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Home / Companies / People /  Hope covid makes us pause and ask what kind of a firm we want to build: Indra Nooyi
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NEW DELHI : Indra Nooyi was the first woman of colour to run a Fortune 50 company. That wasn’t an easy ride. The former chairman and chief executive of PepsiCo tells the story of how she did it in her new book, My Life in Full. The book, however, is more than a memoir. It raises questions around workplace behaviour, inclusion and the role of business in society. Nooyi spoke to Mint:

How did the book come about?

When I stepped down as CEO of PepsiCo, everyone asked me why I wasn’t replaced by a woman. They never ask the men that question. I realised that I developed a lot of people to move up the chain to become CEOs. Many women left in the middle ranks— they went to smaller firms as CEOs, not wanting to stick around for the brutal selection process (in PepsiCo). But I also realised that the number of women moving up the ladder was limited because the challenges of having a family and work were just too much. The more I started studying it, the more I realised that the only way we can keep these extremely smart, highly productive professionals in the workforce was to provide them a support system. I thought I would write a series of articles on this topic. Several publishers said people were interested in reading my story. But I didn’t want to write a memoir. This book has my story as a backbone but also lessons that came out of it. That’s why its not a tell-all or a book with incidents that make people uncomfortable. The book leads to what needs to happen to enable women to engage in paid work if they so choose.

The book does focus a lot on inclusion and bias. How do you address implicit bias in the workplace?

This is probably the toughest issue. We have to start off by saying this is an economic argument. We want the best and the brightest in the economy to work for us—the only way companies and institutions can thrive is by bringing in the best and the brightest. That’s good for society, for companies, for shareholders. Leaders have to be taught to think about the best in society. To me, the tone at the top is very important. When leaders spot bad behaviour, nip it in the bud right away. Second, if you don’t have the numbers—enough people who are diverse—you will never be able to put a programme in place. You have to take some artificial actions to increase the numbers and then put in place the appropriate inclusion programme. Ultimately, all of us are in a war for talent and we have no choice but to create inclusive workplaces. People who practice non-inclusive behaviour should put themselves in the shoes they are discriminating against. Would you like to be treated that way? We may come with implicit biases but life has to change.

You have stressed what’s good for business and what’s good for society have to go hand-in-hand. Companies and boards are talking about it but do investors realise that’s important?

The idea that a company is connected to the community is not new. That was the original underpinning of the limited liability company. I think the idea that companies are embedded in society is core to how society and economy should operate. That’s indisputable. Investors and companies moved away from this idea in recent years because of an excessive focus on the short term. That was aided and abated by the ease of trading. The marginal investor set the tone for everything. You had 24x7 media that amplified all kinds of stories. Very often, the headlines and the stories had no link with each other. Very often, people didn’t read the story and just read the headlines to make decisions. It encouraged ‘make money quick’ sort of behaviour that caused an investing habit not conducive for companies to build businesses for the long term. Here’s an example: If a company says it can source a product from country X at much lower cost, everyone is happy. But if that country is employing child labour or employing its labour very poorly or making them work is sub-humane conditions, is that ok? When we talk of what’s good for society, we make it look like value-destroying action or an action that is going to affect profits in the short term. No. This is about how to run a company that doesn’t rob Peter to pay Paul; it’s about how to run a company that doesn’t destroy a society to make another society thrive; this is about thinking of companies as engines of growth, engines of economic development in a positive way as opposed to a destructive way. This thinking was hijacked for a while but it has come back to the mainstream. Investors are increasingly realising that they have to focus on environmental issues, for instance.

What role did covid play in this philosophy of sustainable capitalism?

Covid was a wake-up call in some ways. I don’t believe covid did much about sustainable capitalism although it should have. What it did show us is that we are all connected. I hope it pushes leaders and companies to re-evaluate priorities. Let me tell you where covid should have forced us to think about sustainable capitalism. Should healthcare insurance companies have eased the process for reimbursements during covid? The answer is yes, but many didn’t. Should suppliers have increased prices of their products significantly through covid? In a free-market system, the answer is yes. But was that right to do it through covid? These are the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves. This is where we’ve got to form a different kind of capitalism—a capitalism with humanity. The other example is that a lot of nurses and frontline workers didn’t have the option to work flexibly or remotely. They had to be at the workplace. They all suffered with childcare facilities not being available; they didn’t know how to manage the household. How many companies stepped in to help? We cannot grow society on the back on underpaid and poorly treated workers. I hope covid makes us all pause and ask what kind of a company we want to build. The last point I will make is that covid impacted those with co-morbidities disproportionately. Comorbidities come because of the way people live, drink, the environment. We have to start talking about the environment in profoundly different ways. We have to make our population healthier.

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