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Curd rice & a cola queen

Curd rice & a cola queen

india Updated: Aug 22, 2006 14:47 IST

When an ambitious mother sneezes in the heat of Chennai, Wall Street can catch a cold, it seems. Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi’s long journey began decades ago, when her mother held a contest to test her offspring.

Every night after dinner, the children were asked to make speeches on what they wanted to do when they grew up. Presumably, after the customary curd rice, high aims came to sit in the minds of the simple family from the central Chennai enclave of Thyagaraja Nagar. The winner won a piece of chocolate.

Heading PepsiCo after that must have been just a logical progression, like a Carnatic composition’s alaapana, for the daughter who was named chief executive of the $32-billion sales giant.

Tales abound on Nooyi’s achievements: Of how she worked as a receptionist to pay for her studies in the US where she went to Yale after graduating from the Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta and earlier, the Madras Christian College (MCC); how she won hearts while working hard; how she had the guts to take strong decisions.

The success mantra of Nooyi (she shares a birthday with Bill Gates) are fascinating: focus on strengths, strong communications and work-life balance are important, plan well. But what matters is that she knows how to mix things that do not at face value seem mixable. She played electric guitar for an all-girl band in MCC, but even now catches her date with Carnatic classical music in the annual December fest in Chennai (singer Aruna Sayeeram is a cousin); she is hard on numbers but thinks people and relationships are important; she prays a lot but puts reason above emotion.

There is a quiet celebration in the sprawling grounds of MCC where she studied chemistry. Current department head Wilfred Sugumar, who was in her 1971-74 class, is busy handling media queries on her youthful exuberance.

“I still remember how our English lecturer read out her impromptu essay Stitch in Time as one of the best ever written by an MCC-ian. Best of all, never once was she snobbish. She would reach out to even diffident students like me who came from the Tamil medium,” Sugumar said.

For an institution that has produced leaders like General Krishnaswami Sundarji, former Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan, CPM general secretary Prakash Karat and nuclear scientist Raja Ramanna, springing a winner is no surprise.

“When we planned any extra-curricular activity, Indra would be at the forefront, giving suggestions, delegating responsibilities and leading by example,” recalled V J Philip, the college’s principal.

Decades after she had left college, Indra was thoughtful enough to send Philip a congratulatory message when he became principal. Chirpy, talkative and fun to be with, the young Indra could sing, entertain and solicit ads for the college magazine by taking the local train or bus to the city’s corporate offices.

Y. Jayakumar, a classmate, recalls her singing Listen to the pouring rain in college. At a meeting last year she enquired about nearly every one of her 34 classmates in the 10 minutes she had to spare.

“Oh! Indra Krishnamurthy, that tall, lanky, talkative girl! She was above average in chemistry but she definitely had that extra spark in her,” observed retired chemistry professor R. Venkatraman, curious to know if Indra had retained her Indian passport (she hasn’t: she took a US passport over a decade ago).

In the US, Nooyi worked at Motorola and Asea Brown Boveri before joining PepsiCo in 1994. As senior executive for strategic planning, she was hired to help then and legendary CEO Roger Enrico restructure PepsiCo after it made a staggering $800 million loss.

She was elected director, president, and CFO of PepsiCo in 2001, after negotiating Pepsi’s $14 billion deal for Quaker Oats. PepsiCo’s stock reached a five-year high after her promotion, making it one of the world’s five largest consumer product companies.

Richard Levin, president of Yale University, told HT on Saturday: “She’s a remarkably clear-headed and persuasive person. She’s strong on finance, but she’s even more impressive as a strategic thinker.”

Named on the Wall Street Journal’s list of 50 women to watch in 2005 and #11 on Fortune magazine’s list of the most powerful women in business, Nooyi has made it to the very top, but is upfront in a blunt way sometimes.

“You may not like to hear this, but you women—especially women of colour—have to work twice as hard as your counterparts,” she said in an address at a leading US university.

And she got into a major controversy that nearly stopped her rise to the CEO’s chair last year when she likened the five continents of the globe to five fingers, and described the United States as being perceived as a somewhat arrogant middle finger—a derogatory reference in her adopted country. Right-wing blogs went after her, but her Board thought better.

Staying at the top might not be all that easy for Nooyi. Who knows? She might just need to soothe her nerves with her eclectic interest in music—Western, Bollywood, Tamil and Carnatic.

(With inputs from GC Shekhar in Chennai)

First Published: Aug 19, 2006 03:45 IST