What India taught Indra Nooyi about leadership

Leadership lessons.
Leadership lessons.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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PepsiCo chief executive Indra Nooyi is set to step down after 12 years at the helm of one of the world’s largest food and beverage firms.

The 62-year-old, Chennai-born, Nooyi, was in 2006 appointed the first female boss of the $63.5 billion turnover company where she has spent over two decades by now. Over the years, she became a flagbearer for working women striving to balance the personal with the professional.

However, growing up in a conservative Indian household in the 1950s and 1960s, Nooyi’s rise to the top is an anomaly. In her statement announcing her departure, Nooyi brought up her Indian roots: ”Growing up in India, I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to lead such an extraordinary company,” she said.

Her rise is peppered with life lessons from growing up in the southern Indian city of Chennai where her mother infused in Nooyi a strong sense of confidence even as she kept her grounded. Quoting her mother, Nooyi once said, “I want to get you married when you are 18, and make sure you aspire to be the prime minister.”

Nooyi is yet to run for the post of prime minister, but the lessons she picked up along the way are noteworthy.


Nooyi’s mother instilled in her daughters strong ambitions and the confidence to pretty much fulfil them, too. That lesson stuck with her through life. At a 2015 women’s leadership session in New York, Nooyi once narrated the following story:

“Every night at the dinner table, my mother would ask us to write a speech about what we would do if we were president, chief minister, or prime minister—every day would be a different world leader she’d ask us to play. At the end of dinner, we had to give the speech, and she had to decide who she was going to vote for. Even though my mother didn’t work and didn’t go to college, she lived a life vicariously through her daughters. So she gave us that confidence to be whatever we wanted to be. That was an incredibly formative experience in my youth.”


In a 2017 post on LinkedIn, Nooyi wrote about her years heading a multi-billion dollar business and her personal life. She recalled a 2007 India visit following her appointment as PepsiCo CEO. As expected, a flux of family and friends congratulated her mother—a scene very typical in Indian households. Nooyi extended that gesture to her co-workers’ parents and spouses.

“In the past, if you wanted the best talent, it was all about the job. In today’s world, it goes beyond that. You need to appeal not only to your employees’ heads, but to their hearts. When Steve Reinemund was CEO of PepsiCo, he was great at that. He’d send hand-written notes to employees thanking them for a job well done.

When I became CEO, I tried to do the same. But the way I thought about all this changed completely in 2007 when I travelled to India to visit my mother for the first time after being named CEO. A steady stream of family and friends came into the house. They’d go right over to my mother and say, “Congratulations.” Or “You did such a good job raising Indra.” Watching them, I realised I’d never done for our senior executives at PepsiCo what my mothers’ family and friends were doing for her. So, as soon as I got back, I decided to send a letter thanking the parents of some of our executives. And since then, I’ve sent similar letters to spouses. The impact of these letters has led to some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had at PepsiCo. If I have one request for those of you reading this who lead people, try this. The reactions you get will move you more than you can know.”


Nooyi has been vocal about the extraordinary leadership traits Indians bring to organisations. An ability to live in a “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world” makes Indians more resilient and flexible to change, she feels.

“…we found that people of Indian origin, people who are educated in India, actually rise to the top which is the good part of the whole thing, because agility…everybody in India has to be agile, because you are living in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world in India all the time. So, people who are trained as leaders here actually do very well in today’s world. Indians are very, very flexible they can go anywhere and the most amazing thing is people who are educated in India have an unbelievable ability to network. So they can go to any country, settle down and build relationships very fast. People who have been educated here can also do well on the global stage because you have grown up in a very diverse, multi-culture environment here in India and you can take those skills around the world.”


A graduate of the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta and later Yale, Nooyi is credited with earning top degrees, mostly unknown for women in India of her times. Nooyi credits India’s pedigreed education system for picking out strong leaders.

“Whether you are from the IITs or the IIMs, the Indian education system dishes to foreign companies the best and the brightest. In today’s world, as we CEOs look for truly global leaders who can pilot through all of the volatility in the world, Indian leaders are rising to the top. So every time we go out to look for leaders there are usually four or five people who have been educated in the IITs or the IIMs that show up. So the big question that I keep asking myself is if people who have been educated in India always bubble up to the top then why is it that these leaders want to leave India? Doesn’t India need these leaders? Even if they leave India, shouldn’t there be a round trip ticket for them to come back to India, so they can help India get to a better place. So I think one of the big issues we should talk about is not just lessons in leadership or what the leaders need to do today but what can India do to bring those leaders back to India, so India itself can become an even more powerful economy going forward.”