Religious CEOs: PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi

By Lila MacLellan  MAY 19, 2010 5:50 AM

Her Hindu faith may be the source of this powerful woman's extreme humility.


Indra Nooyi, the chief executive at the head of PepsiCo (PEP), is known for several quirky attributes, all of them endearing.

According to various profiles written about the Indian-born CEO since she began taking on senior roles at the company (she took the top post in 2006), Nooyi is not too shy to sing around the office, wears a sari to company social events, has kept a karaoke machine at home, once displayed a Yes doll (programmed to say ingratiating phrases) on her office desk, and has been known to sing around the halls of PepsiCo HQ, even walking barefoot on occasion.

The corporate icon who regularly makes Forbes and Fortune lists of the most powerful women in the world is also known for her aggressive deal-making, and credited with several of Pepsi’s most successful strategic moves, such as getting the firm out of the restaurant business (spinning off the Yum Brands (YUM)), purchasing Tropicana, merging with Quaker Oats, and deciding last year to purchase its key bottling partners as a cost-saving measure. Despite her hard-nosed business dealings, though, she maintains the profile of a modest, gentle leader.

That aspect of her much-admired personality just might be attributable to a spiritual source. Nooyi, a devout Hindu, has occasionally described to reporters how her faith has influenced her life.

Speaking to an Indian magazine about growing up in Chennai, India, where she was born in 1955, she once said, "Our house had a very large temple room, and my mother used to pray three or four hours every morning. So the house was a deeply religious house, and every occasion of life and death was observed with great care and exacting standards." Nooyi has reportedly set aside an area of her own Greenwich, Connecticut, home so that she can pray, or perfom puja. She is also said to be a vegetarian who doesn't drink and has never smoked.

Although born into an Indian middle-class family, Nooyi had to work through college to make ends meet while a student at Yale’s Graduate School of Management in the late '70s. After finishing her degree, she landed a job with Boston Consulting Group, and moved on to two other companies, including Motorola (MOT), before joining PepsiCo in 1994. She entered the firm as a senior vice president of corporate strategy and development.

When she was named chief financial officer at Pepsi in 2001, Nooyi told her boss, former PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Roger Enrico, that she needed to take time off in order to visit a temple in India that held special importance to her family. Eventually she found time in her hectic schedule to make the trip and make a “decent-size” offering. Not surprisingly, the corporate chief has maintained a focus on family throughout her years at the helm. One famous anecdote tells of her writing to the parents of her senior staff, thanking them for raising the child they did.

She explained her decision to write those letters at a Yale School of Management forum, telling the story of a special trip home to India, visiting her mother:

Every two minutes, some stranger would show up home and my mom would say, this is the neighbor’s fourth cousin, come say hello. And I’d say, “Mom, I’m here on vacation, I want to rest!” And she’d say, “You may come here for four days and leave, but I have to live with these people, so you’d better show up and be on display.” So I was dressed like I was going to a party from morning to evening, just to say hello to people.

But the irony of it was they would come in, and they would say, “Oh, so this is the daughter,” and then they would blow past me in 30 seconds. Then they’d go to my mom and say, “You are so wonderful, you gave birth to this child, you are so great.” And my mother would just sit there and take all the compliments. ...  At that time, it occurred to me, that every person is either a product or a victim of their upbringing.

Nooyi also told the students at her alma mater that as CEO of a food company, she feels it’s important to “think about the costs you pass on to society.” Indeed, her societal contribution has become a special focus at the company. As reported in The Economist earlier this year, Nooyi is pushing for PepsiCo to be “seen as one of the defining companies of the first half of the 21st century, a model of how to conduct business in the modern world."

Nooyi says she would like to be helping the developed world battle its greatest health threat: obesity. That means the firm will soon be stepping up its focus on healthful options. PepsiCo announced that it would be pulling its sugary drinks from schools around the world by 2012. It's also set goals to reduce salt content in many of its best-selling products and cut back on added sugar in drinks. In March, the firm announced that it had developed a designer salt, engineered to reduce the amount of sodium contained in potato chips without altering the flavor. Expect to sample products with the new salt within two years.

Although critics question the integrity of PepsiCo’s new focus on good-for-you foods, Nooyi’s comments make it clear that she’s certain the shift will help consumers, and invite positive karma for the company’s bottom line.

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