Success comes from much more than just luck

It’s the immense number of people that I recall most about my 2014 visit to India. The vast sea of people in cities like Mumbai truly is unimaginable to Americans who never experienced first hand such population density.

As we drove throughout the city, I remember asking our driver why so many vehicles were pulled over on bridges and along roadsides with people — mostly men — sitting alone on the hoods of the cars. I was told they stopped there simply to find some alone time or personal space, which, in this country of nearly 1.4 billion people, is not easy to come by.

It was from the city of Chennai, another extremely populous urban area of India, where Indra Nooyi was born in 1955 and raised in a time when most young Indian women did not seek advanced education. Instead, girls’ parents typically placed them into arranged marriages.

That’s why it is mind boggling that rather than remaining in India to start a family, Nooyi completed bachelor’s degrees in physics, chemistry and mathematics and then an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. After that, amazingly, Nooyi’s parents allowed her to travel alone to America to study at Yale School of Management where she quietly had applied, unbeknownst to her family, and was accepted.

More than 40 years later, Nooyi now can boast having served as chief executive officer and chairperson of PepsiCo. She has been counted among the world’s most powerful women in lists compiled by Forbes and Fortune, and by TIME among the world’s 100 most influential people.

“I won the lottery of life because I was born into a family where the men believed women shouldn’t be held back by their gender, which was highly unique in India in the 1950s and ’60s,” Nooyi said during a speaking engagement March 23 in Youngstown.

Nooyi’s talk was part of Youngstown State University’s Skeggs Lecture Series, aptly scheduled during Women’s History Month in March.

As CEO, Nooyi was responsible for growing PepsiCo’s revenues from $35 billion to $63.5 billion, overseeing a portfolio of global brands and diversified products enjoyed by consumers in more than 180 countries and territories worldwide.

It should come as no surprise that Nooyi’s Youngstown talk proved she is intelligent and well-spoken.

But what might be surprising is how this business powerhouse struck me as simply a lovely person who, even as she was serving as a top executive in a multi-billion dollar corporation, never lost focus on her family, her employees and what truly is most important in life.

She relayed a story about how she was promoted to CEO in 2006 without even really seeking the job. When she was advised she was about to be announced as the company’s new CEO, Nooyi said she first balked at the idea, commenting that she wasn’t sure she wanted the job because she had “babies at home.”

After some persuasion, she eventually acquiesced and, ultimately, took the opportunity to enact her hallmark motto of “do well by doing good.” Nooyi was the chief architect of “Performance with Purpose,” PepsiCo’s pledge to be responsive to needs of the world, including making more nutritious products, limiting its environmental footprint and empowering people. She focused on environmental concerns and sustainability, directed package redesign to reduce waste, conserve water and switched to renewable energy and recycling.

In Youngstown, she spoke about the importance of things like having strong mentors — and being a strong mentor — and also of valuing your employees.

“People are everything. Talent is everything,” she said. “We had to make sure everyone was included and that we were very conscious of bias.” She said she encouraged team approaches by including everyone in conversations on things like product design.

And Nooyi said she was successful because she applied her “Five Cs”: Competence; Courage or Confidence; Communication; Coaching; and Citizenship. (She also added Curiosity and Creativity.)

She stepped down in 2018 as CEO of Pepsico after 12 years. That’s seven years longer than the average tenure of large company CEOs.

Nooyi might have started out by winning the lottery of life, but undoubtedly, it wasn’t just luck that led to her success.


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