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63 UP! Global business executive Indra Nooyi’s amazing own Seven Up! story

The rise and rise of Indra Nooyi, age 63, as Australia watches 63 Up on SBS TV

Indra Nooyi square
It just so happens that one of the world’s most powerful business executives Indra Nooyi, aged 63, is in Australia for The Growth Faculty as the 63 Up episode of the Seven Up! series airs on SBS TV.

The iconic Seven Up! experimental documentary series has been broadcasting since 1964, and follows 13 British-born children to bring to life the Jesuit saying ‘’Give me a boy until age seven and I will show you the man.’’

Director Michael Apted revisists the same group of British-born adults every seven years. Like Indra Nooyi, each was  born in 1955.  All in all, there are nine episodes:  Seven Up! , 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up, 56 Up, and the current three-part episode 63 Up.

So does Indra Nooyi’s own Seven Up! story show us a world business leader in the making from age seven?    

Seven Up!:  Indra Nooyi is born Indra Krishnamurthy on October 28, 1955 in Madras (now called Chennai) in India.  Her family is middle class; her father’s a bank official, and her grandfather’s a district judge. While her mother’s a homemaker, she’s also ambitious for her daughters; expecting good marks at school, and at the dinner table asking Indra and Chandrika to role play being world leaders, in competition with each other. Among other things, Indra loves to read and play cricket.  

7 plus Seven: Indra Nooyi proves to be a studious and academically gifted student at Holy Angels Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School. She loves cricket, and enjoys watching Tamil-language film comedies.

21 Up: Indra studies for a bachelor's degree in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics at Madras Christian College, where she manages advertising for a campus newspaper and puts together the first women’s cricket team. She's not just captain, she's opening both the batting and the bowling for her team. Indra then completes an MBA majoring in finance and marketing, at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta (respelled Kolkata in 2001). The degrees are from two of India’s most prestigious universities, however, Indra is not conventional. She plays guitar in an all-girl rock band. "I was a wild one," she’s to later tell Sarah Murray of the Financial Times.

28 Up: Indra's first job is product manager with textile maker, Mettur Beardsell. She then joins Johnson & Johnson in India, the multinational maker of personal care products. According to Notable Biographies, she manages the introduction of Stayfree sanitary napkins to India, where advertising for the product was banned. Nooyi gets around the restrictions by marketing Stayfree pads to young women directly, at schools and colleges. In 1978, she’s offered admission to Yale School of Management with a major in Public and Private Management. Her mother makes noises about not allowing her to go because she was 22 and still not married, but she eventually goes with her parents’ blessings. She learns about baseball, as a replacement for cricket, and will go on to be a fan of the New York Yankees. She earns her master’s degree from Yale in 1980. Soon after, Indra joins the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and is there for six years. At 25, Indra marries management consultant Raj K. Nooyi, and they go on to have two daughters. 

35 Up: Indra Nooyi works at Motorola as Vice President and Director of Corporate Strategy and Planning, having joined the company at age 31 heading up business development in its automotive and industrial electronic group. She follows that with a stint at ABB (Asea Brown Boveri), a Swedish-Swiss multinational corporation operating mainly in robotics, power, heavy electrical equipment, and automation technology. 

42 Up: In 1994, just before her 40th birthday she joins PepsiCo as Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning, and then of Corporate Strategy. A major early decision to spin off PepsiCo restaurant division in 1997 (leading to a demerger of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell holdings into a separate company) is controversial, but allows PepsiCo to pay down debt and position itself for moves towards healthier brands. Indra is pivotal in PepsiCo’s decision to merge with Quaker Oats (giving PepsiCo the energy drink Gatorade in 2001) and buy Tropicana (44% of the chilled juice segment), as well as its move to merge with PepsiCo’s anchor bottlers. 

49 Up: Aged 46, Indra becomes President of PespiCo, and six years later is its CFO. As well as her heavy workload at PepsiCo and at home, she sits on the board of mobile phone manufacturer Motorola.

56 Up: In 2006, aged 51 she’s named CEO of PepsiCo, its 5th CEO and the only female to hold the position. She becomes Chair of PepsiCo. She reaches out to Apple's Steve Jobs, and spends two hours with him discussing strategy and design. At age 52 and 53 she’s named on Wall Street Journal's list of 50 Women to Watch, and is listed among Time's 100 Most Influential People in The World. Indra reclassifies PepsiCo's products into three categories: "fun for you" (such as potato chips and regular soft drinks), "better for you" (diet or low-fat versions of snacks and soft drinks), and "good for you" (items such as porridge oats). She is the chief architect of Performance with Purpose, a new focus of the company which wins it sustainability awards, and increasingly positions PepsiCo as a good corporate citizen. At age 52 she’s awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award in the Republic of India, given for "distinguished service of a high order.” At age 53 she’s elected to the Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

bill and indra

Indra pictured with Microsoft founder Bill Gates of Gates Foundation at a business forum (Source: YouTube)

63 Up: Indra Nooyi is at her peak and sleeping only four hours a night. PepsiCo's revenues grow from $US35 billion to $US63.5 billion, and enable an increase in share price by 78% over the years she is CEO. She's named one of the "Best CEOs In The World" by CEOWORLD magazine in 2018, and as Fortune Magazine's World's Most Powerful Woman five times in a row. She also makes Forbes's annual list of The World's 100 Most Powerful Women 19 times. 

Indra is interviewed by all of the major media organisations about leadership, business, diversity, technology and design. She is sharing stages and meeting rooms with Presidents and Prime Ministers, and other powerful business leaders. At 62 she becomes the first independent female director of the board of the International Cricket Council, adding to her director roles at a number of organisations including the World Economic Forum and International Rescue Committee. Yale School of Management announces a deanship in her honour, as she gifts an undisclosed amount, becoming the school's biggest alumni donor and the first woman to endow a deanship at a top business school. Indra steps down as CEO and Chair of PepsiCo after 12 years, aged 63. In 2019 she is announced as the newest director on the board of Amazon.

Leadership traits of Indra Nooyi

Indra Nooyi grew up in a supportive family and was given an excellent education. She was encouraged to be respectful to her culture, but also ambitious. Her early forays into leadership were encouraged and rewarded. Her hard work and her extra efforts were recognised. Indra has always been a pioneer and a risk taker, and strategic and purposeful in making opportunities happen.

To this day she is a lifelong learner, and reads voraciously. She has always effectively managed her family and work responsibilities so that she is described as a loving wife and mother, as well as a world-class boss. 

Her 63 Up story is an extraordinary one, but perhaps not an altogether unexpected one.  

Notes from An Evening with Indra Nooyi

Here are some of the themes of her talk.

The Immigrant Mentality

In a conversation that covered a myriad of topics, family life, gender and the Immigrant Mentality were focal points, with the latter something she maintains to this day.

I don’t think I’m an exception. Most immigrants...have a fear that things may not work out...interestingly, it’s never gone, even today...40 years later.

She described the fear that things could be taken away at any time, and the embarrassment of having to answer to her failures to those in her birth country. Despite her success, the fear remains.  

The Power of Legacy

The conversation moved to CEO succession as a process, both Indra Nooyi’s own move into the role of CEO of PepsiCo, as well as her transition out of the company. Describing the effective system used by PepsiCo, Indra and her team identified 10-15 people of different ages who could ‘go all the way.’ Over the course of up to four years, she created opportunities for the board to see each of them in action, along with extensive documentation on each one.

A comment that surprised many of guests, was not that the process of succession was taken seriously, but the extent to which Nooyi invested in her own:

I was more worried about my legacy than I was about my performance as a CEO.


An Evening with Indra Nooyi

Mega Trends

The big moves made by Nooyi during her 12 year tenure at PepsiCo are widely known, but for her they were never ‘gigantic decisions.’ She advised the audience to do what she did as CEO, which was to identify the mega trends of her industry, and determine what moves had to be made to address them.

This process is not about intuition or experience, but rather about getting all the facts.

You’d be surprised how many of those trends you’re ignoring or not addressing.

She went on to share several anecdotes, though the common theme was clear:

Just because you’re a CEO, doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility of getting the details.

The Good and the Bad

Dealing with controversy is nothing new for Nooyi, something she touched on in reference to PepsiCo’s infamous Live for Now advertisement. Although focus groups suggested otherwise, the backlash was both quick and severe. Nooyi ultimately viewed the experience as a learning opportunity:

At the end of the day, we all learn from these sobering experiences.

Gender and Bias

Questions from the audience led to a discussion about balancing family/work life, and the difficulties women and minorities face in the workplace.

Inside many companies, we have to address this issue of conscious and unconscious strip those people, you slowly strip them of their confidence, and when you strip them of their confidence, you strip away their competence.

She went on to share some inspiring words with the audience, the magnitude of which was felt by the men and women in the room, alike:

...All these labels are what people give you, not necessarily what you are...The fact is, there’s a job to be done, and I believe I’m the best person to do it.

At the conclusion of the event sponsors Sunsuper and T20 World Cup 2020 were thanked for their support. Inda Nooyi, recently appointed as the ICC’s first female Independent Director, grew up a keen cricketer, which she said taught her many lessons about leadership, teamwork and cooperation that she would draw on throughout her professional life.

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