One of the world's most successful CEOs, Indra Nooyi reveals in her book, My Life In Full, that she was denied business meetings for wearing India's national dress, the saree. Considered a most comfortable ensemble, the Indian saree is amongst the most formal outfits people wear to work, or for client meetings. Then why was Nooyi denied?
In the 60s and 70s, when Nooyi was in the prime of her career, she admits in her book, that going to clients in a saree discomforted her office, as they felt 'it would be too jarring'. In her memoir, she shares how her comfort in working wearing a saree led to her losing out on client meetings and she accepted their concerns as is, at the time.
Regardless, she never stopped wearing a saree.
In a detailed interview with SheThePeople's founder Shaili Chopra, Nooyi talks about many experiences that made her a tough woman.
Indra Nooyi Personal Life And The Journey to CEO | My Life in Full
"I wasn't the greatest mom. I did the best I could. I wasn't the greatest wife, I did the best I could." Nooyi talks about what it took for her to become the Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo, one of the world's largest companies with over $19 bn in annual revenue. Nooyi was put through questions that seem to be reserved just for working women. "They kept asking me, how did you do it, stay married and have two kids and still become CEO? There must have been some manual that you have, and you should share the same with us."
I sat back and thought about it, and I started digging into the question, "why aren't there more women becoming CEOs? And I realised women come into the workforce in big numbers but by the time they reach middle management, the numbers dwindle and the pipeline has broken."
Women end up facing the 'motherhood penalty' says Nooyi because they 'can't balance it all.
"There are no support systems. On top of that, they also face all kind of biases in the company."
While Nooyi wanted to write a detailed policy paper on why women don't reach the top in the workforce, many other women advised her to not give them papers to read but experiences to learn from. And that's how the idea of Nooyi's book My Life in Full came about.
Taking Nooyi Back in Time
Nooyi talks about how she navigated some very difficult times as a woman in the workforce when there were no women. "They were just beginning to emerge in professional schools. Women admissions were capped by the number of rooms available in B-schools, which were just 12 in IIM Calcutta."
Nooyi says those were the times when women didn't know what their worth was. Men didn't know how to cope with women in the workforce. "Should we be taking our bag and going to the villages to sell? Women didn't know." With women in business, Nooyi says, many rules had to be re-thought.
Do Women Benchmark Themselves Lower?
"I didn't have any role model women to benchmark myself against. So I told myself I am going to keep doing what I do well and let's see where this journey leads me. At that point a woman being CEO was unheard of. As a politician there were some in Mrs Gandhi or Mrs Pandit."
Women at the time, Nooyi reminds us, were encouraged to be lawyers or doctors but never enter the business world. "We had no idea what the corporate world was about. We didn't have an aspiration as a result to be in the corporate world. Had we had women role models, one could look up to them and say 'I too can be like them.'
Nooyi served for 24 years in PepsiCo of which 12 years were spent as CEO. Getting there wasn't a goal from the very beginning and Nooyi says, 'for good reason.' "You start out saying you want to be CEO and get obsessed about that. You are so worried about progression to be CEO that you forget the job at hand. You can say you want to be CEO and then break it down into bite sized chunks, 'I want to do this job very well and if I can somehow progress to the next two tasks in five years, that would progress.'"
"Survive the first three levels and be known for something, be damn good at what you do. You will be surprised how many doors open for you."