Indra Nooyi: A peek into her life, education and thriving career

SOURCE: Paul Morigi / Getty Images for Fortune / AFP
Indra Nooyi speaks onstage at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit - Day 2 on October 10, 2017 in Washington, DC.

By Shekinah Kannan 

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What do PepsiCo, Motorola and Amazon have in common? All three multinationals have been graced by the presence of Indra Nooyi, one of the world’s most powerful woman who  validated the saying, “the future is female” when she took on leadership positions at these multinationals.

In 2018, many feared this inspirational powerhouse was “stepping aside” when she announced her 12-year reign as PepsiCo’s CEO and chairman was coming to a close. However, Nooyi’s move was a step up to focus on championing workplace equality. 

“I can work with other women to figure out how to get them to C-suite positions, as a mentor and supporter,” she told Fortune magazine.

Today, she’s doing just that while mothering her two children and prepping for the release of her much-anticipated memoir, “My Life in Full: Work, Family and Our Future”. But she hasn’t given up on corporate life just yet — in 2019, it was reported that Nooyi would join Amazon on its board of directors. 

The pathway to where she is today began before she assumed her first and second jobs in India as a project manager at Mettur Beardsell, Ltd. and Johnson & Johnson respectively.

In fact, it dates all the way back to Nooyi’s academic career — which is just as illustrious as her professional one.

Breaking glass ceilings through cricket and rock music

Growing up in Madras (now Chennai), Tamil Nadu, India, Nooyi’s academic beginnings started at Holy Angels Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School. There, she joined an all-girl’s cricket team and played the guitar in an all-girls rock band — both of which were uncommon for young girls in her country at the time. 

Her mother was the driving force behind her good grades. A stay-at-home housewife, Nooyi’s mother did not get the college experience she hoped for due to financial reasons. Instead, she encouraged her daughters to and promised them that if they did well, she wouldn’t marry them off at 18

A STEM-focused undergraduate turned MBA

At Madras Christian College, Nooyi continued on the unconventional path her mother ensured she was entitled to.

She studied physics, chemistry and mathematics before graduating in 1974. Soon after, she shifted her focus to business and decided to pursue an MBA at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta — which at the time, was just one of two schools in the country that offered the now career-transforming programme.

Sights set on the US

Jobs at Mettur Beardsell, Ltd. and Johnson & Johnson followed suit after her graduation in 1976. As a product manager at Johnson & Johnson, she was tasked to introduce Stayfree sanitary napkins to the Indian market. 

It was a monumental task — the brand was struggling to become a household name, but Nooyi eventually succeeded in increasing its visibility. “It was a fascinating experience because you couldn’t advertise personal protection in India,” she recalled in an interview with Sarah Murray of the Financial Times. Despite taking on an assignment even a seasoned manager might struggle with, Nooyi came out on top. The win, however, wasn’t enough. 

The experience made her determined to gain an advanced qualification, but this time, in the US. She applied to Yale University’s Graduate School of Management to pursue a master’s degree in public and private management. 

“It was unheard of for a good, conservative, south Indian Brahmin girl to do this,” Nooyi explained to Murray. “It would make her an absolutely unmarriageable commodity after that.”  

She did it anyway, with ample support from her parents. Despite financial aid, Nooyi had to work her way through her master’s to survive. She couldn’t afford to purchase professional workwear and spent most of her summer job in a sari. 

When she managed to save enough for a suit — which she wore to her first post-Yale job interview — she got rejected. Using the advice of a professor she confided in, she took on her next interview in a sari and nailed it. 

A natural born leader

Nooyi spent the next six years as a consultant for the acclaimed Boston Consulting Group. Then, in 1986, she moved on to Motorola as a senior executive. In 1990, she was senior vice president and director of corporate strategy and strategic marketing at Asea brown Boveri. 

Her success caught the attention of recruiters across the US. In 1994, she was offered two jobs that stood out from the rest. One offer came from General Electric, the other from PepsiCo.

In 1994, PepsiCo’s new senior vice president of corporate strategy and development started her tenure with a bang and kept pace throughout. In 2001, she was named president and chief financial officer. Nooyi led a major restructuring, which included getting KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell divested into Tricon Global Restaurants — now known as Yum! Brands, one of the largest fast food companies in the world. 

Nooyi also oversaw the acquisition of Tropicana Products and a merger with Quaker Oats Company — both moves were part of a mission to branch out into more healthful drinks and foods.

In 2006, Indra Nooyi became the CEO of PepsiCo. In 2017, Forbes ranked her the second most powerful woman in business.