Indra Nooyi on demanding what you’re worth and always having a back-up plan

Updated on Oct 01, 2021 07:47 PM IST

The former PepsiCo chairperson and CEO discusses facing and fighting subtle acts of discrimination in her career, battling for pay parity in the boardroom, and what it really takes to make it to the top.

Nooyi’s newly released memoir is titled My Life in Full. PREMIUM
Nooyi’s newly released memoir is titled My Life in Full.

When you were CEO, you say you had people address you as Indra and male colleagues call you Mr…

I think that’s one of the unfortunate parts. I have two issues with that. One is the assumption that you can call me Indra and get away with it while you call others Mister. And then, the men never stopped and said call me by my first name or why are you calling me Mr and calling her Indra? And people assumed that it was okay.

Once when we were in an immigration line in the country, the immigration officer collected everybody’s passports; they’re all the men’s passports and they all went through and he did mine last because I was the only woman in the group; and none of the men said, “Hey, she’s a CEO, she’s got to go through first.”

So there were all these subtle acts of discrimination that I faced constantly, constantly; and you know, sometimes I want to brush it off, other times I go: “Why is it so much has changed, yet little has changed.” So it makes you think about what it is going to take to make large-scale change in society, only to value women on par with the men. And it’s going to take a lot of changing of habits and behaviours and thoughts in the eyes of the men in power, because you know, they control most of the jobs, they have to change how they behave and act.

Would you call it out every time, while it was happening?

Well, I was in a position of power so I could call it out. But the way I would call it out is I would say, that was interesting and I would raise one eyebrow and I’d say, “What were you guys up to when you went through the line early? Were you just relaxing and having fun? I had to wait for a while.” So things like that.

But if I was not in a position of power and I was always the last in the line versus others who were at the same level as me, I don’t know what I would have done.

What about pay parity? When did you first realise that was an issue?

[Initially], I just was glad to be in the room of the high-paid people. I was just glad that I come from where I did and reached these positions of power and was making a lot of money. And even though I saw the people around me getting generous stock option grants etcetera, somehow I just didn’t ask for anything myself. I felt that if I was going to get option grants, special grants, they would give it to me if I deserved it. That was my mistake because in retrospect, I fully deserved it.

When Steven S Reinemund became my boss, my predecessor at PepsiCo, he looked at all these numbers and said, oh my God, I’ve got to fix all this. And he fixed everything. So he set the example to say I have to make sure that nobody is discriminated based on gender or ethnicity or whatever.

Do you agree that the difference between men and women at the workplace is men believe they deserve to be there, whereas women are constantly lacking the self-confidence to demand what they deserve?

Well, that and then in the past when men have asked for it, they’ve gotten it. When they ask for a raise or demand a special grant or an extra bonus, they get it. When women ask for it is always viewed as pushing, too ambitious; and all kinds of labels are given to her. I think human resources officers have got to make this their job to ferret out these issues and address them.

Do you think that someone who chooses flexible hours can still hope to rise within the organisation? Can you be ambitious but do it on your own terms?

I think total flexibility, working remotely, means that you are going to be pigeonholed into a certain job. If you really want to be part of a corporate culture, corporate leadership development and move up, you’re going to need face time. There’s no question about it. There is tremendous value to face-to-face communication.

If you really want to move up to a leadership level, a managerial level, you’re going to have to come to the office some days of the week for face time. My fear is that we end up with a situation where people come to office, get treated differently than those who don’t come in; or people who come in five days a week are treated differently than those who are coming only two or three days. I think the pendulum has to swing and rest at the right place.

We went all remote. Some people are talking about everybody coming back. It’s going to settle somewhere in the middle. It’s going to take about a year. So let’s not rush it.

If you want to think about corporate culture, how are you going to transmit it to other people, how are you going to provide a stress-free environment in the office? Because sometimes people are coming to work as a way to sort of let go of stress and meet a different group of people and have a different adult interaction. We have to enable all that.

Do you believe that women must be financially independent, or that a truly healthy system will make it possible for women to be happy and independent even as non-earning homemakers?

I believe in families. I believe in choice. I believe people should do what they want to do. However, as I say in Chapter 1, families are wonderful, but families are messy, and families are fragile. A great family today could become fragile tomorrow because, you know, something happened to the breadwinner or the breadwinner walked out on the family for some reason, and then the family starts to get messy. What cannot happen is that the woman is cast asunder and is left to fend for herself and doesn’t have the power of the purse because she’s never worked. Or doesn’t have a college degree. That doesn’t work.

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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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