Left to right: Mathias Alt, Indra Nooyi, Mi-Chieh Lee, and Arvind Bhambri during a recent event at USC Marshall School of Business.
At a time when business was only concerned about the bottom line, Indra Nooyi, the former chairwoman and CEO of PepsiCo, decided it was time companies prioritized social and environmental impact, too.
On Monday (March 7), the University of Southern California Marshall Business School welcomed former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi to an in-person event, the IBEAR MBA Global Leadership Forum, the school’s first unmasked event since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nooyi was asked to share reflections on her career journey and answer panel questions for the live-streamed event. On the eve of International Women’s Day, there was no better time to hear from one of the world’s most admired business leaders.
Through launching and guiding PepsiCo’s “Performance With Purpose” movement, Nooyi helped transform the company by creating healthier products, reducing environmental footprint, and empowering others through example. As the first woman of color and the first immigrant to lead the company, her work not only exponentially grew PepsiCo’s revenue, it impacted communities around the world.
‘I WAS ALWAYS DETERMINED TO MAKE QUOTA’
Born in Chennai, India, Nooyi earned her MBA from the Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta and later earned a master’s in public and private management from Yale School of Management.
Her career began when Nooyi, just a few months short of her 21st birthday, was hired by Mettur Beardsell to perform a sales role in the trade division.
“I would go into the Bombay galleys and sell thread to cut and sew operations,” Nooyi recounted in her talk with the audience at USC Marshall. “Flood and rain didn’t stop me, I was always determined to make quota. And by doing that, I learned everything I could about the trade.”
While working in sales, she was determined to gain a total understanding of the business. Soon, she says, she was a “walking expert.” A keen attention to detail got her noticed at 22 and led to an offer to run the entire textile division of the company — a job which meant managing 60% of the company’s employee base.
“In retrospect,” she says, “I realize that it was a massive offer. But when he gave it to me, I didn’t think twice about it.”
UNDERSTANDING ‘EVERY LEVER OF RUNNING THE BUSINESS’
Once beginning her textiles management job, she applied the same attitude as she had in sales: She wanted to fully understand the business. “I wasn’t just waving my hands and talking about marketing,” she says. “I wanted to understand every lever of running the business. No job in the textile division was out of bounds for me.”
Nooyi says that the company began to see that she was someone who could both zoom into the details of the business, and then zoom out to determine what the business needed. This unique, innate skill was the common thread throughout her career. “I had to get into the weeds to really understand the business and then zoom out to understand how it fit into the broader picture,” she says.
Eventually, she left Mettur Bearsdell to pursue a role as international corporate strategist at The Boston Consulting Group, where she stayed for six years. Then, her career took her to Motorola, where she worked as the vice president & director of corporate strategy and planning. Next, she did another four-year stint as senior vice president of strategy and strategic marketing at Asea Brown Boveri before joining PepsiCo as senior vice president of strategic planning in 1994.
DEVELOPING AN EYE FOR DETAIL
She brought her detail-oriented nature to each role. When she eventually became the chairman and CEO at PepsiCo in 2006, she’d often be found reading textbooks cover-to-cover and hiring experts and professors to answer her questions about obscure subjects — from computer systems to graphic design — to gain a deeper understanding of every part of the business. “In a world where technologies are changing, leaders have to know what the technologies are and how to adopt them in your companies,” she says.
“If, as a leader, you don’t understand what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to change in the company because people will run circles around you without you even knowing that they ran circles around you,” she adds.