As one of the most successful chief executives in the world, Indra Nooyi was “one of the guys” but also “a woman,” she said in a forthright and fascinating talk at the Women in the World Summit on Friday. In other words, she said, she didn’t let the men push her around, and she kept a focus on family.
Nooyi, who served as the CEO of PepsiCo for 12 years before retiring last year, recalled a defining moment in her career, when she first joined the company in the nineties as head of corporate strategy. She had two young daughters at the time—one, around nine years old, and the other, nine months old. The company was undergoing a “large-scale transformation,” she said, and she had to work around the clock. So at 5pm each day, she brought the kids into the office.
“They were allowed to play, to sleep in my office, do whatever,” she said. “If I couldn’t go home and take care of the kids, my office was going to become the place were they would hang out.”
“Your bosses were okay with that?” asked moderator Margaret Brennan of CBS News.
“Did they have a choice?” Nooyi replied, sparking a roar of approval from the audience.
“Look, if you want me, that’s the price of having me. It comes down to, if you establish a niche for yourself that you’re competent, and make yourself indispensable based on competence, what can they do without you?” she said. “If they didn’t want me because they didn’t want kids running around, get somebody else. Get a guy who couldn’t do the job as well. If you wanted me, my kids were going to be around.”
“How much resistance did you get to that?,” asked Brennan.
“Zero,” she said. Nooyi credited a supportive boss and also her husband, “a very good guy” and “a gem of a person,” she said, noting that he gave up some of his own career opportunities to help her advance. “He’s been a great husband, and I owe a lot to what he has been for me.”
She discussed the challenge of balancing work and family, making the point that it’s not just the kids who need attention. “The spouse demands attention too,” she said, laughing. “As you move up the pyramid, they demand more attention.” She smiled as she recalled how she would come home from work, immediately “making a beeline” for her comfy old nightgown. Her kids thought it was great because it meant she wasn’t going anywhere for the night. But her husband was less thrilled.
“My husband would come home and say, ‘Oh no, not that fat nightgown again!’” She added, “The good news, I’m still with the same husband. He’s a good man. I couldn’t be married to me!”
She noted that for parents who don’t have a strong support system, “you will end up making some tradeoffs—you will, because it’s brutal.” Not everyone can afford childcare, and childcare workers themselves don’t get paid enough, she said. “I was just reading a bunch of statistics today. In many cities in the country, a childcare worker gets paid $12 an hour, but if you work in the local Wawa market, you get $14 an hour. In the Wawa market, you get to talk to adults. Many care workers are opting to go work in a more social environment, as opposed to doing care for elderly people or for children.”
The country needs “systemic solutions to address this issue,” she said. “We need to come up with true policy options and start working on this.”
It’s something she’s planning to focus her attention on in her retirement, she said, laughing when she recalled how her daughters said, “Mom, we thought you retired—what happened?” She joked, “I don’t know what retirement is. I don’t need to lie on a beach.”
She concluded, “I’m just trying to figure out how to make a difference and pay it forward to all of the women who work so hard, all the families that are struggling to have kids and make a life and make a living. I think people like us who have had an incredible past, incredible support systems, need to pay it forward.”
Additional reporting by Michelle Smawley.