Indra Nooyi's autobiography My Life In Full: Work, Family, And Our Future is worth reading as the journey of a woman who made it to the very top – especially when female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are so rare.
Indra Nooyi’s autobiography My Life In Full: Work, Family, And Our Future is worth reading as the journey of a woman who made it to the very top – especially when female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are so rare.
I recently read Once Upon A Life, Author Temsula Ao’s memoir, and in the preface, she talks of the difference between memoir and autobiography. She writes, “This book is basically a memoir rather than an autobiography because, as Gore Vidal has said, ‘A memoir is how one remembers one’s life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, and facts double-checked’. Therefore the accuracy required in an autobiography has not been attempted here; nor has any chronological detail or sequence been mentioned or strictly followed. The only principle adhered to here is the effort to present the authenticity and intensity of the impressions retained in the memory of a heart which has borne the burden of an excruciating truth these many years…”
It so happened that I came to ex-Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi’s My Life In Full: Work, Family, And Our Future right after finishing Ao’s memoir, and almost immediately it was apparent that this would be an autobiography, not a memoir. This is not to say that one approach is necessarily ‘better’ than another; memoirs do however tend to be more intense and focus on specific parts of an individual’s life that hold deep emotional meaning for them. Autobiographies, on the other hand, present to us the whole of an individual’s life (or life to date), as Indra Nooyi does here and can be revealing in their own way, even if less intense.
My Life In Full takes us through Indra Nooyi’s journey from being the child of a comfortable, and relatively progressive family in 1960s Chennai to her life as an immigrant woman in the US facing challenges related to both race and gender, and finally, her golden years climbing to become CEO of a billion-dollar business, while handling many of the issues that come with being an ambitious working mother. Nooyi acknowledges that even as an immigrant, her struggles were relatively easier due to the more privileged background that she came from. She says, “Mine is not an immigrant story of hardship – of fighting my way to America to escape poverty, persecution, or war. I don’t know what it feels like to be a refugee, homeless because my own country is in crisis. I spoke English. I had landed in the US with $500. I was at Yale. And I had the safety net of my family in India, a place that I was familiar with and loved and that would take me back.”
Despite this, it is clear that Nooyi battled her fair share of challenges, both because she was a woman climbing the ladder in an era where few women made it into middle or upper management, and because she was a brown woman in business – not something ‘nerdy’ Asians were seen as being good at. One of the things I found most curious about the book is the relative lack of anger that she displays at some of the most blatant displays of chauvinism and racism; while she does mention almost quitting a job due to a white boss who insisted on calling her ‘honey’ and treating her as the little woman, and one can sense the rage she must have felt, it is well-hidden. Instead, for most of the book, Indra Nooyi chooses to focus on the people who supported her, mentored her and enabled her to combine a very demanding career with the needs of her family.
Indeed, one thing that emerges clearly in this book is how much of a village it takes to raise a child. From her mother who spent long periods with her to friendly neighbours who chipped in when needed to paid help to even bosses who pitched in to drive a child home – Nooyi gives credit generously; she also does the same for all those who supported, taught and mentored her at work (and these largely happen to be men, given how rare women were at senior levels then).
In the introduction to this book, Nooyi mentions that she started off planning to write a book about women and work, but then decided to write her own story; nonetheless, there is some reflection here about what holds women back at work. I found these bits a little superficial though – while she does talk about a few of the initiatives taken up at PepsiCo, it would have been interesting to hear more of her real feelings about how she sees the impact of programs meant to further women at work in the absence of wider social change.
Reflecting on how difficult she had it, working in an era that was all about face time, with little flexibility for anyone at work, she says, “This is no model for achieving real progress on combining career and family in a world were society’s explicit message to young family builders in recent decades has largely been this: if you want jobs and kids, it’s your problem. My story doesn’t change the heart-breaking reality that we, as a society, haven’t built robust, contemporary systems to truly support anyone – male or female- who wants to both earn a good living and build a happy, healthy home life.”
While it is to her credit that she doesn’t present her success as some kind of easy template that anyone would follow, I felt that the book would have been richer if she had shared some more of what she feels about the situation, rather than only what she thinks about it. You get the sense that she is either a very private person who is not comfortable sharing her feelings on the subject, or chooses not to do so in order to be diplomatic, but it makes for a less engrossing book.
To me, in fact, the most interesting parts of the book were those where real feeling came through; when she talks about her beloved grandfather, thatha, who was the central and towering figure of her childhood; or indeed, when she addresses the ‘leave your crown in the garage’ moment in her life that made waves a few years ago. At the time, many were angry with Nooyi for what appeared to be her resigned acceptance of gender norms, but the book makes it clear that this was not the case.
Reflecting on how her mother asked her to first buy the milk, even as she came home eager to share the news of becoming CEO at PepsiCo, Nooyi says, “So should my mother have just let me share my great news? Yes. My excitement that night was not about my new title, per se. I wanted to enjoy the moment and my accomplishment with the people closest to me and to share in their pride. I have a feeling that if I were a man, a husband, a father, I might have had a little more leeway…. Getting a promotion or a prize outside the home sometimes seems to mean that either that prize was easy to get or that we are letting our domestic duties slide. This zero-sum game for women when it comes to work or family achievements is pernicious.”
My Life In Full is worth a read, to understand the journey of a woman who made it to the very top – especially when we know how rare female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies still are. In fact, it is worth reading for anyone aspiring to be part of the C-Suite, to understand just how hard the CEO life is – and how much of your life you need to devote to this career trajectory – it’s harder for women but its hard on anyone. It’s not dramatic, or sensational, or even a book that goes very deep into the writer’s motivations and impulses, but it does present a broad sweep of a notable woman’s life that can tell us something about work, motherhood, ambition, and what it takes to combine all of those.
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