Indra Nooyi, one of India’s most high-profile global executives, has pulled down the curtains on her glittering career at PepsiCo. As chief executive officer (CEO), what Nooyi has achieved for her employer pales in comparison with what she achieved as an Indian and a woman.

In 2006, when Nooyi was chosen to head one of the world’s largest food and beverage companies, Indians were known for their expertise in the information technology space, though few of them had yet to make it to the corner offices of any of the largest Silicon Valley firms.

Apart from Unilever Plc, which had regularly catapulted its top Indian executives to global positions, few multinationals in the services sector looked at Indians as possible leaders.

Nooyi, thus, became a pioneer of sorts, showing the way to the top to Indians who until then seemed perfectly content to stay in the C-Suite without making a dash for the top job.

But it is her role as an icon for Indians in general and women in particular that merits most attention.

Consider how rare Nooyi’s achievement is. A mere 25 of the S&P 500 companies in the US are run by a woman, as per research group Catalyst.

An Indian woman, born, brought up and educated in India went on to lead one of the world’s best known multinational corporations.

Read that slowly and carefully, for each part of that sentence is loaded with significance.

A woman, not a man, one who went to school in Madras (not Chennai), a schooling that must have shaped her as much as her management education from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) or her degree from Yale, and one who went on to lead, not just work in, a company that was ranked in 2005, 61st in the Fortune 500 list of the world’s largest corporations. Oh, and by the way, another mythbreaker—on the way to the top, Nooyi was for five years the chief financial officer of the company.

That her successor Ramon Laguarta is a Spaniard from Barcelona shows how globalized a corporation PepsiCo is and how deep its access to the global talent pool is. And this company chose an Indian woman to chart its future at a time when it was in danger of losing ground to Coca-Cola.

She was in that job for 12 years, twice the normal term of CEOs at Pepsi and 2.4 times the average tenure of all S&P 500 CEOs. In that time, the company’s revenue grew 80%; not spectacular, but significant, given the secular decline in the consumption of colas in this period.

That the US press still pilloried her, as in 2011, when the company’s stock price tanked 15% even as that of its principal rival, The Coca-Cola Co., soared, or the many times the company failed to hit its targeted profits, shows that no one cut her any slack because of her sex.

Simply put, Nooyi became CEO not by inheritance, not by marriage, not even because it would be good optics. The PepsiCo of 2006 was already high on women power and didn’t need a woman in the corner office to prove its credentials.

In the same year as Nooyi was named CEO of the company, another PepsiCo executive, Dawn Hudson, head of its North America business, was ranked No. 42 on Fortune’s list of 50 Most Powerful Women for 2006.

And Nooyi stayed and prospered in that job for over a decade, complete with family, children and an old-fashioned, no-nonsense mother, who famously told her that at home, “you’re the daughter, you’re the daughter-in-law, you’re the mother".

At 62, she has many good years ahead of her, though she did say one reason for seeking retirement was that she’s physically tired. She’s already crashed one men’s-only club when she became the first independent female director on the board of the International Cricket Council (ICC).

So, this retirement can merely be a strategic retreat till she chooses her next target.

In being who she is, Indra Nooyi has set herself up as an exemplar of what is possible for all Indians and, indeed, for young women all over the world.

Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage. The Corporate Outsider looks at current issues and trends in the corporate sector every week.

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