Indra Nooyi imparts wisdom to USC MBAs


Left to right: Mathias Alt, Indra Nooyi, Mi-Chieh Lee, and Arvind Bhambri at a recent event at USC Marshall School of Business.

At a time when companies were only concerned with the bottom line, Indra Nooyi, the former president and CEO of PepsiCo, decided it was time for companies to prioritize social and environmental impact as well.

On Monday, March 7, the Marshall Business School at the University of Southern California welcomed former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi to an in-person event, the IBEAR MBA Global Leadership Forum, the school’s first unmasked event since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nooyi was asked to share her thoughts on her professional journey and answer questions from the panel for the live-streamed event. On the eve of International Women’s Day, there was no better time to hear from one of the world’s most admired business leaders.

Initiating and guiding PepsiCo’s “Performance With Purpose” movement, Nooyi has helped transform the company by creating healthier products, reducing the environmental footprint and empowering others by example. As the first woman of color and first immigrant to lead the company, her work not only exponentially increased PepsiCo’s revenue, but also impacted communities around the world.


Born in Chennai, India, Nooyi received her MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta and later earned a Masters in Public and Private Management from the Yale School of Management.

Her career began when Nooyi, just months shy of her 21st birthday, was hired by Mettur Beardsell to take up a sales position in the trading division.

“I would go to the galleys in Bombay and sell thread to cut and sew,” Nooyi recounted in his interview with the USC Marshall audience. “The floods and the rain didn’t stop me, I was still determined to make the quota. And in doing so, I learned everything I could about the craft.

While working in sales, she was determined to gain a full understanding of the business. Soon, she says, she became an “expert walker.” Great attention to detail got him noticed at age 22 and led to an offer to lead the company’s entire textile division – a job that meant managing 60% of the company’s employee base. .

“In retrospect,” she says, “I realize that was a massive offer. But when he gave it to me, I didn’t hesitate.


From her beginnings in textile management, she applied the same attitude that she had in sales: she wanted to understand the business well. “I wasn’t just waving my hand and talking about marketing,” she says. “I wanted to understand all the levers of business management. No job in the textile division was forbidden to me.

Nooyi says the business began to see that she was someone who could both zoom in on business details and then zoom out to figure out what the business needed. This unique and innate skill has been the common thread throughout his career. “I had to go into detail to really understand the business and then zoom out to understand how it fit into the bigger picture,” she says.

Eventually, she left Mettur Bearsdell to pursue a role as an international business strategist at the Boston Consulting Group, where she remained for six years. Next, her career took her to Motorola, where she worked as Vice President and Director of Strategy and Corporate Planning. Next, she completed another four-year stint as Senior Vice President of Strategy and Strategic Marketing at Asea Brown Boveri before joining PepsiCo as Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning in 1994.


She brought her attention to detail to each role. When she finally became president and CEO of PepsiCo in 2006, she was often found reading textbooks cover to cover and hiring experts and professors to answer her questions about obscure subjects – from computer systems to graphic design – to deepen understanding of every aspect of business. “In a world where technologies are changing, leaders need to know what technologies are and how to adopt them in your businesses,” she says.

“If, as a leader, you don’t understand what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to change in the business, because people are going to circle around you without you even knowing they’re going around in circles. round around you.” She adds.

From left to right: Mathias Alt, Ayesha Ghoshal, Indra Nooyi, Mi-Chieh Lee and Arvind Bhambri. Courtesy picture


Not only did Nooyi rise to the top of PepsiCo, but she helped transform the company by launching several new, healthier product lines and leading the company on the principle of “performance with purpose.”

The “performance with purpose” movement had four objectives: to generate financial returns, to switch to healthier products, to limit the environmental impact of the company and to empower women and families, both within the company and in the world in general. “Performing with a purpose was a new way to make money,” she explains. “If we delivered performances, we could fund the goal. If we fulfilled our purpose, we could deliver more performance. It was a virtuous circle. »

“I think using the word objective around private sector companies was quite unusual at the time,” said USC Dean Geoff Garrett. “Today it’s much more common, but I think we should recognize the real role that PepsiCo and Indra have played in expanding our understanding of the purpose of companies and people in the audience today.” today.”


Not only would performance with purpose have a significant impact, but Nooyi saw it as a way to future-proof the business.

When she first became CEO, she was determined to make these changes at PepsiCo — so much so that if the board disagreed with the direction she was proposing, she was prepared to to leave. “I said to the board, this is what I’m going to do, and this is the only way I know to run the company. So if you don’t agree with what I’m talking about, you need to find another CEO.

In Nooyi’s career, she wasn’t afraid to take risks for the greater good. During the 2008 financial crisis — and only two years after serving as CEO — she created the Pepsi Refresh Project. The purpose of this project was to distribute grants ranging from $500 to $10,000 to individuals, businesses and non-profit organizations that had a positive impact on their communities. Although she was criticized by business professors for launching a project that some say was not Pepsi branded, Nooyi is convinced that it was one of the most impactful projects launched by Pepsi. Pepsi. “In times of extreme financial crisis, I thought it was money well spent.”


During his journey to become CEO, Nooyi recounts having had a few setbacks in his career; many of which came in the form of harsh comments from his mentors. “People gave me rough feedback, and I think I matured over time in terms of what I said and how to say it,” she explains.

She says she improved and evolved her communication style by observing how people two levels above her interacted and provided feedback to others. “You’ll learn from people who do it well by watching and listening,” Nooyi continues.

“I sincerely believe that mentors select you,” she adds. “A mentor chooses you as a mentee because they see something in you that makes them want to protect their reputation against you. Mentoring isn’t just about occasional advice. Real mentors promote and push you, instead of hiding.


While many MBA graduates choose jobs with high pay over jobs with purpose in order to pay off their business school loans, Nooyi says that once MBAs manage people — and once that they achieve some level of financial stability – it’s important to focus on making an impact and achieving a goal.

Achieving a goal begins with understanding all parts of the business. “In today’s world, if CEOs don’t have an insatiable curiosity, they’re going to fall behind in a massive way,” she says. “I don’t think you can be a real player if you don’t have an insatiable curiosity. If you want to move forward, that’s what it’s going to take. »

She remembers talking with investors who cared more about the bottom line than reducing the company’s footprint and making healthier products. She says MBAs can find themselves in similar situations, where they try to find an alignment between moral and financial success. She advises that in these situations, MBAs learn to stand in their power and speak their truth. “Communicate authentically,” she says. “Speak honestly and openly and don’t be afraid to state your point of view. Be consistent with your message.


Nooyi thinks his story could only happen because of America. “There is anti-immigrant sentiment in many countries, but the United States remains open,” she says.

Although adapting to a new country has posed unique challenges, Nooyi is grateful for the opportunities the United States has given her. “If you define yourself in terms of the large proportion of people who make you feel welcome and included, you’ll be better off than focusing on the small group that makes you feel different,” she explains.


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