Over tea, PepsiCo chief talks business

After years of putting in 20-hour days and sleeping only when it was convenient, PepsiCo Chairwoman and Chief Executive Officer Indra Nooyi SOM ’80 said at a Pierson College Master’s Tea on Friday that she has effectively worked for the equivalent of 160 years.

Climbing to the top of the corporate ladder at PepsiCo has been a “rough ride,” Nooyi said, especially given that she grew up in a middle-class, conservative Indian family. Nooyi said her experiences demonstrate that taking the unconventional road — and being ready to meet the numerous challenges along the way — can pay significant dividends in the long run.

“When I wake up in the morning, I am counting the minutes to work,” she said. “In business, the decision-making cycle is short and efficient. We can decide how to shape the future and we can do that in 160 countries. I love it.”

As a young child, Nooyi said, she and her sister used to play a game in which each presented a speech outlining reforms they would make as the prime minister of India. Their mother, she said, would vote between the two, resulting in fierce competition.

At the same time, these games were considered just that, Nooyi said, since girls in her community were expected to enter into arranged marriages at age 18. Nooyi said she nonetheless tried to break the mold as a girl, playing in a rock band and on a women’s cricket team.

When Nooyi told her family that she wanted to attend business school in America, following in her older sister’s footsteps, she said her mother threatened to fast until death. Her grandfather, instead of attempting to change her mind, “reassured me that he would take care of me if my mom died,” Nooyi said, to laughter.

After attending the Yale School of Management, Nooyi worked for the Boston Consulting Group and Motorola, then joined PepsiCo in 1994. She became a member of the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, in 2002.

Nooyi said she is right now pushing PepsiCo to become more health-conscious and to reinforce its investments in human and environmental sustainability.

“We are the first company to take out trans fat,” she said. “It cost $15 million. We have implemented aggressive projects to reduce sodium levels.”

Event organizer Lita Tandon ’10, Nooyi’s niece, said she invited Nooyi to the Master’s Tea because while Nooyi has visited New Haven often for Corporation meetings, she has never spoken at Yale.

“It was definitely the best Master’s Tea I’ve been to and I’ve been to a lot of Master’s Teas,” Gemma Bloemen ’10 said. “Not only was she intelligent and knowledgeable, she was extremely funny … I was very impressed.”

Laura Kreidberg ’11 said she did not expect Nooyi to discuss Pepsi’s commitment to ethics in as much depth as she did.

“I wanted to hear more about her experience as a female in a male-dominated corporate world,” Kreidberg said.

Nooyi was named the world’s third most powerful woman by Forbes in 2008 and the most powerful businesswoman in the world by Fortune in 2006 and 2007.

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