Indra Nooyi - The Boss Lady who Inspired Indian Women to Dream

Can women have it all?

4 min read
Being a mom and a CEO at the same time ain’t for the faint-hearted

Can women have it all?

While we often chew on this pertinent question, a powerful thought passes by – If Indra Nooyi could do it 24 years back, why can’t we? As Nooyi once said – “Yes, you can have it all, with the right support system, some sacrifices and some collateral damage under the water if you are willing to trade off.” Well, if you read between the lines, ‘the having it all’ part doesn’t seem so easy.

While the idea sounds fancy when we gleam with pride to say that Indra Nooyi was the first Indian female CEO and Chairman of an international brand like PepsiCo, how much do we know about the nerve-wracking struggles and heartaches that she had to battle to reach where she did? She juggled between the role of a mother of two daughters, a wife, a daughter and a daughter-in-law, while using that same brain of hers to strategise, lead a huge team globally, motivate them, build and acquire business internationally as the company shares rose to 78%, under her leadership.

Boy, a mighty task, if you’d ask, I’d say! And all very demanding roles – with every one wanting the best out of her.

So how did she do it?


The Human Side of Nooyi’s Success Story

Once when her desk at PepsiCo was being changed during renovation, her younger daughter told her, “ Mom, you can’t give away that desk”. She asked, “ Why not?” She said “ I slept in that little area under your table with my blanket while I was growing up”. Nooyi recollects what a moment it was for her to realise the kind of memory her daughter had. She said this while recollecting how busy she used to be around that time. She had to spend long hours at work which often trickled to midnight. Her younger daughter was just 18 months old then.

As she went through the old files on that desk, she found a letter that her daughter had written when she was 5 years-old, which said –
“Dear Mom, I love you. Please come home. Please, please, please come home. I love you, but I love you more when you come home”.

She said she kept that letter to realise what she lost to gain what she did. When asked if she regrets making those decisions, she says, she loved what she did. She says regret is a complex word and she would have probably regretted it, had she stayed at home and not made the choices she did. 

Not Easy Being an Overachiever’s Spouse

Indra Nooyi, with her husband, Raj Nooyi and their two daughters, Tara and Preetha.
Indra Nooyi, with her husband, Raj Nooyi and their two daughters, Tara and Preetha.

The dichotomy of a working mother’s life is rarely close to what fathers go through, especially if the mother is the CEO of a big international brand, which is three full-time jobs rolled into one. As Nooyi often said, the biological clock and the career clock are always in conflict in a woman’s life. Often a working woman has to make choices, several times in a day and it can be heartbreaking.

She says she feels sorry for her husband, who once told her that, he was last on her list. First came, PepsiCo, then the kids, then her mother and at last came his turn. She replied (laughing), you should be happy you are on the list!

She acknowledged multiple times in several forums that without his support, she couldn’t have achieved anything. She told Business Insider, that the key to their marriage of 37 years is that they gave equal weightage to both their careers, so that there was no feeling of resentment.. Raj Nooyi, who is the President of AmSoft Systems, and she readjusted constantly to make sure no one took more responsibility than the other. They co-opted their families to help them and coordinated their work schedules so that they could be decent parents.


Real Life Vs Dreams

I like reading biographies or watching anecdotal interviews of several women to get a perception of what real life problems look like and to know what lessons they learnt. While every life is different, so are experiences.

The ‘guilt’ she had when she couldn't make it for Wednesday morning coffee sessions at her daughter's school was real. But the fact that she was doing a damn good job at work was real too. So she worked her way around situations.

I once remember my boss telling me that, for working women, life gets better when they cross 50 - when the children are grown up, responsibilities are taken care of and they have less things to worry about. She added, “ Women should grab all the help they can and should never be shy or hesitant about it.”

We are a cusp generation, for whom the format isn’t quite laid - we’ve seen women like Nooyi break the social barriers and almost reach the pinnacle of success with professional satisfaction and a family with kids, so we’ve led ourselves to believe, we can do this too. And while our pals – the other gender and other wise old people in the society seem to like the idea of a strong woman, they are yet to come to terms with the ‘ availability’ issue when it comes to working women.

In the next decade, following the paths laid by the likes of Indra Nooyi, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Sheryl Sandberg, and many others, several women will be seen at the top tier leading several companies. And it is only a matter of time, when becoming a female CEO will be just as normal as a male becoming one. This is a revolutionary time for women where they are discovering their potentials and daring to be ambitious. We can only hope that the creases of work life balance will smoothen for both the genders in times to come.

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