There are many business icons who inspire awe, but Indra Nooyi is one of the few who are truly for all seasons. Many speak, rapturously, of Nooyi—a permanent fixture of sorts on all manner of power-lists—being a paragon of female achievement. Whether she is that or she isn’t is a matter of the lens that you wear when looking at her career. She once said with uncommon (some would say, inelegant) candour that she didn’t think women can have it all. “We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all,” she had told The Atlantic while discussing work-life balance. Radicals would say she is wrong, that she shouldn’t have undermined the struggle of women world over. But, as was clear from the interview, her view was rooted in her own life—she spoke of how she and her husband had to “co-opt a lot of people to help them”. The fact is no one can have it all, irrespective of their gender, though it is also that the pressure to “have it all” is unfairly on women. But, the most important fact here is that Nooyi—all the backroom support in her personal life along with—demonstrates what a woman can aim for, and have. An illustrious tenure as a business leader, and a spot in history as an inspiration to millions, women in particular.
That said, Nooyi’s exit will leave the business community poorer for women leaders—the S&P 500 will have just 23 female CEOs, less than 5% of the total. One of the reasons why very few women make it to the top is because the pressure of being the caregiver for the family is on them, as a recent McKinsey Global Institute study highlights. Nooyi, in The Atlantic interview, talked of how her own mother told her that she was expected to play the role of the caregiver at home, the laurels she earned in her professional life notwithstanding. But, she also talked about how much of her role as a parent to her daughters depended on developing “mechanisms” with her office staff. If there is one lesson from Nooyi’s stint that saw Pepsico go from a $35 billion net revenue company in 2006—when she was appointed its CEO—to a $63.5-billion one today, it is that success, whether as a parent or as career-person, boils down to choices, mostly the hard ones.