In 2006, at age 51, Indian-born executive Indra K. Nooyi was named CEO of PepsiCo, parent company of Pepsi-Cola, and one of the world's largest snack-food companies. It makes and sells dozens of other products, including Doritos-brand chips, the Tropicana juice line, and Quaker Oats cereals.
With her elevation to the post, PepsiCo became the second-largest company in the United States with a female CEO — the largest if a ranking of companies by total stock value was used.
Nooyi was also one of the few foreign-born executives of either gender in top U.S. corporate ranks. "Being a woman, an immigrant, and a person of color made it thrice difficult" for her to succeed, she told England's Guardian newspaper.
Nooyi was born Indra Krishnamurthy in Madras (now called Chennai), in southern India, on October 28, 1955. Her father was a bank official, and a grandfather, whom she later credited as an inspiration, was a district judge. Nooyi was a bit of a rebel in India's society and its strong gender roles. She played cricket and played guitar in an all-girl rock band. Even as a corporate executive she remained an enthusiastic singer and electric guitarist. As she told the Financial Times: "I was a wild one."
Nooyi attended Madras Christian College, majoring in chemistry and graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1976. She got her first experience in business managing advertising for a campus newspaper. Nooyi went on to earn a master's degree in business administration, majoring in finance and marketing, at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta (now Kolkata), finishing in 1978.
Her first job after getting her degree was as a product manager with a textile maker, Mettur Beardsell. She soon moved on to a similar position with Johnson & Johnson, an American-based multinational maker of personal care products.
The job posed severe challenges for the young business graduate, for she was given the task of managing the introduction of Stayfree sanitary napkins to India, where advertising for the product was banned. Nooyi got around the restrictions by marketing Stayfree pads to young women directly, at schools and colleges. While leafing through a magazine in her home, she read an article about the Yale University School of Management, then only two years old. Friends in the U. S. convinced her that she should apply for admission, and Nooyi mailed her application off. She was not only admitted but was also offered financial aid. Despite societal pressures, Nooyi's parents got on board with her plans. "It was unheard of for a good, conservative, south Indian Brahmin girl to do this," she told the Financial Times. "It would make her an absolutely unmarriageable commodity after that."
Against those odds, she later married Raj Nooyi, a management consultant, and raised two daughters. She took to the program at Yale like a fish to water. She loved novel American management ideas like team-building exercises, going out with a group on an Arctic survival expedition at one point. A Yale course on communication was unlike any she had taken before. "That was invaluable for someone who came from a culture where communication wasn't perhaps the most important aspect of business, at least in my time," she has said. She learned to analyze problems in detail and to work with a team on typical American corporate planning projects.
After receiving the degree of master of public and private management from Yale in 1980, Nooyi went to work as a director of international corporate strategy projects for the Boston Consulting Group. She moved from there to the automotive division development team at electronics maker Motorola in 1986, and in 1988 she was promoted to vice president and director of corporate strategy and planning there. In 1990 she accepted the post of senior vice president and director of corporate strategy and strategic marketing at Asea Brown Boveri (ABB), a diverse collection of American businesses, associated with power plant construction and industrial equipment fabrication, that had been acquired by a Swiss-Swedish conglomerate. She told Fortune that it was like a "$6 billion startup," for it was left to Nooyi to forge a group of some 15 separate businesses into a cohesive operation. In her first year at ABB, she assembled a group of managers across corporate division lines to develop a program that assisted electric utilities in complying with Clean Air Act regulations.
By 1994 Nooyi was being aggressively courted by corporate headhunters. "She was on every packaged-goods company's list in terms of CEO jobs," consultant Kenneth A. Harris Jr. told the New York Times. PepsiCo thought enough of her to bring in former CEO Christopher Sinclair, who had grown up in India as the son of an Exxon Mobil executive, to her interview to try to help sell her on the organization. She joined PepsiCo in 1994 as senior vice president of corporate strategy and development.
Working closely with PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico, Nooyi remapped the company's future. "I wake up in the middle of the night and write different versions of PepsiCo on a sheet of paper," she told Fortune. At the time, the company owned the KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell restaurant chains, which were part of a single division. Nooyi, over the objections of her new boss Enrico, pushed the company to spin the restaurants off. Enrico was brought around to Nooyi's position, and the restaurants were divested in 1997.
At that point, the outlines of Nooyi's grand strategy were coming into view. She believed that PepsiCo's core products, its soft drinks and Frito-Lay salty fried snacks, faced flat or declining sales in the future owing to consumers' desires for healthier lifestyles, and that the company needed to diversify into new products within the field of packaged foods. Nooyi steered PepsiCo toward the acquisition of the Tropicana juice producer in 1998, a $3.3 billion outlay that was questioned by many PepsiCo executives. Nooyi, who personally liked Tropicana orange juice, was vindicated when PepsiCo posted four consecutive quarters of growth in revenues, profits, and return on investment in 2000. She was promoted to chief financial officer of the company that year.
When Enrico retired due to ill health, Nooyi found herself with a new boss, CEO Steve Reinemund. The two implemented an even bigger deal, a joining of Pepsi with the venerable Quaker Oats Company with the details of the negotiations mostly handled by Nooyi. The fusion of the two companies was a difficult process, but once again Nooyi's instincts were vindicated, as PepsiCo posted strong growth in the early 2000s, even as Coke sales were stagnant. The deal gave PepsiCo ownership of Gatorade, the top-selling American sports drink.
Between 2001 and 2006, PepsiCo's annual revenue increased from $24 billion to $33 billion.
Nooyi was named PepsiCo's new chief executive on August 14, 2006, after Reinemund announced his retirement. In 2006, PepsiCo topped Fortune magazine's list of the 50 most powerful women in U.S. business.
There was general agreement in business publications that Nooyi's fast-track ascent up the corporate ladder was due not to PepsiCo’s diversity initiatives but to her brilliant moves as a strategic planner. Thanks to initiatives she spearheaded — some of them risky ones — PepsiCo eclipsed its longtime rival, Coke, in many measures of performance in the early 2000s. A feat many thought impossible.
And the future? Nooyi said earlier this year “We will continue to make investments in innovation, brand building and emerging markets growth, and our first quarter results give us confidence that our investments are paying off.”
Editor Phil Robertson is an award-winning journalist and graphic designer. With a degree from the University of Florida's School of Journalism, his career in journalism and publishing spans over 30 years, and includes positions as editor and publisher for several newspaper and magazines. During his career he has received a first-place award for investigate journalism from the Society of Newspaper Editors, and five ADDY awards for adverstising design.