It probably is not very easy to write a biography of a woman who has been on various lists of the world’s most influential persons. But the story of Indra Nooyi, CEO, PepsiCo, is one begging to be told, and it is only surprising that it has taken this long.
Even if not the conventional rags to riches story, Nooyi’s is certainly engrossing, given her origins, and the paths she has since taken. While truthfully claiming itself to be ‘a’ biography, this book is a meticulous collection of Nooyi’s interviews, remarks and speeches at public fora, woven in with a richly imagined personal life culled from a few bare facts, thrown in with recollections from people who knew her.
Purporting to be a chronicle of the inspiring story of an Indian woman who went on to become the CEO of PepsiCo is clever; and half the battle won, because Nooyi’s life is automatically inspiring without the embellishments of good writing, sharp and insightful perspective, and a sense of humour. Since there is no clarity over whether the author ever met her subject, even direct speech glossed over until one gets the impression that it could have been quoted elsewhere, the writing of the biography, one assumes, must have been a challenge. Annapoorna, the jacket tells us, is a lawyer and writer living in Delhi. Nothing more.
The book starts ‘in media res’ — a grown girl eyeing her two buckets of rationed water in a middle class neighbourhood in conservative Chennai. The author speaks as an omniscient presence, going out on a limb to describe the sights and sounds of Chennai — the kolam, kanjeevaram silks, vibhuti and Sanskrit slokas. Perspicacity, perhaps, on the part of the author — after all, the biography of one of the world’s top women achievers is bound to draw the attention of the world.
The book then sketchily traces Indra Nooyi nee Krishnamurthy’s passage through Holy Angels’ Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School, and Madras Christian College. And then on, her courage and determination taking her on to the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, and further on to Yale, before she is hired by Boston Consulting Group, a stepping stone to joining PepsiCo.
Right through there are references to Nooyi’s rounded personality — leadership and communication skills, her boldness and conviction, her talent in music (she even joined Harry Belafonte in song many years later at an event for PepsiCo), her devotion to her family, and her strong grounding in the religion and culture she was brought up in.
This biography, it must be remembered, is through the eyes of an unalloyed fan making it a panegyric of sorts. Peppered right through Nooyi’s life, and thus through the early parts of the book, are hints of a bright and splendid future, and the scarcely-concealed awe that someone from such circumstances could rise so far in life. But then, biographies are not necessarily in the business of honesty.
The fact though, is that Nooyi’s life is truly awe-inspiring, the mere narration of its sequence sufficient to draw admirers from all corners of the world. For a woman born in a conservative middle-class family in the South in the 1950s she has indeed come a long way.
Not without battles being fought every step of the way, right from going to Tambaram (MCC) for her higher education, right to fighting prejudices and poverty to rise and skim the surface of corporate America. The role of her family, principally mother, husband and kids, in her achievements is underlined.
Annapoorna focuses attention, rightly so, on the controversies surrounding the Pepsi brand. While doing so, she establishes Nooyi as PepsiCo’s health-foods ambassador, rallying subtly to her support while talking of the pesticide and groundwater controversy that hit both Pepsi and its competitor Coke, in India recently.
Nooyi strategically acquired for her company Tropicana and Quaker Oats, the first of many brands that would take them from fun-for-you foods to better-for-you and good-for-you category of foods. “We’re still reducing salt, reducing sugar, frying our products in hot, healthy oil. I think we’re doing a great job at transforming our portfolio …” says Nooyi.
The author also briefly touches on the non-corporate social responsibilities that Nooyi is involved in, even as she works with colleagues to make PepsiCo ‘one of the defining corporations of the 21st century.’
Clearly, here is a story that the world needs to hear, and it is not over yet. Nooyi, at 56, perceivably has many more laurels coming her way. As a ‘part-story,’ this slim biography, ostensibly the first such, still manages to kindle the basic curiosity of the reader. And now that the animal is curious, it is time indeed for an authorised biography, or even better, an autobiography of the life and times of Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi.