PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi.Mike Segar/Reuters
In 2006, Indra Nooyi became PepsiCo’s first female CEO, as well as its first CEO not born in the US.
At a “Women in Leadership Panel” at 92Y in New York on Tuesday, Nooyi said she’s always pushed back against adversity and her confidence is built upon an unusual daily habit her mother made her and her older sister, Chandrika, practice when they were just 8 to 11 years old.
Nooyi grew up in the socially conservative city of Madras (now Chennai), India. Her mother adhered to some traditional beliefs— she stressed the importance of seeking a good husband early — but she also instilled in her two daughters the belief that they could grow up to become whoever they wanted.
“Every night at the dinner table, my mother would ask us to write a speech about what we would do if we were president, chief minister, or prime minister — every day would be a different world leader she’d ask us to play,” Nooyi said to the 92Y audience. “At the end of dinner, we had to give the speech, and she had to decide who she was going to vote for.”
The winner of the debate then signed a piece of paper that stated they had become whatever the world leader of the day was. The girls and their mom would laugh and have fun with it, but Nooyi said she and her sister came to appreciate it, even after they became too cool for the ritual when they hit adolescence.
“Even though my mother didn’t work and didn’t go to college, she lived a life vicariously through her daughters,” Nooyi said. “So she gave us that confidence to be whatever we wanted to be. That was an incredibly formative experience in my youth.”
That confidence was reinforced by her paternal grandfather, a charismatic judge. If he asked her to do a job as a child and she later told him that she was unable to do it the way he wanted, he would make her write “I will not make excuses” 200 times on a piece of paper. She became grateful for this punishment when she grew older.
Nooyi’s confidence and work ethic helped her achieve an MBA from the Yale School of Management in 1980 and to start building a successful career. Early on, she said men wouldn’t make eye contact with her in meetings and would consistently check her answers with one of her male colleagues. But rather than wilt under the pressure, she began to call men out on their actions, and it wouldn’t take long for them to realize she was highly adept at her job.
“In my heart I said, ‘I can do this better than anyone else can, and if everything else fails, they’re going to come to me and say, ‘Fix it,’ because I know I’m that good,” she said. “Remember, I could be president of India!”