Indra Nooyi Opens Up About Her Family, Career And Her Thoughts On Leadership
Femina|October 2021
The release of her memoir allows us to dive into what has been an extraordinary life. In a candid, deeply-engaging conversation, and through various personal anecdotes, Indra Nooyi opens up about the subjects in her book – her family, career and her thoughts on leadership.
Ambika Muttoo

I grew up with Femina. To me, in those days, it was an aspirational magazine, and I can see you have maintained the quality, so I'm just thrilled to be in it.” These were the opening lines, from Indra Nooyi, as the interview accompanying her cover began. A pause to deliberate. The achievements of this global icon and personal hero to many might take a while to assemble, but a few highlights off a very long index. This is the erstwhile CEO of PepsiCo - her tenure was an exceptional one. She's currently on the board of Amazon, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and Philips. An independent director of the ICC and a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. A fixture on the World's Most Powerful lists, the recipient of innumerable accolades, honorary degrees and awards - including the Padma Bhushan - she now adds author to the roster, with her thoroughly-engaging memoir, My Life in Full: Work, Family, And Our Future. It is an indisputable fact that Indra is a visionary leader. Her introductory statement, however, reinforces a quality distinct to her - genuine power that is complemented by grace and humility.

Interestingly enough, she also didn't set out to write a book at all. “I was going to write about how to lift women in the workplace, how to provide support systems so they can have a family and work. How do you give women the power of the purse? Those kinds of issues, because those are the questions that people asked me as I was in PepsiCo and when leaving. So, I was going to write a series of articles about that and sort of get a policy discussion started, she reveals. My publisher, several publishers and my book lawyer came to see me and said - look, if you want to write about those issues, that's great, but there's credibility and readability only if you inform it through your life. People want to know about your life. People want to know how you managed it. They want to know if there's a manual for doing all this and, maybe, it's your manual they can use.” The result isn't a memoir or a tell-all, per se. It's a book filled with lessons informed by Indra's story - of what she's taken from each of the stages of her life, and what she intends to do for the next phase.

Reading My Life in Full, and through this opportunity to meaningfully interact with Indra, it is apparent that her substantial foundation has been built on an equally strong base: family. Growing up in Chennai, her paternal grandfather - her thatha - was a cherished teacher; one who had a profound impact on her life. “If I think of him now, I get emotional. I think, as kids growing up, he was the most central figure. He was the head of the household and he ruled over it with a firm hand and a big heart. He adored the three of us - my sister, my brother and I,” says Indra. A man who devoted his life to his grandchildren, their success was his happiness. It's also evident where Indra gets her sense of equal ownership from. Progressive thought, especially regarding the education of women, was a central tenet in their household, a space where intellectual curiosity, analytical debate and the freedom to express a point of view were encouraged. Various chapters illustrate how that ethos manifested itself in Indra's outlook growing up, from her school days at Holy Angels Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School, to Madras Christian College (she was in an all-girls band, the LogRhythms) right up to the Indian Institute of Management in (then) Calcutta, and, later, at the Yale School of Management. “He made sure, along with my father and my mother, with the men in our family, to always say – The girls cannot be treated any differently than we would the boys. We must let them fly. We have to let them dream - (do) whatever they want to do? He pushed us to be more than what we would have been had he not pushed us,” Indra reveals. This translated to lessons, to not sitting idle. He encouraged them to expand their thinking outside of schoolwork, making Indra read the newspaper to him. “Not because he couldn't read it, she says. “Because he wanted me to get into the habit of reading a newspaper article and understanding what it said.” It's also proof that multi-generational living, if executed correctly, is what really helps the family unit thrive, as she explains, “That could be fantastic for the grandkids. Because, you know, parents are always busy. My mother, had she been solely responsible for us girls, growing up, we would have had a tough time because she had so many other things to do. But, having my grandfather as a single dedicated source for us, or with no other worries, was just fantastic. I won the lottery of life with my thatha.”

Indra has always said that family is the foundation and the force that has propelled her in many ways, and the book is filled with anecdotes, memories and lessons from her grandparents, parents, siblings, husband and children. A particular line also stands out, over the many stories that fold over the pages of her life, and it is that her mother would have made a great CEO. It's a thought - an understanding - many women, across the planet, have about their mothers, or matriarchal figures, but have never quite found the words to summarise. Indra, when asked about where that belief germinated from, laughs, “In so many ways, I'm my mother's daughter. In some ways, I'm not. Let me talk about both. Mum was brilliant. Mum is brilliant. She's still, at her age, writing and doing amazing research on topics. When people read what she writes, they are amazed that she has such a brain. She knows how to organise herself, how to give orders, how to extract work from people. She's just remarkable. She's a tough boss. She doesn't give compliments easily at all, except to the grandkids. To her kids, no compliments. That didn't enter her vocabulary at all.”

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