The life of Indra Nooyi—arguably, one of the most iconic business executives in the world—might, especially when looked at in hindsight, seem easy. But it was anything but. Nooyi, who has just published her long-awaited memoir, My Life in Full, in an exclusive conversation with Fortune India, points out that the primary idea that led her to write her book was not only to spark a dialogue on the topics close to her heart—such as gender parity—but to also look back at her own life, to realise how difficult the journey was. “Look, today it might seem so easy. But back then, it was really a culmination of several events that have happened over time sort of like a combination of push and pull: I worked very hard, and then somebody pulled me in, or somebody pushed me and I began to work hard. So that sort of thing. One thing led to another, a mentor showed up on the scene when it was least expected, the family played a big role,” she says. Looking back at those formative days, she argues, “the reality is that I lucked out.”
In the memoir, 65-year-old Nooyi, who retired from the American multinational PepsiCo in 2019 after being at the helm since 2006, traces her journey from the backwaters of Chennai (called Madras in those days, a word Nooyi uses nostalgically in the book), to the United States. “If you look at Chennai in those days, I was born literally eight years after India got independence. Think about it. This is 1955,” she reminisces. She speaks about how, while growing up, one of the key things that made a difference was the fact that her family was very progressive. “My childhood home was defined by particularly progressive thinking when it came to educating women,” she writes. Education became a bulwark of her early life in Chennai. In her memoir, Nooyi writes movingly about how she and her sister loved school.
“School let us enter the world outside our tight family structure,” she writes. “The whole [school] arrangement set us free. We loved it so much that some summers, even with cousins to play, we posted a calendar on our bedroom wall to count down the days until school started again,” she says, and clearly it paid off. She would eventually go on to study from the prestigious Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIM-C). “Please remember, I was the 11th batch of IIM-C, and girl students on the campus were a rare sight,” she tells Fortune India.
Home and the World
A core theme present overwhelmingly in the book is the issue of women in the workplace. In the very beginning she outrightly points out the dilemma every working woman has to face. “As my career progressed, and my children grew up, I wrestled with the ever-present conflicts of working motherhood,” she writes in her memoir. Nooyi is acutely aware of the contours of this conflict, its possible reasons, and the way it can be solved. She argues that the notion of ‘working woman’ is itself a gendered term. “It is unfortunate that when we talk about women juggling their work, and their household responsibilities, the role of men is not spoken about. It is a conversation only as far as women are concerned,” she tells Fortune India. She also argues that women not only carry this disproportionate burden of raising children and working, but also the guilt. “There is a lot of guilt involved—for working women who have kids. They are constantly made to prove themselves—as a good wife, as a good mother,” she says. When women join the workforce, they are suddenly confronted with a social structure that is shaped like a pyramid, and never as a tube, Nooyi points out. “So you are either up or out. Either you have to work hard or you’re out, and for women, when they are juggling so many responsibilities at home, it becomes so difficult.”
But has the situation improved of late? Nooyi argues that now the situation has become a little more complicated. “Now you have a situation where a lot of women are getting educated. They are entering the workforce. But then they drop out,” she says. She lists two reasons for this malaise. On one hand, according to Nooyi, women want to have children. “Whatever you say, there indeed is that tug of motherhood, of women wanting to start a family, a tug for family creation. But then in the workplace, there are a lot of issues they have to deal with—sexism, lack of pay parity, etc. These workforce stresses strip away your confidence which in turn affects your competence.”
Who’s to blame?
But how much of the problem is institutional? Nooyi says that it is hard to pin exact percentage figures on this, but there is ample evidence to prove that the institutions are indeed skewed in favour of men rather than women. “70% of high school graduates are women. 47% of graduates out of MIT are women. So where are all these women? Why do you not see them?” she asks. “Only 2.3% of Silicon Valley funding goes to women founders. Don’t tell me women are not good company founders or creators. It is just that they just don’t get the funding. This is not just a feminist issue. It is an economic issue. In order to build that competitive advantage we need these talents in the workforce.”
Interestingly, she emphasises that while, of late, diversity programmes have become popular in organisations, these programmes or initiatives will never succeed unless and until the organisation itself has a critical mass of diverse people. “The moot question is whether diversity programs in companies really work towards the cause of diversity. You cannot have a diversity program and make people work with diverse people unless and until you have a critical mass of diverse people already existing, and then you build on that critical mass. What India is doing now is to get that critical mass into companies, into boardrooms, into organisations. This critical mass can collectively raise their voice in the workspace against the snide remarks made against women,” she says.
A core element of this skewed nature of institutions is the question of equal pay for equal work. “Unfortunately the problem of unequal pay among genders still continues. We can always find reasons to not pay women equal pay—she doesn’t have much experience, she comes from consulting, she is new etc. There is always a reason given as to why women should not be paid more. This is a problem,” she argues.
But it is not that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Nooyi argues that a lot can change if it is driven by the guys at the top. “At the end women’s issue is a leadership issue, it is an issue about changing mindsets,” she says, She argues that if the CEO of an organisation, or the board of directors, are not committed to the issue of equal pay for equal work, or to ensure the work culture is conducive for women, especially in this post- #Metoo age, then it will always be an uphill battle. “If the CEO, the board of directors are not committed to equal pay for equal work, then it becomes a mere bureaucratic process and nothing will come out of it. The CEO should set the tone for equal pay for equal work outright.” Interestingly, she also says that a lot of the problem about gender parity is because of the negative way people look at it. “A way to look at the problem is also by phrasing it as a war for talent. We need the best and the brightest. It should not matter what gender, or background, or ethnicity, or caste the individual is coming from. It is necessary in order to achieve that competitive edge. It is necessary for competition. If we start there, it will be a very different discussion,” she argues.
In her memoir, Nooyi makes a strong case for some of the changes that need to be made organisationally in order to ensure gender parity is practised. One such solution is about the urgent need for a structured child care system. She gives a moving example from her own life. When her elder daughter, Preetha, was born, the childcare system in the U.S. wasn’t that great. So she had to formulate a roster system detailing the schedule for her, her husband, and her family members, to take turns in order to care for the child. Such a problem, of course, did not arise by the time her second child was born, and childcare services had markedly improved by then. But, by using this as an example, she illustrates how hard juggling the twin responsibilities of caring for a family and working can be for a mother. She also calls for an institutionalised system of flexible working hours, for both the mother and the father. “It is imperative that the child is not with a care centre five days a week. So we need flexible working hours so that at least on some days a week either the mother or the father would be available for the caring of the child,” she says.
In the end, she argues that it takes a whole village for change to happen. “It takes a village to build a whole ecosystem, that is when the ecosystem becomes important. Women want the power of the purse. They want to be, and they desire to be, financially independent. Can we enable women to take care of the family and be deployed in paid work. It is good for families, it is good for the countries,” she argues as she signs off.