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Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi on the “work and family conundrum”

Indra Nooyi Sep 28, 2021
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“Transformation is difficult,” writes former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. “But I have learned that with courage and persistence — and the inevitable give and take — it can happen.” Above, Nooyi speaks at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in 2017. Paul Morigi via Getty Images for Fortune
Shelf Life

Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi on the “work and family conundrum”

Indra Nooyi Sep 28, 2021
Heard on:
“Transformation is difficult,” writes former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. “But I have learned that with courage and persistence — and the inevitable give and take — it can happen.” Above, Nooyi speaks at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in 2017. Paul Morigi via Getty Images for Fortune
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Nearly 50 years after Katherine Graham of The Washington Post became the first-ever woman to run a Fortune 500 company, just 8% of America’s largest companies have female CEOs. 

Indra Nooyi, the former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo who pushed for transformational change at the company through innovation of healthier products, once belonged to that small club. 

In a new memoir called “My Life in Full: Work, Family and our Future,” Nooyi reflects on her career and the challenge of balancing work and family. Click the audio player above to hear Nooyi’s conversation with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal. The following is an excerpt from the book. 

One foggy Tuesday in November 2009, after hours of meetings in Washington, DC, with two dozen top US and Indian business executives, I found myself standing between the president of the United States and the prime minister of India.

Barack Obama and Manmohan Singh had entered the room for an update on our group’s progress, and President Obama began introducing the American team to his Indian counterpart. When he got to me — Indra Nooyi, CEO of  PepsiCo — Prime Minister Singh exclaimed, “Oh! But she is one of us!”

And the president, with a big smile and without missing a beat, responded, “Ah, but she is one of us, too!” 

It’s a moment I’ll never forget — spontaneous kindness from the leaders of the two great countries that have given me so much. I am still the girl who grew up in a close family in Madras, in the South of India, and I am deeply connected to the lessons and culture of my youth. I am also the woman who arrived in the US at age twenty-three to study and work and, somehow, rose to lead an iconic company, a journey that I believe is possible only in America. I belong in both worlds.

Looking back, I see how my life is full of this kind of duality — competing forces that have pushed and pulled me from one chapter to another. And I see how this is true of everyone. We are all balancing, juggling, compromising, doing our best to find our place, move ahead, and manage our relationships and responsibilities. It’s not easy in a society that changes very fast yet sticks to some age-old habits and rules of behavior that feel out of our control. 

The twin demands that define me have always been my family and my work. I joined PepsiCo, in 1994, in part because the company’s headquarters were close to my house. I had two daughters, ages ten and one-and-a-half at the time, and a husband whose office was nearby. PepsiCo’s job offer made sense, we thought, because the commute was short. I’d be able to drive to the school or home to the baby in fifteen minutes. Of course, this is not the only reason I chose PepsiCo, an exuberant, optimistic company that I whole-heartedly enjoyed from the moment I walked in. I also felt that PepsiCo was a place that was open to changing with the times. 

That was important. I was female, an immigrant, and a person of color entering an executive floor where I was different from everyone else. My career had started when the dynamics between women and men at work were not the same as they are now. In fourteen years as a consultant and corporate strategist, I had never had a woman boss. I had no female mentors. I wasn’t upset when I was excluded from the customs of male power; I was just happy to be included at all. But by the time I got to PepsiCo, waves of educated, ambitious women were pouring into the workforce, and I could sense the atmosphere changing. The competition between men and women was becoming more acute, and, in the subsequent decades, women have altered the game in ways that would have been unthinkable to me early on. As a business leader, I always tried to anticipate and respond to the shifting culture. As a woman and the mother of girls, I wanted to do everything possible to encourage it. 

As my career progressed, and my children grew up, I wrestled with the ever present conflicts of working motherhood. For fifteen years, I kept a whiteboard in my office that only my daughters could write on or erase. Over time, that board was a comforting kaleidoscope of doodles and messages, a constant reminder of the people closest to me and those to whom I really belong. When I moved out of my office, I kept a canvas replica of its last iteration: “Hey Mom, I love you very, very much. XOXOXOX.” “Hang in there. Never forget that you have people that love you!” “Have a great day!” “Hey Mom, you are the absolute best! Keep doing what you are doing!” the image exclaims, with cartoon characters and pictures of suns and clouds, all in green and blue dry-erase marker. 

As a high profile female CEO, I was also asked over and over to discuss work and family conflicts in front of large audiences. I once commented that I wasn’t sure my daughters thought I was a good mother — don’t all moms feel that way sometimes? — and an Indian TV network produced a full hour prime time discussion program, without me, on what Indra Nooyi said about working women. 

The twin demands that define me have always been my family and my work.

Over the years, I met thousands of people worried about how to be true to their families, their jobs, and their ambitions to be good citizens. This engagement had a great impact on me; I learned and absorbed the details at a visceral level. I thought about how family is such a powerful source of human strength but realized that creating and nurturing families is a source of stress for so many. 

At the same time, I was among a vaunted group of global leaders regularly invited into rooms with the most influential leaders on the planet. And I came to notice that the painful stories about how people — especially women — struggle to blend their lives and were entirely absent in those rooms. The titans of industry, politics, and economics talked about advancing the world through finance, technology, and flying to Mars. Family — the actual messy, delightful, difficult, and treasured core of how most of us live — was fringe. 

This disconnect has profound consequences. Our failure to address work and family pressures in the senior reaches of global decision making restrains hundreds of millions of women every day, not only from rising and leading, but also from blending a satisfying career with a healthy partnership and motherhood. In a prosperous marketplace, we need all women to have the choice to work in paid jobs outside the home and for our social and economic infrastructure to entirely support that choice. Women’s financial independence and security, so central to their equality, are at stake. 

More broadly, ignoring the fact that the work world is still largely skewed toward the “ideal worker” of yore — an unencumbered male breadwinner — depletes us all. Men, too. Companies lose out because productivity, innovation, and profit suffer when so many employees feel they can’t bring their whole selves to work. Families lose out because they spend so much energy coping with old systems, from short school hours to a lack of parental leave or elder care, that don’t mesh with their reality. 

And, of course, the entire global community suffers. Many young people, worried about how they will manage it all, are choosing not to have children. This could not only have dire economic consequences in the decades to come, but, on a very personal note, I find this detail sad. With everything I have accomplished, my greatest joy was having children, and I wouldn’t want anyone to miss the experience if they want it. 

Ignoring the fact that the work world is still largely skewed toward the “ideal worker” of yore — an unencumbered male breadwinner — depletes us all.

I believe that we must address the work and family conundrum by focusing on our infrastructure around “care” with an energy and ingenuity like never before. We should consider this a moonshot, starting with ensuring that every worker has access to paid leave, flexibility, and predictability to help them handle the ebb and flow of work and family life, and then moving fast to develop the most innovative and comprehensive childcare and eldercare solutions that our greatest minds can devise. 

This mission will require leadership that we don’t often see. I think the fundamental role of a leader is to look for ways to shape the decades ahead, not just react to the present, and to help others accept the discomfort of disruptions to the status quo. We need the wisdom of business leaders, policy makers, and all women and men passionate about easing the work and family burden to come together here. With a can-do sense of optimism and a must-do sense of responsibility, we can transform our society. 

Transformation is difficult, but I have learned that with courage and persistence — and the inevitable give and take — it can happen. When I became PepsiCo’s CEO, in 2006, I laid out an extremely ambitious plan to address the underlying tensions in a company still rooted in selling soda and chips. I knew we had to balance supporting our prized Pepsi-Cola and Doritos brands with a full throttle effort to make and market more healthy products. We had to keep stocking stores and pantries with convenient, delicious snacks and beverages but account for the environmental impact of that growth. We had to attract and retain the very best thinkers in their fields but ensure that PepsiCo was also a terrific place to work for a quarter of a million people. I called this mission Performance with Purpose, and, for a dozen years, I weighed every decision against these measures, making constant trade offs to achieve a more sustainable, contemporary organization.

In the months before I left PepsiCo, in 2018, I thought about how I would contribute in the years ahead, knowing that I am one in a chain of woman leaders who can help move us forward for generations to come. I set out to write a book and insisted to all around me that it would not be a memoir. Instead, I thought, I would devote every ounce of my experience and intellect to a manual for fixing how we mix work and family. 

The book you hold is not that book. 

First, I soon found that the research on work and family has been done. From every angle, in every corner of the world, the arguments and ideas for supporting families — from maternity leave to early childhood education to multigenerational living — have been compiled, analyzed, scored, and debated by brilliant minds. I didn’t need to repeat all that.

Second, everything I bring to this issue, I know now, comes from my own life in full.

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