guest is Indra Nooyi, who is one of the most successful women CEOs in America as head of PepsiCo. She’s written a new book called “My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future.” And we’re going to talk about all three--her business success and a very honest discussion she has of the family work/life issues. Welcome, Indra. Thanks for joining us today.

MS. NOOYI: David, thank you for having me on the show. Look forward to the conversation.

MR. IGNATIUS: Me too. So let's start at the beginning of this story with your childhood, your life as a young woman in India. You were studying, as I read, at Madras Christian College. You were studying chemistry with some math and physics, and you decided in 1978 to come to America to go to Yale Business School. Tell us a little bit about the world that shaped you in India and why you made the decision to leave.

MS. NOOYI: Thank you first for having me. And I want to put my life in context, because I was born in India eight years after India got independence. So after 350 years of being occupied, this is a newly emerging India, still trying to figure out its role as a country, role in the world, and certainly women, you know, trying to figure out what role women could play in the society.

And I grew--I was born into a progressive family, highly educated family, a conservative Brahmin family, which basically said education is everything. But the most important luxury of life that I won was that the men in our family believed women should be allowed to be educated, should be allowed to dream, dream big, and do whatever they wanted to do. So that was the huge advantage that I had growing up, because my father and my grandfather basically said we're going to support your education. As much as you want to be in college and university, please do.

And my mother, who was a product of their society, had one leg on the brake and one leg and the accelerator. The accelerator said I want my kids to have what I didn't have. I want to live my life vicariously through my daughters. The foot on the brake said but I'm also a person that lives in the society who says I've got to get my daughters married at 18. So she applied this brake and accelerator judiciously through our lives, but the men had a heavy foot on the accelerator. And so the two of us, my sister and I, and my brother subsequently, we could go to college. We both went to business school in India. We both worked in India. But while I was working and in business school in India, most of my friends had left to come to the United States. People who had been educated in the Indian institutes of technology, brilliant, brilliant young men, had all come to the United States because the U.S. was viewed as the country of innovation and invention, entrepreneurship, cultural forefront in everything.

And if you really want to be who you are, you want to thrive as an individual, come to the United States. It was the most aspiring thing for all of us young people growing up in '70s India. And as the luck of the draw, I applied to the Yale School of Management, got admitted, and most importantly got a combination of loans and scholarship money and some work programs to be able to afford Yale. And the shock--the biggest shock of them all, my parents allowed me to go. So a combination of these brought me to the shores of New Haven, Connecticut.

MR. IGNATIUS: You describe, Indra, this wonderfully quick and seemingly easy assimilation into America. You have a great description of falling in love with the New York Yankees and how you cried when Thurman Munson, the Yankees catcher, died in a plane crash. It was very--it's touching but it suggests how quickly this young woman from India had become a part of American life. And I want to ask you whether it was really that easy, what the difficulties were. And then secondly, just as important, would that be possible today? Are we as open and welcoming a country as we were in 1978 when you were a young woman arriving here?

MS. NOOYI: I'm going to answer the second part first before I go to the first one, David. The second part I'll say, if you look at all the countries in the world, the United States is still the most open and we're still the most welcoming country in the world, bar none. So let me put that to bed and get to the first question.

When I came to the U.S. in 1970, even in a university like Yale, they didn't have a big infrastructure to support international students, to make them feel welcome, to teach them how to get a mailbox, open a bank account. All those had to be done in those days. They didn't teach us how to shop. I didn't know how to go to a grocery store and pick up groceries because I'd never been to a self-serve store. I'd never been to a store where you have an honor system and you put things in a cart, and you pay at checkout. I didn't know that yogurt was curds, which is what I was used to eating. So I was a complete novice when I landed in the United States.

And the first two or three days were lonely is an understatement. I must have cried all the time, saying I thought this place was going to be noisy. I thought everybody was going to be bustling around and that's what I've seen in movies. Yet New Haven, which hadn't yet opened to Yale because it was still a week away, was quiet. All of graduate studies was like lonely and cavernous. It took a while to get used to it. But once you got the bug, once you got the American bug, it bit you really hard and sort of grabbed you in.

And the Yankees at that time was the--were the team that, you know, that had come from 14 games behind the Red Sox and the famous Bucky Dent incident that caused the Yankees to clinch. And I was watching all of that. And through the Yankees, I fell in love with American sport, American baseball, the New York Yankees, and overall American culture.

MR. IGNATIUS: It's a wonderful little snapshot of what it is to find your place in any country. I want to ask you about the decisions you made when you left Yale Business School. You decided to be a consultant at one of the very best consulting firms in the world, BCG. And you write about the intensity of those engagements. And I want to ask you, for our young viewers who are interested in business careers, the advantages and disadvantages of consulting as opposed to going to work for a mainline company, one of the companies that BCG would be consulting for. Why did you choose that path?

MS. NOOYI: So the time that I graduated from business school, consulting was considered the most prestigious assignments to take on post-business school--not just because they paid well, because they gave you like a five- to 10-year head start in your corporate job if you wanted to go into a corporate job later, because consulting gave you exposure to multiple industries, multiple issues. You learn how to behave in a boardroom because BCG was consulting to CEOs. And the fact that you would go through such an intensive interviewing process and emerged with a job offer at the other end was almost a challenge to me. It was a challenge when I applied for a summer job. It was a bigger challenge when I was applying to BCG for a final position. So when I applied to BCG, I took it on as a challenge. Am I good enough to be a consultant? You know, am I good enough to be selected amongst all of these people they're going to be interviewing?

And remember, the interviewers are brutal. You interview with 10 or 12 people. Each one has a case. They make you, you know, demonstrate how you think, how you answer problems. These are not easy interviews on tell me about your growing up and your love for the Yankees. I wish it was that easy. This was hardcore analysis of cases.

And then I came out the other end, I didn't think I was going to get an offer because you don't feel great about all these interviews. But then I did get the offer. My God, it's impossible not to accept because you've been through the ringer and you've come out whole at the other end.

And BCG gave me, I would say, somewhere between a six- and 10-year, you know, head start in my corporate career because I vaulted over many entry-level people who'd have come out of Yale at the same time that I did and entered Motorola almost at the senior middle management level, which I would have taken another five years to get to had I entered Motorola as an entry-level person. So consulting, especially with top consulting firms, brutal lifestyle. You travel a lot. You're always in--I was in Chicago, so I was in all of the small Midwestern towns of manufacturing clients. But I loved what I did. I loved my clients. I loved my work. And I loved the hard work and the challenge of looking at multiple industries.

MR. IGNATIUS: It's obvious too that you developed analytical skills in advising BCG's clients that were at the center of how you managed at PepsiCo. Let's come to PepsiCo. You had this interlude at Motorola and then at ABB. But then in 1994, as I read this, you came to PepsiCo. I want to ask you, there's a traditional American retail brands company, Pepsi obviously, Mountain Dew, snack foods, Fritos, a whole range of things we can talk about. But you characterize the weaknesses of that culture in a very brief and devastating way. I'm going to quote from your book. You say that when you joined PepsiCo, "White American men held 15 of the top 15 jobs at PepsiCo when I walked in. I don't believe that any of their wives worked in paid jobs outside of their homes." So this was a very traditional company. And I want you to explain first what it was like for you as an Indian American to come into that company; and secondly, how that traditional culture was hurting the company as you began to understand them.

MS. NOOYI: Well, I don't think it was hurting the company, because we're talking about 1994. And the ideal worker of the times, who had worked their way up the company, was still the White male who worked outside the home with the wife taking care of the home. Those are the people that ascended to the top of all corporations, not just PepsiCo. The fact that Wayne Calloway, who grew up in that system, made such an outreach to get me into PepsiCo, demonstrated to me that PepsiCo was very keen on bringing diversity into the ranks, into the senior-most ranks, and that bringing somebody who's outspoken, who was different, who was a globalist, and they're saying, hey, look, come into this company. We want a change. We want your kind of thinking in our senior ranks. "And guess what," Wayne said. "I'm going to make sure that I develop you and mentor you." And it was not just Wayne. Bob Decker [phonetic] was CFO at that time, who actually was my boss, was an unbelievable supporter and mentor, made me feel very, very welcome. So the fact that 15 of the 15 men who occupied senior positions were all White men was not a judgement I was making. I'm just saying that was what I observed. But they made me feel very, very welcome in a company where, you know, the brands were iconic American. The business model was not something I was really used to. I didn't know restaurants, because we own KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut. I had to learn everything from scratch. But the BCG training helped me, you know, really get my feet wet. But I must say, I would not call PepsiCo and old-fashioned company. I'd call it a youthful, progressive, welcoming company. And had they not been that, I wouldn't be here talking to you today.

MR. IGNATIUS: A useful, useful point. You mentioned the PepsiCo brands of the time, Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell. And one of the interesting business stories you tell in the book is about the painful decision for a company that thought of those brands as part of a family of brands that they all nurtured, the decision to spin off that restaurant business. Tell us about that. Tell us why it hurt. Tell us why it was the right thing for PepsiCo at the time.

MS. NOOYI: Great question. I think when the restaurant business, especially the quick serve restaurant business, the QSR business was growing in leaps and bounds, and what you really needed was the financial capability to build restaurants, get franchisees and grow fast. PepsiCo was very good at it. When the growth rate in quick serve restaurant industry slowed down because every new unit you build cannibalized an existing unit you had already so the overall growth rate slowed down, you had to move from your financial skills to a service culture where you actually worried about in-restaurant service, how you treated customers. A very different group of people needed to get involved. PepsiCo is full of bright young people and packaged goods people who loved to do brands, advertising, marketing. But we were not a service culture-oriented business. So it became very clear to us that we needed to unfetter the restaurant business from the packaged goods culture. So it was not a separation. It was an unfettering of the restaurant business from the packaged goods company. And when we did this, painful though it was, the restaurant business began to soar under the leadership of Andy Pearson and then David Novak. And it did exceedingly well, way better than it would have done under PepsiCo. And PepsiCo would then focus on all the packaged goods that it was very good at and did very well on its own.

So I think the biggest learning from all of this is, we all might get into businesses, but we have to know when that business and the driver of that business value is not what the company is good at managing against and know when to separate it out from the mothership. And that's what we did in 1996 with the restaurant business.

MR. IGNATIUS: Famously, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have been battling for market share, two iconic now global brands. You write in your book that there was almost a complex at Pepsi about Coke, about the way Coke manages business. Coke, you know, was the darling of Warren Buffett, it had some iconic CEOs, Goizueta, Muhtar Kent. It seemed to be the very definition, as I remember as a business editor, of what a global company was all about. How did you regard the Coke challenge, if you will, when you were at Pepsi? What did you learn from them? What are you glad you didn't try to emulate?

MS. NOOYI: Well, you know, we were very different companies that were both competing head-to-head as if we were the same company. That was a company with 100 percent beverages. We were, you know, 45-50 percent beverages. Their trademark red brand was 70 percent of the company's revenues. For us, brand Pepsi was 25 percent of the revenue. So they're very different companies.

But here's an interesting story. We always viewed ourselves as a timely company competing against what we called a timeless company, because Pepsi was about the next generation, choice of a new generation, living for now, shaping the future. The other brand was about maintaining traditions and staying exactly the way they were. So here were two great companies competing in the beverage business in very different ways but made us both better. And I will tell you one thing. Had we not had the company down south, the red company down south as a competitor, we would have invented a company to go fight against, because PepsiCo does the best when we have a great competitor, real or imagined, that's coming after us and brings out the creative juices, that makes us want to do more. And I think if you look at the Roger Enrico years, when the battle between the two companies was intense, that's when the creative juices of PepsiCo came out, the Michael Jacksons, the Britney Spears--all of that great advertising that people talk about even today--with a big smile and with a sort of a step in their movements all came because PepsiCo was competing so aggressively with the company down south.

MR. IGNATIUS: Those were fun corporate wars to watch. And I should have mentioned Roger Enrico as one of those hero managers that we read about.

But one more work question, and then I want to turn to another part of your book that fascinated me. At a certain point you say that you were concerned that Pepsi, at least in its beverage and snack business, was in the sugar, fat and salt business and that you just didn't feel comfortable with that. So you begin to buy some different brands. You buy Tropicana. You buy Quaker Oats, which has Gatorade as part of its business--a huge move for Pepsi. So--and then you come with this idea that your company is going to be about performance with purpose. Just describe that transition, trying to think about the company in somewhat different terms from, you know, Michael Jackson, you know, beverage of young people to something different.

MS. NOOYI: So, you know, big companies, we are built to last. We have to keep reinventing ourselves for the future because if we don't, we atrophy and we die over time. And the best way to reinvent yourself and future-proof yourself is to look at the megatrends. What are the big trends, you know, 10 years, 15 years out that could be majorly disruptive for us today? And how do we make sure we make the changes so that we are not caught flatfooted when these trends come upon us?

We did such an exercise, and it became very clear that consumers were shifting their tastes to healthier products--not super healthy products but healthier products, lower calorie products, products with some nutrients in it. And a lot of upstarts were coming and taking away all of the growth. So the overall market was growing at 5 to 6 percent. The upstarts were growing, you know, 30-40 percent, and the mainline companies were growing 2 to 3 percent. To me, that was an existential threat because we were giving up on this big opportunity resulting from the consumer taste shifting. And if we kept this up, pretty soon these upstarts, we would have to buy them at some ridiculous multiple or they were going to start replacing us as the incumbent company.

Now when you see these trends not just based on the research you're doing, based on your own eating and drinking habits--the drinking and eating habits of your own employees, who are all consumers--you realize that you have to do something about it. So that was one trend.

The second is that when we analyzed our own PepsiCo business, before 10 a.m. in the morning people did not consume a PepsiCo product. So from the morning, midnight to 10 a.m., no PepsiCo product was consumed. So the breakfast day part was opened to us. And most people eat and drink healthily during breakfast. So the first thing we did was brought Tropicana because that was a breakfast beverage that was much loved. Then we bought Quaker Oats which, again, was a, you know, iconic health and wellness breakfast cereal. And so that now opened up the breakfast day part. And then we started to shift the entire portfolio to say we're not walking away from Pepsi. We're not walking away from Mountain Dew or Doritos or any of that stuff. Those are awesome products. I'm a consumer of them myself. But we're going to balance them both.

We're going to take these fun for you products, provide the consumer with a whole bunch of better for you products, reduce salt, fat in our snacks, dial up the zero calorie products and beverages, and then massively dial up the good for you products. Gatorade just for athletes, the Quaker Oats, the Sabra hummus, the Naked Juice, dial those up. And so the portfolio was going to be, you know, fun for you, better for you, good for you. And we were going to nudge consumers by putting the better for you products at eye level so that they can slowly transition customers from the fun for you portfolio to better for you portfolio but keep them within the PepsiCo family as opposed to having them go off to young upstarts or other beverages that promised a lot but in reality what was in the bottle or can wasn't really what was on the label. They could get away with it because it was small companies.

So this was a significant transformation when it was done with the intent to future-proof this company in light of the changing consumer trends. And change takes time, so we had to make the investments and execute upon the change program.

MR. IGNATIUS: Fascinating. It's almost a social history of America seen through your company.

So I want to turn now to the other part of your book, which is a very frank discussion of your life as a woman manager, the issues of work/life balance. There's a lot of straight talk in this book. I'm going--I'm going to quote you a couple of passages. In one you say, "I think women are held to a different standard from men when it comes to celebrating their professional accomplishments. No matter what we do, we're never quite enough." That's an expression of frustration I'll be so many of us have heard at home. What is that, that sense that women have that it's never enough, they can never satisfy all the demands on them?

MS. NOOYI: I mean, I would love to get an answer to this question, David. I'm searching for it. It's amazing. A woman is either too loud or too soft. She's too emotional or she's got no commitment. She comes across as too passionate, or you know, she's dressed too female or dressed too male. For some reason, we feel like we have to paint women into one of two extremes and make it out that both extremes are wrong. So women can never be just a woman, just an executive and just a manager. We have to give them a negatively tinged badge.

And second is this prompts this discussion which I talk about I think in one of the later chapters, the and/but. When we evaluate a woman, we go this woman has done all the things we asked her to do, but this is the one thing she still has to prove, or but I don't like this part of her performance. When it came to men--and I'm not trying to male bash. I'm just giving you a fact. When it came to men, this guy did pretty good. He delivered on most of his commitments, and he's got great potential and he's going to conquer the world. Hang on a second. You just said she did everything but. He didn't do all of it and. Why do we have this and/but phenomenon?

And I've never gotten a good answer to it. But I've seen this time and time and time again. And the only explanation I can give is, the ideal worker is still viewed as the male, the 9-5 job, somebody who's got no family commitments that encroach upon their business life, and somehow everybody's judged against this person. And I think that the time has come for us to rethink all of these thoughts and habits of the past, because the ideal worker of today and tomorrow looks very different and should look very different.

MR. IGNATIUS: You have another, to me, moving discussion of your own husband and partner, Raj, who was a business success in his own right at Hewlett Packard and other companies. But you say this. "In the crunch years for working women, with growing kids and a demanding job, I think our spouses do take a backseat, and they have to be able to handle it." It's a very frank discussion of a problem, again, and I'll bet a lot of households of our viewers have thought about. Talk a little bit about how your husband, Raj, had to take that backseat as your career was just on a rocket ship.

MS. NOOYI: You know, my husband's always said that my list goes PepsiCo, PepsiCo, PepsiCo, then he'll say it's your kids, as if they were just my kids. Then he'll say it's your mom, and then he'll say somewhere in the bottom it's me. My answer, jokingly but painfully was, just be happy you're on the list. Which is not a good answer. But the fact of the matter is, the job was all-consuming. It was all-consuming for me as the CEO, as it is for men when they're CEOs. But it was all-consuming because not only did I have to do the job. I also had to battle all of the little social battles I had to fight day in and day out.

So I'd come home completely exhausted--intellectually exhausted, emotionally exhausted, physically exhausted. When I saw my kids, although they were a bit grownup now, focusing on them was most important because mommy was home. They had so many things to discuss with me, and they were both daughters. So I gave them my undivided attention, whatever I could when I got home. And then you're just bustling about making sure whatever required my attention at home, I gave it the proper time and care.

But then when my husband comes home, I don't have the energy and time for him. And in those days, you need a very understanding spouse to say, you know what, let me see how I can give her a hand to ease some of the issues that she's going through when she comes home. And that's what Raj did so brilliantly. He'd say, hey, let me take care of these home issues. Don't worry about it. You spend time with the daughters. Read all the stuff you have to for the next day. I can see you've got three bags of stuff to read. Go do it. And you and I can chat on the weekend when we get free time, because I have some things to go over with you. So he was very, very accommodating. But it's not just Raj. I think it's his family. His entire family, his parents, his uncles and aunts would always call and say how is Indra doing. Is she okay? Do you want us to come out and give you a hand? And they would tell Raj, make sure you support her. Make sure you give her all the encouragement. So I had not just a spouse. I had his whole family--which was highly unusual--that they're proud of me, they supported me and gave me the tailwinds I needed. I don't think I could have done it without that entire ecosystem of support.

MR. IGNATIUS: There's so many other things I'd like to talk about in this book. It's called My Life in Full. It fits in such an interesting way with the political debate we're having this very week about whether human infrastructure, support for daycare, for eldercare, for all the things that bolster family life is worth spending a whole lot of money on. I want to thank Indra Nooyi for being our guest. It's been a wonderful discussion. Come back and see us. Thank you, Indra.

MS. NOOYI: Thank you for having me, David. Appreciate it.

MR. IGNATIUS: So we’ll be back with more great programming on Washington Post Live. Go to to register. Check out the shows we’ve got coming up and sign up for them. We’ll look forward to seeing you in the future. Thanks for joining us this morning.