Don’t try to be Superwoman: Indra Nooyi on choice, freedom and having it all

Updated on Oct 01, 2021 08:03 PM IST

The former PepsiCo chairperson and CEO, now 65, has a memoir out titled My Life in Full. In it, she traces her journey from Chennai to Connecticut to only the 11th woman in the world to head a Fortune 500 company. She speaks of her pursuit of pay parity in the boardroom, of profits and growth for the multinational, and of her home life: caring for an ailing father and an exacting mother, tending to a marriage and two daughters. Excerpts from an interview.

 (Image: Dave Puente) PREMIUM
(Image: Dave Puente)

We first heard you in 2017 talk about your mother and her now-famous line: “Leave your crown in the garage.” What does she make of all the attention that statement got?

She’s surprised, because she says this is what a normal mother would say to a daughter, a mother of those times. The only difference is that in the early days she would say, “Leave your crown in the garage”. Now she says both husband and wife should leave their crowns in the garage. So she’s progressed.

Has your thinking changed as well? You’ve said in the past that women can’t have it all. Now, with working from home and more flexible hours, do you think perhaps they can dream of having it all after all?

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. And in the past what you had is the ideal worker was a man and he went to the office and came back, and you know, he was only focused on work; and the woman focused on everything to do with the home and she was largely an unpaid worker. Then over time as she got a job, she still came back and continued all the household duties. What I think is going to happen in the future, my hope, is that both husband and wife meet in the middle; and that both of them jointly take responsibility for it all. I don’t think we’re there yet. I think we’re making some progress.

But I think the biggest thing that needs to change within the workplace is unconscious bias. We cannot have women being put down or being objectified, and women have to get the same pay for the same job. And be viewed as an equal asset in the company. I think there’s been progress, but we’re not there yet.

You say in your book that the day after you delivered your second baby, your boss came to see you and pitched an idea about a project, and then you had work meetings during your maternity leave. Does this approach perpetuate the myth of the “superwoman”?

You know, there’s a pyramid at work. Not everybody can rise to the top. Don’t say you want to be CEO, but you can’t work more than eight hours a day. That just doesn’t work. The rise to the top, the climb to the top is very, very, very difficult. My boss who came to see me the day after I gave birth and asked me how I was doing and pitched an idea; first, he was the most supportive boss I’ve ever had. The most unbelievable individual I’ve ever worked for.

Second, that he came to see me after I had my baby, was unbelievable. I interpret what he said as: “I will not do anything without your input”, and he said look, I know you had a baby, but your brain is available. Just give your input. I was touched.

And my team said don’t you dare work on this, we’ll figure it out. I said look, my body’s had the baby not my brain. Just come home and I’ll just go feed the baby and I’ll take care of the baby and if I’m sleeping, I’m sleeping, but you guys hang around the living room and keep working. If you have a question yell it out from there and I’ll give you an answer. So to me, it was a seamless integration of work and family. But that was at a different level in the company too.

At the entry level, oh my God, there was nothing like that. I took my three months of maternity leave after I had my first child when I was at BCG [Boston Consulting Group] and BCG never interrupted me even once. And after I came back, for a month they said take it easy. You’ve just had a baby via C-section, we’ll give you office projects to do for a month so you recover. They were absolutely wonderful.

Don’t try to be Superwoman. Don’t try to be me because I am wired differently. All I’m saying is, if you want to get to the top like I did, that’s a whole different game. At that point all bets are off.

You talk in the book about things that need to be done to encourage more women to work. Why do you think we have one of the lowest deployments of women in the workforce, less than 25%?

I’m very very impressed with the caliber of the laws, and the number of laws on the books, to protect women in India. Yet I don’t feel women feel protected enough. Laws are one slice of what women need. Society needs to evolve and adapt to accept women as equal members. It’s not enough that women are getting top grades in colleges; graduating in larger numbers from professional schools; getting more STEM degrees. India is a knowledge economy.

If India doesn’t deploy the best and brightest to work in its businesses and really make it work for everybody who’s talented to work and thrive, India’s going to fall behind in the knowledge economy. I hear from big IT companies that they hire a lot of women in entry-level positions. By the time they get to Level 3, a lot of the women have gone.

So we have to talk about families. The discussion on families and women has to become core to discussions about the future of work. We have to talk about this because if we start leaking talent and we don’t find a way to deploy them in paid work, we’re not going to have the GDP grow much, and we will not have talent as a competitive advantage for the country.

You’ve talked about the difference hiring a stylist made. What can you tell us about that?

I’ll be honest with you, I did have some clothes that were just ugh. True they were expensive, but I always made them too big, the skirts were too long… I didn’t hire a stylist. He hired himself for me and he said, “I’m doing this because I see in you huge potential but for some reason, your dressing skills don’t match your position or your title.” I have no idea why I agreed to go to Saks Fifth Avenue with him. I was nervous. I was embarrassed. I was excited.

Then after I tried on those clothes, he made me a beautiful catalogue, mixing and matching every one of those outfits with the right jewellery, with the right bags and shoes, and taught me how to wear those five or seven outfits interchangeably to create 20 different fabulous outfits. I still carry that around with me. Some people are angels that come out of nowhere and offer you a helping hand. And he did. And I listened.

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    Sunetra Choudhury is the National Political Editor of the Hindustan Times. With over two decades of experience in print and television, she has authored Black Warrant (Roli,2019), Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous (Roli,2017) and Braking News (Hachette, 2010). Sunetra is the recipient of the Red Ink award in journalism in 2016 and Mary Morgan Hewett award in 2018.

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