Women's History Month Profile: Indra Nooyi

March 25, 2009

Well first of all, the criteria for determining Forbes' "100 Most Powerful Women in the World" are as follows:

annual ranking of the most powerful women in the world measures "power"
as a composite of public profile--calculated using press mentions--and
financial heft.

So on this list, "power" is skewed toward people who make a lot of money for their companies, and political leaders who run countries with a big GDP. Angela Merkel has been the most powerful for the past three years, although I wonder if she has that big of an impact outside of the EU.

I would argue that Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi, technically occupying the number three spot, may well be more powerful than Merkel. Raised and educated in India, Nooyi came to the States as an adult to
get a master's at the Yale School of Management ... and then to step
smoothly into leadership positions at a series of American
corporations, such as Motorola and ABB. She joined PepsiCo in 1994, and
was named CEO in 2006. Her leadership of PepsiCo -- for better or, often, for worse -- puts her in the position to affect the daily economic and cultural lives of individuals and communities around the world; first world and third. (Here's a profile of PepsiCo's companies. Here are her compensation stats.)

But that's not all. Nooyi is also a member of the highly secretive annual conclave of liberal and conservative political, media, and commercial leaders called the Bilderberg Group. Conspiracy theorists hold that Bilderberg constitutes a shadow government that grooms American presidents and British Prime Ministers (Clinton attended in summer 1992, Edwards in summer 2004 before he was asked to join Kerry's campaign, and rumor has it that Obama was at the event last summer. Angela Merkel's image was supposedly a discussion topic in 2005.) They've also been accused of starting wars.

Nooyi definitely attended the conference in 2004. Bilderberg attendees vary from year to year, but always represent the 120 most influential people in the first world. The attendees are selected by a 30-member steering committee, whose membership list is entirely secret. So it's unlikely that Nooyi is a member of the steering committee. But the simple fact that she was invited to attend marks her as a member of the global power elite. And Nooyi apparently counts Henry Kissinger among her personal friends. I'll pause while you hiss and spit.

On the other hand (and I do mean "hand") Nooyi caused a mini-furor in 2005 when she addressed new Columbia Biz School MBAs by criticizing the US thus:

Ms. Nooyi began to compare the world and its five major continents
(excl. Antarctica and Australia) to the human hand. First was Africa -
the pinky finger - small and somewhat insignificant but when hurt, the
entire hand hurt with it. Next was Asia - the thumb - strong and
powerful, yearning to become a bigger player on the world stage. Third
was Europe - the index finger - pointing the way. Fourth was South
America - the ring finger - the finger which symbolizes love and
sensualness. Finally, the US (not Canada mind you) - yes, you guessed
it - the middle finger. She then launched into a diatribe about how the ... rest of
the world sees us as an overbearing, insensitive and disrespectful
nation that gives the middle finger to the rest of the world. ... It is our responsibility to
make the other fingers rise in unison with us as we move forward. She
then goes on to give a personal anecdote about some disrespectful US
business women in an Asian country and how that is typical of Americans

Now, don't you think that's what Asian Americans in powerful positions should do: take advantage of their dual or hybrid perspective to help the mired American viewpoint get out of the quicksand?

Nooyi's taken her (perhaps only mildly) outsider perspective in deeper as well. Under her leadership, PepsiCo has spun off their fast food assets and bought into healthier food alternatives such as Quaker Oats and Tropicana. And she's well known in the commercial world for her lighthearted, irreverent attitude.

[She] patrol[s]
the office barefoot at times and even sing[s] in the halls, perhaps a
holdover from her teen days in an all-girl rock band in her hometown of
Chennai, India. She gave Enrico a karaoke machine before he left in
2001 and hired a live "Jam-eoke" band to help senior executives belt
out tunes at a management conference earlier this year.

"Indra can drive as deep and hard as anyone I've ever met," Enrico says, "but she can do it with a sense of heart and fun." ... Nooyi wore a
sari to an interview at Boston Consulting Group and was offered the

... As chairman and CEO,
Nooyi promotes the concept of "performance with purpose," trying to
make PepsiCo a ground-breaker in areas like selling healthy food and
diversifying its workforce.

Maybe I'm a cheap date, but I kind of love her, despite the Kissinger thing. She wouldn't be either a hero or a role model for me. She's not a hero because -- whether or not she actually takes health, diversity, and American moral leadership to heart -- she is clearly and pragmatically combining such values with a profit motive. To be a hero to me, a person has to do the hard work of maintaining pure motives.

She's also not a role model for me because I'm not interested in business, prepared foods, multinational concerns, or hierarchical organization. I don't despise her field of endeavor for its own sake, but rather because of the evil multinational corporations commit and permit. I'm uninterested in this field not because of the evil, but because I'm by nature a corporatist, not a corporate type.

But I have to point out that people with impure motives and a practical and aggressive nature often get more good done than the bleeding hearts, even while they're making money. I'm not suggesting that Nooyi's PepsiCo is a model of pragmatic sustainability: it's far from that. But what we might be seeing in her example is real female leadership: not the "Iron Lady" brand of masculine mimicking that has been pressed on ambitious women for decades, and not the hyperfeminine, high-level-helpmeet service offered by conservatives like *nn C**lt*r, M*ch*ll* M*lk*n, and S*r*h P*l*n. (I disemvoweled them so as not to attract a flame war.)

For those young women who want to rule the world and still be themselves, still be women, Nooyi might be your best example.