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Indians and Chiefs: Does the elevation of Indra Nooyi signal something major?

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October 2006
Indians and Chiefs: Does the elevation of Indra Nooyi signal something major?

Indians and Chiefs: Does the elevation of Indra Nooyi signal something major?

Yes, Indian-American managers are getting recognized

By S. GOPIKRISHNA

? [Indra Nooyi] famously wears a sari to company functions. She therefore personifies India and Indians as Americans see it, in contrast to

the others who have not differentiated themselves in the eyes of the average Joe.

The story goes that a famous musician was accosted by a somewhat pompous audience member after a concert. "What a wonderful concert that was!" exclaimed the concert-goer, "Your music has really improved since the last time we've met." The musician's retort was, "Well, it's your taste that seems to have improved, since my music has always been the same."

Since beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, wouldn't an acknowledgement from the beholder be ultimate proof of the pudding? It is in that context that we need to place the elevation of Indira Nooyi to CEO of PepsiCo. What interests us is not the fact that Nooyi has been elevated, but the fact that everybody has noticed it.

There have been Indian CEOs before (recognizing that the CEO is not always the top decision maker in an organization) and yes, there have been Indian CEOs of Fortune 500 companies before. Back in 1997, Ramani Ayer became the CEO of Hartford Insurance, a heavy weight in the insurance business. There have been subsequently two other Indian CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Their achievements, however, have merited little more than a passing mention in the news media, both Indian and Indian-American.

So, what makes Nooyi special?

What distinguishes Nooyi is her personal distinctiveness—she is a woman, and thus one of fewer than a dozen who have broken the glass ceiling in U.S. corporations. And she famously wears a sari to company

functions. She therefore personifies India and Indians as Americans see it, in contrast to the others who have not differentiated themselves in the eyes of the average Joe.

There is also the question of the product that she represents. Pepsi is an American icon that everybody is familiar with, a far cry from the remote line of insurance where Ramani Ayer is a titan. In this regard, her ascendancy has effectively brought the Indian manager into the average American living room. Nooyi's being anointed the CEO at Pepsi also needs to be placed in the gradual and grudging acceptance of

Indians as being people of substance. Her taking over the reins at PepsiCo draws attention to the IIMs in the same fashion as the IITs' taking the world of engineering by storm not long ago. To the average American her CEO-ship has come to symbolize the "arrival" of the Indian immigrant— today's geeky graduate student may well go on to run an organization as American as turkey on Thanksgiving.

Since perception is as important as reality, Nooyi deserves to be acknowledged for drawing attention to Indians breaking the glass ceiling. She may not be the first entrant, but has certainly made the most

dramatic entrance. .

Toronto-based S. Gopikrishna writes on issues pertinent to India and Indians.

No, the glass ceiling still remains in the corporation

By RAJEEV SRINIVASAN

This, incidentally, makes PepsiCo the largest U.S. corporation led by a woman. But does Nooyi's ascent mean "the Indians have landed"?

The fact that Indra Nooyi—an Indian-raised American—now heads PepsiCo is newsworthy and admirable. This, incidentally, makes Pepsi Co the largest U.S. corporation led by a woman. But does Nooyi's ascent mean "the Indians have landed"? Hardly. No more than a single swallow makes a summer.

There is a rather desperate tendency among Indians to extol the accomplishments of Indian Americans, even those who have deliberately turned their backs on the old country. An excellent example is Bobby Jindal, whose only Indian connection is brown skin: otherwise he is emphatically American and a Southern good ol' boy. Another is novelist Bharati Mukherjee, whose characters celebrate the ritual "murder" of their Indian selves.

Thus, it's best to look at Indra Nooyi as an American who happens to have some relatives in India. There are several others, by the way. The Jewish CEO of a big computer company has a grandmother from India. The WASP CEO of a semiconductor equipment company has a wife whose family is from India. So an Indian link is not all that unusual.

Nooyi's achievements are a credit to her own brilliance and hard work; the fact that she has an Indian heritage is not particularly material, no more than the fact that she is a woman. As the saying goes, a woman has to be twice as good as a man to be considered half as good. The same applies to Indians in a white-dominated corporate world. I suspect those who fly high can come down to earth with a thud, too. I remember at least two once-celebrated Indian-American CEOs in the Silicon Valley whose companies crashed and burned. Other well-known Indian-American CEOs have come and gone before: Rajat Gupta at McKinsey, Rono Dutta at United Airlines, Rakesh Gangwal at U.S. Airways, Victor Menezes at Citibank, Rana Talwar at StanChart, Arun Sarin at Vodafone. It would be absurd to suggest that, therefore, Indians now have a carte blanche to succeed at major U.S. corporations. The Indians who succeed do it the old-fashioned way: they earn it; nobody does them any favors.

And their success isn't doing a thing for the embattled Indian taxi driver or newsstand owner in Manhattan, the gas station owner in Atlanta, or the low-level software engineer on an onsite stint at a major customer's premises. They face casual racism and discrimination. Some of which has increased since 9/11, perhaps understandably.

For Indians to rise in the United States there is only one way— the path that Jews have blazed before them. Education, hard work, and moving into lucrative areas such as finance, law, medicine, entertainment, and high technology. There is no magic bullet, although Indra Nooyi is surely a fine role model for Indian-American children.

Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this perspective from Bangalore.


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