WATCH: Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi's 3 secrets for post-pandemic business growth

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) – Indra Nooyi, the former PepsiCo chairman and CEO who is widely admired for her forward-thinking leadership and American success story, shared her optimistic view for business growth on Thursday's WCBS Virtual Business Breakfast.

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"I see tremendous vibrancy in small and medium-sized enterprises who are all reconstituting and re-establishing themselves in a slightly different phase," said Nooyi.

The influential former Fortune 500 leader knows a lot about reshaping a brand. After taking over as CEO of PepsiCo in 2006, Nooyi spearheaded the Westchester-based food and beverage company's Performance with Purpose initiative to develop more health-conscious and nutritious products while limiting its environmental footprint. That was initially met with resistance from her fellow executives.

"I looked forward 10 years and said, 'What are the big mega trends that are going to impact the consumer industry, a food and beverage industry and PepsiCo, and what do I need to do today to retool the company to remain successful?'"

Nooyi noted "change is the only constant" in business and advised employers watching the program to take on the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and make critical improvements to their operations, sales and staffing apparatuses.

She shared her keys to sales, marketing, and work-life balance with the live WCBS audience.

Business Breakfast
Photo credit WCBS 880

Sales & Marketing:

Nooyi said the small businesses that stand out have a clear "proposition" that makes their stores a destination.

"I look at lots of small stores on Main Street and all these towns in Connecticut. Some of them have a great proposition: beautifully curated items," she said, adding, "Others simply sell national products. When you set a national product in a small enterprise, you can't keep the cost competitive."

The former PepsiCo CEO said the charm of local businesses is "personalized service."

"It's wonderful how they make you feel so welcome in the store."

Nooyi noted that communicating the brand identity in a simple way will help businesses sell online, too. She said every business today needs to sell direct-to-consumer as part of their sales portfolio. But, she suggested that local chapters of the Chamber of Commerce and state governments should provide more expansive digital marketing resources and support to help small and mid-sized businesses lower their operating costs to scale.

"It sounds so easy because companies like Amazon have made it easy for us, but setting up the e-commerce backbone is quite difficult," said Nooyi, who sits on Amazon's board of directors. "Let's figure out in communities and business organizations how to provide the basic technical competence so that small and medium-sized enterprises can plug and play on this backbone that's created for them."

The Future of Work:

There's no doubt remote work has improved work-life balance for millions of families. Flexible schedules allow parents to spend more time with their kids and be productive employees in many cases.

But, Nooyi is concerned that it may create two classes of workers: those who go to the workplace everyday and those who work from home permanently.

"I don't know how innovation happens if you don't have face-to-face meetings regularly," she said. "All the value I saw in face-to-face meetings is popping into conference rooms, talking to people in the corridor, it develops a company culture, a company soul, there's a human interaction, ideas are exchanged, you get to know people."

She told the WCBS Virtual Business Breakfast that her two daughters - a millennial and Gen Zer - are both eager to return to their offices.

"I'm hearing about companies who've hired 10,000 people last year. Nobody has met anybody in person."

But, the working mother acknowledges balance and the ability for women to remain in the workforce while raising a family is critical for economic development.

"If we don't have a good childcare infrastructure, we will have the great resignation," said Nooyi. "We will have lots of women in particular leaving the workforce."

Nearly 48 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021, an annual record. About 4.3 million people resigned in January, just shy of a monthly record set in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

She said companies will need to raise wages, especially for essential workers, in order to limit pandemic turnover.

"It was obvious that those people who don't have the chance to have flexible work hours and work from home have got huge caregiving responsibilities, themselves. And somehow we have ignored all of this," said Nooyi.

Leading by Example:

Nooyi credits a few key mentors for being instrumental in her career success and personal growth. In her memoir "My Life in Full: Work, Family and Our Future," she writes about her journey navigating a culture change when she immigrated to the U.S. from India to attend school at Yale University in New Haven, CT and her ascension up the corporate ladder.

"I am a product of mentoring, phenomenal mentoring," she said. "They were all men. They pushed me, they supported me, they critiqued me, they gave me difficult assignments to do because they thought that's the way I should expand my horizons. I will be totally grateful to all of those mentors."

Nooyi revealed she now gets a letter a day from people asking her to be their mentor. But, she said it doesn't work that way; mentors pick someone because they like him or her and see career potential.

"They see a skill, a talent, and they say, 'If I give this person a little bit of advice and push they're going to make it big and I'm going to be able to say, you know, I had a say in this person's success.'"

The influential business leader added that business owners should consider what they offer young talent in the form of mentorship and it may help them retain employees.

Nooyi said health is paramount for owners and managers to successfully lead their teams.

"I always thought that if I exercise or meditate, that was a few minutes away from doing the work of the company, which is really unfortunate because if you don't keep yourself healthy, if you don't have a clear mind - unless you're wired differently like I am - you cannot make good decisions," she said.

"So, I urge everybody: allocate some part of the time of the day to you, to your self-improvement, to your health, time for you and just distress. Because the world today is very complex. Too many things are changing. We have to be lifelong students. Technology is upending everything we do. You come to work a week later and everything has changed in the world around us. And so, I'd say people have to allocate time in a very disciplined way for themselves."

See Indra Nooyi's inspirational message for businesses and employees and get growth ideas on the WCBS Virtual Business Breakfast, which you can watch now on-demand on the YouTube player above.

Indra Nooyi
Indra Nooyi, former PepsiCo Chairman & CEO Photo credit Indra Nooyi

About Indra Nooyi:

Indra Nooyi is the former Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo (2006-2019); a Fortune 50 company with operations in more than 180 countries.

In this role, Mrs. Nooyi was the chief architect of Performance with Purpose, PepsiCo’s pledge to do what’s right for the business by being responsive to the needs of the world around us. As part of Performance with Purpose, PepsiCo was focused on delivering sustained growth by making more nutritious products, limiting its environmental footprint and protecting the planet, and empowering its associates and people in the communities it serves. During her tenure, PepsiCo grew net revenue more than 80%, and PepsiCo’s total shareholder return was 162%. Nooyi directed the company’s global strategy for more than a decade and led its transformation, including the divestiture of its restaurants into the successful YUM! Brands, Inc., the acquisition of Tropicana and the merger with Quaker Oats that brought the vital Quaker and Gatorade businesses to PepsiCo, the merger with PepsiCo’s anchor bottlers, and the acquisition of the Russian company Wimm-Bill-Dann, the largest international acquisition in PepsiCo’s history.

Prior to becoming CEO, Mrs. Nooyi served as PepsiCo’s President and Chief Financial Officer beginning in 2001, when she was also named to the company’s Board of Directors. She was responsible for corporate functions, including finance, strategy, business process optimization, corporate platforms and innovation, procurement, investor relations and information technology. From February 2000 to April 2001, Mrs. Nooyi was Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of PepsiCo. Mrs. Nooyi also served as PepsiCo’s Senior Vice President, Corporate Strategy and Development from 1996 until 2000, and as PepsiCo’s Senior Vice President, Strategic Planning from 1994 until 1996. Before joining PepsiCo in 1994, Mrs. Nooyi spent four years as Senior Vice President of Strategy, Planning and Strategic Marketing for Asea Brown Boveri, a Zurich-based industrials company.

She was part of the top management team responsible for the company’s U.S. business as well as its worldwide industrial businesses, representing about $10 billion of ABB’s $30 billion in global sales. Between 1986 and 1990, Mrs. Nooyi worked for Motorola, where she was Vice President and Director of Corporate Strategy and Planning, having joined the company as the business development executive responsible for its automotive and industrial electronic group. Prior to Motorola, she spent six years directing international corporate strategy projects at The Boston Consulting Group. Her clients ranged from textiles and consumer goods companies to retailers and specialty chemicals producers. Mrs. Nooyi began her career in India, where she held product manager positions at Johnson & Johnson and Mettur Beardsell, Ltd., a textile firm.

Mrs. Nooyi served as a member of the PepsiCo Board of Directors from 2001 and February 2019. Mrs. Nooyi is now a member of the board of Amazon, where she chairs the audit committee. She sits on the supervisory board of Philips, where she is also a member of the nominating and corporate governance committee. She is a member of the International Advisory Council of Temasek; an independent director of the International Cricket Council; and a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. She is on the Dean’s Advisory Council at MIT’s School of Engineering, and a member of the MIT Corporation. She also serves on the boards of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the Partnership for Public Service. Additionally, Mrs. Nooyi is the Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership at West Point where she helps enhance the ability of both the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership and the U.S. Military Academy to fulfill the mission of developing leaders of character. She also serves as an advisor to several early-stage companies.

Indra K. Nooyi
Indra K. Nooyi is the author of the book “My Life in Full: Work, Family and Our Future” in which she offers a blueprint for advancing society in a post-pandemic world. Photo credit Penguin Random House

She is the author of the book, My Life in Full: Work, Family and Our Future, her much-anticipated memoir that offers insight and a call-to-action from one of the world’s most-admired business leaders on how our society can blend work and family — and advance women — in the 21st century. Mrs. Nooyi has received fifteen honorary degrees. In 2007, the Government of India awarded her the Padma Bhushan, the country’s 3rd highest civilian honor. That same year, she was named an “Outstanding American by Choice” by the US State Department. In 2019, her portrait was inducted into the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. In 2021, Indra became an elected member of the American Philosophical Society and joined the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery of Art. She was also inducted into the Asian Hall of Fame and National Women’s Hall of Fame.

She holds a B.S. from Madras Christian College, an M.B.A. from the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta, and a Master of Public and Private Management from Yale University.

Mrs. Nooyi is married to Raj Nooyi and has two daughters, Preetha and Tara.