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Most Influential CEOs: PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi Pushes for People Power, Diversity

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The Indian-born leader is known for hiring from all walks of life and inspiring staff with her infectious spirit.

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On a recent episode of NBC's The Office, Dwight, the ego maniacal salesman, goads Kelly, an airheaded HR rep, into applying for the company's "Print in All Colors" minority executive training program. In an effort to inspire her he asks, "How many Indian CEOs can you think of?... You could be the Indian Bill Gates. You could be the Indian Ted Turner."

Or she could be the next Indra Nooyi, the actual Indian-born chairman and CEO of the number one Fortune 500 company in the Food Consumer Products industry. Nooyi is not only the first Indian president of PepsiCo (PEP), she's the first woman to lead the company in its 41-year history.

Nooyi would be the first in line to (albeit legitimately) encourage the fictional TV character to become a minority corporate executive. As one of only 13 women and six Asians at the helm of a Fortune 500 company, she has been an outspoken advocate of corporate diversity and believes her minority status and its unique perspective helps to inform her efficacy as a business leader. A beneficiary of PepsiCo's longstanding commitment to diversity, including its
Talent Sustainability program that aims to increase female and minority representation in management ranks, Nooyi asserts, "I am everything that this company has stood for in diversity and inclusion; it has all come together with me."

Under her reign at PepsiCo, Nooyi strictly enforces these objectives to not just recruit and hire people from all walks of life, but to retain them. In 2008, she told Diversity Inc. magazine that she takes personal ownership of the HR program by tying 50% of her bonus to the company's people goal.

Born in Madras in 1955, Nooyi credits her upbringing for instilling the competitive work ethic that still drives her today. Her parents taught her, "If you do a job, you must do it better than anybody else."

Perhaps her childhood also taught her to have fun because while studying chemistry, physics, and math at Madras Christian College, she was on the cricket team and played electric guitar in an all-female rock band. She continued her studies at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta where she earned her MBA. By the time she came to America in 1978 to attend Yale's Graduate School of Management, she was flat broke. During an interview at Dartmouth's CEO Speaker Series, she recalled how she made ends meet working the graveyard shift at Yale's receptionist counter: "The end of the month I would have $2 left over and if I had $5 I thought I had died and gone to heaven."

Without money to buy a proper business suit, she wore a traditional sari to a job interview with The Boston Consulting Group. She landed the job and, after six years directing international corporate strategy projects, she moved on to Motorola (MOT), where she served as vice president and director of corporate strategy and planning.

The mid-90s marked Nooyi's foray into the beverage industry when, in 1994, PepsiCo made her senior vice president of corporate strategy and development. Throughout her career at PepsiCo she's held posts as senior vice president and CFO, president and CFO, and was named to PepsiCo's Board of Directors in 2001 before becoming the company's fifth CEO in 2006. Responsible for directing PepsiCo's most strategic global moves, Nooyi was instrumental in Pepsi's spin-off of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC, which became YUM Brands (YUM), as well as last year's $7.7 billion purchase of its two biggest bottlers, PepsiAmericas (PAS) and Pepsi Bottling Group (PBC), which is anticipated to produce $300 million in annual cost savings. She was the primary architect in the acquisition of Tropicana for $3.3 billion and for the $13 billion merger with the Quaker Oats Company.

At a time when consumer habits are shifting to include more health-conscious choices, Nooyi is restructuring PepsiCo and its massive billion-dollar food and beverage portfolio of 19 product lines. Riding the future wave of sustainability, the goal of her multi-year growth model is to drive innovation in wholesome ingredients, energy use, water and packaging, and workforce diversification. Current sales of "good-for-you" nutrition brands like Tropicana, Dole, Quaker, and Tazo total $10 billion, and Nooyi hopes to triple that figure within 10 years.

Nooyi's tremendous business savvy doesn't compromise the more right-brained skill of communication. She is known for playing the mother figure to her employees, whom she considers part of her family, and keeps an an open-door policy. Every quarter she writes hand-written thank-you letters to the spouses of all 27 executives for putting up with long hours away from home. After seeing the impact of her success on her mother during a visit home, Nooyi also began sending letters to executives' parents.

A four-year chart-topper on Fortune's 50 Most Powerful Women in Business list and third on Forbes', Nooyi doesn't exactly dress the part of a high-powered CEO. While her female cohorts may wear Prada and Gucci heels to work, Nooyi is known to walk the halls of PepsiCo, singing, in her bare tootsies. With a $9.36 million salary (ranking eighth in compensation among CEOs in the Food Drink and Tobacco Industry), gone are the days when she was forced to wear a sari in lieu of a suit; now that's her attire of choice for any social events at the company.

In fact, it's her Hindu heritage that she credits with helping her balance running a $43 billion company with nearly 200,000 employees as well as a household with two children. "There are times when the stress is so incredible between office and home, trying to be a wife, mother, daughter-in-law, and corporate executive," she once said in an interview. "Then you close your eyes and think about a temple like Tirupati, and suddenly you feel 'Hey -- I can take on the world.' Hinduism floats around you, and makes you feel somehow invincible."

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