Dreaming big

Indra Nooyi has retired from PepsiCo, but she’s not exactly batting out.

Indra Nooyi loves cricket. She has been cricket-mad since childhood, growing up in Madras (now known as Chennai) in a conservative Brahmin family, steeped in learning and education. 

Nooyi, of course, is the former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, who joined the company in 1994 and saw the price of Pepsi’s stock rise 80% during her time at the helm. In 2015 she was ranked the second most powerful woman on the Forbes List of The World’s Most Powerful Women.

She arrived in America, totally green, in 1978, to attend the Yale School of Management in New Haven. “I didn’t have a clue about anything,” she recalls. “We were given a map and told to go to such and such a place to register.”

You can only imagine the culture shock and initial sense of loneliness and bewilderment, coming from a warm and close-knit family in India, but one where expectations were nevertheless extremely high.  “If you didn’t get good grades in science and math — the only subjects which mattered — you got whacked.”

“My mother used to tell me, ‘Fly, dream big. You can do whatever you want.’ On the other hand, she also used to say, ‘Indra, you need to find yourself a man.’” 

Her grandfather was a judge who often supervised her homework and discipline was strict. After she finished her assignments, he would give her additional ones of his own. The bar was high and there was no help if you couldn’t keep up. “No psychologists, no therapists,” comments Nooyi, not altogether regretfully.

She has tried to instil this sense of ambition in her own daughters, with limited success. “At family dinners I might say to them, ‘Make a speech saying why you would like to be prime minister and I’ll vote for one of you.’ They would reply, ‘Get a life, mom!’”

Nooyi has the special gift of imparting worldly wisdom through humor and subtle self-deprecation. In fact, if the corporate world hadn’t served her so well, she could have had a career in stand-up. (She has a fondness for karaoke, by the way.)

While she doesn’t necessarily approve or endorse her own strict upbringing, neither does she disavow it. As the product of a rigorous educational system, she has clearly seen the dividends this can pay. Nooyi has an unparalleled work ethic and you get the strong feeling it would not be wise to trifle with her. But she is also the caring CEO who had the old cobbles in front of PepsiCo HQ removed so that female employees could come to work in heels should they wish, without fear of taking a tumble. 

“Bring your kids to work,” has also become something of a mantra with Nooyi, who just because she was in the privileged position (as CEO) of being able to bring her own kids to work if she wanted to, has always understood how important it is for all working mothers — and fathers — occasionally to be able to do the same. She wants to see women with degrees and the right qualifications deployed into the workplace and appreciates that bosses have to do all that’s necessary to make this possible.

“We should be worried about the technology coming out of China,” she warns. “Look, China is rolling out 5G on an epic scale, but in Greenwich, we can’t even get good cellphone coverage.” We should also be concerned, she says, about the new technology coming out of STEM education. She believes we need to graduate far more students in these disciplines. “Take biology, for instance. We need to teach biology aspirationally, because of cell technology.”

It’s clear from hearing her speak — I caught up with her at a Greenwich Historical Society dinner — that Nooyi is passionate about work, friends and family. A workaholic who sleeps only four hours a night, she seems to find time for everything and everyone, the embodiment of the old adage, ‘If you want something done, ask a busy man’ (or woman.). She is also passionate about Connecticut, the state she calls home. “I’ve just been in Paris. I’ve just been in China,” she tells the smart crowd at dinner. “But when I come back to Connecticut, I feel it’s paradise.”

She is a big presence, strikingly dressed in red, and when she says, “Hello Jeremy,” it sounds as much an accusation as a greeting. The society was presenting its History in the Making Award to honor Nooyi at a special evening at the Round Hill Club in Greenwich. Proceeds from the event were going toward supporting a major exhibition and public programs on the role of Greenwich women in the suffrage movement, planned to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the passage and ratification of the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution (in 1919 and ’20, respectively).

“I’m so admiring of the Greenwich Historical Society,” she tells me in a snatched moment of conversation before dinner, “although I believe it is undersold.” 

Indeed, it may be. Headquartered in the Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob, the Greenwich Historical Society is the primary resource for the promotion and preservation of history in Greenwich, the only organization focused expressly on preserving Greenwich history in all its diversity.

Later, to great applause, Nooyi tells the room, “I made my money in the state” — her salary with bonuses in 2018 was in the region of $28 million — “and I’m giving my money back to the state.” When she says she is “not bailing out” in retirement, she is not kidding. In 2019, Nooyi became the co-director of the newly created Connecticut Economic Resource Center, a public-private partnership with the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, and will help draft the state’s new economic development strategy. 

She is on the board of Amazon and also teaches at West Point 16 days a year. And then there is cricket, of course. In 2018, Nooyi joined the International Cricket Council (ICC) Board as its first independent female director. She has urged cricket fans to come in large numbers to watch the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup final, which is scheduled to take place in Melbourne on International Women’s Day next year.  

Typically self-effacing, she says the cricket board doesn’t really mean anything, “except it gets me respect from Indians.” But, joking apart, there’s no question she’s serious about the sport. “If you’re not here at the MGC (Melbourne Cricket Ground) on 8th March 2020, watching the women’s final, you’re missing something incredibly special because it’s going to be a major turning point for women’s sport,” the ICC has quoted Nooyi, as saying. 

Coming from Nooyi, it sounds more like a royal command or decree than simply an exhortation. To disobey her, well, it just wouldn’t be cricket, would it?

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