You grew up in the south of India. What lessons from your early life helped guide you?
In our family, there was no difference between the men and the women. They basically said, “Dream as much as you want. We’re never going to stop you based on your gender.” My family, especially my father and my grandfather, said, “We want you to stand on your own two feet. Our investment in you is an education.”
What did you learn from your mother?
As was typical in our community, she had one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake. The accelerator was: “Go be whatever you want to be, because I couldn’t be that.” On the other hand, society told her that [I was] a girl, and you’ve got to get her married off. She would constantly alternate between the two.
Did you aspire to lead a company?
To be honest, I never thought I’d be CEO one day. Never. I didn’t even know what that was, because there was nobody in my family that was in the corporate world. Everybody worked in a state bank or in a government job.
In your book, you describe coming home after a promotion and your mother sending you out for milk. What does that story mean to you?
That was her saying: “Hey, it’s OK your company gives you a crown. But leave that crown at the company when you come home. Make sure that you realize that there’s a whole lot of people who depend on you emotionally, who depend on you as the mother of the family.”
How do you see your professional legacy?
I was among the early few that talked about why successful companies have to be rooted in successful societies. The relationships between companies, societies and communities have to be constantly addressed. That’s why performance and purpose are important.
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Is it still hard for women to reach the top?
Today, 70 percent of high school valedictorians are women; 47 percent of MIT engineers or graduates are women. But women get short shrift at work because the environment there is not as welcoming, accommodating and supportive of women as it needs to be.
What explains why there are still only a handful of women and people of color as CEOs of Fortune100 companies?
You’ve got to build a pipeline and give them the right mentorship and support structure. The big problem we have today is that we don’t give enough support in the early part of the pipeline. When they get to middle management, the women and people of color get taken away to lead smaller companies.
What were the keys to your success?
Slowly climbing the corporate ladder was a testimony to the way I was brought up and then, subsequently, to how I surrounded myself with the right spouse and the right mentors.
How can corporate America become more supportive of female executives?
Three things would help: paid leave, an excellent child care system, and work flexibility or predictability. We’ve got to remove the hurdles in the way and make sure women can be successful — hurdles like getting rid of unconscious bias and allowing women to have a family.
One of your mentors had to warn you “not to throw grenades.”
If I couldn’t say something honestly, my ears would turn red and I’d feel my temperature going up. [Laughs.] I was a little too blunt, because that’s what I was used to. Then over time, I learned how to give people feedback and make them feel like I’m there to help them, not attack them or make them feel terrible.
Overall, what kind of leader would your employees say you were?
I wanted to be viewed as a CEO who cared about her people. I looked at all my employees as assets, not as tools of the trade. Their concerns were my concerns. Whenever I went to a plant, I talked to as many employees as I could. I wrote to them, too, telling them to embrace their families and parents. I wanted them to know that PepsiCo was a place where you could not just make a living, but have a life, too.
You talk about staying involved post-retirement as an advocate for paid leave, child care and workplace flexibility. Any more personal goals?
Life is so fragile. I watched with COVID how many people we’ve all lost. It’s heartbreaking. Given the fragility of life, I want to make sure that I spend time with my family, so that we enjoy the time we all have in this world together.
Do you think today’s CEOs should take a stand on social issues?
Corporate CEOs who are running big consumer companies are in a tough spot. They’re constantly struggling with “should I take a stand or should I not?” My rule of thumb has been: Look at your values statement. If something is happening in society that goes against your values statement, then say something. But don’t go with the herd. First, study the situation very, very carefully. Then say whatever you think needs to be said to support your own values, because that is credible and authentic.
— Interview by Lynnette Khalfani-Cox