Indra K. Nooyi on Having it All or Not

Indra K. Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, was interviewed at Aspen about “having it all.” It’s a really honest, insightful interview. Here’s a small bit.

This is about 14 years ago. I was working in the office. I work very late, and we were in the middle of the Quaker Oats acquisition. And I got a call about 9:30 in the night from the existing chairman and CEO at that time. He said, Indra, we’re going to announce you as president and put you on the board of directors… I was overwhelmed, because look at my background and where I came from—to be president of an iconic American company and to be on the board of directors, I thought something special had happened to me.

So rather than stay and work until midnight which I normally would’ve done because I had so much work to do, I decided to go home and share the good news with my family. I got home about 10, got into the garage, and my mother was waiting at the top of the stairs. And I said, “Mom, I’ve got great news for you.” She said, “let the news wait. Can you go out and get some milk?” I looked in the garage and it looked like my husband was home. I said, “what time did he get home?” She said “8 o’clock.” I said, “Why didn’t you ask him to buy the milk?” “He’s tired.” Okay. We have a couple of help at home, “why didn’t you ask them to get the milk?” She said, “I forgot.” She said just get the milk. We need it for the morning. So like a dutiful daughter, I went out and got the milk and came back.

I banged it on the counter and I said, “I had great news for you. I’ve just been told that I’m going to be president on the Board of Directors. And all that you want me to do is go out and get the milk, what kind of a mom are you?” And she said to me, “let me explain something to you. You might be president of PepsiCo. You might be on the board of directors. But when you enter this house, you’re the wife, you’re the daughter, you’re the daughter-in-law, you’re the mother. You’re all of that. Nobody else can take that place. So leave that damned crown in the garage. And don’t bring it into the house. You know I’ve never seen that crown.”

She says that even with a staff and extended family, she isn’t able to give her family enough attention.

You know, stay at home mothering was a full time job. Being a CEO for a company is three full time jobs rolled into one. How can you do justice to all? You can’t. The person who hurts the most through this whole thing is your spouse. There’s no question about it.



57 thoughts on “Indra K. Nooyi on Having it All or Not

  1. I can’t figure out how I feel about this interview. The grandmother sounds like a piece of work. It also sounds like a sad, lonely life — where the CEO lady works all the time and wants to be appreciated by her family and instead it sounds like they all resent her.

    On the other hand, it she has effectively handed her kids over to her mom and her mom is actually raising the kids (the same as if she were a drug addict or something), then that is wrong. I knew a foreign service family where the grandma travelled with them and raised the kids. You wonder why someone would have kids in order to hand them over to another family member to raise, particularly one who already raised a first set of kids. doesn’t really seem fair to the grandma. (I met a young woman who was a harvard student awhile ago, and her parents were first-generation from India. Both of her parents were doctors and the kids were raised mostly by the extended family while the parents worked. she actually told me that “I don’t know how I feel about my mom because I don’t know her very well.” I found that a bit chilling — so even though within some cultures, it’s apparently okay to give your kids to other family members to raise, it seems hard on the kids.)

    Quite frankly, back when I was working like a madwoman earlier in my career I discovered something called ‘shelf milk” which never goes bad because it’s highly pasteurized. We were living abroad and when we were running low on milk, I would have three cases of the stuff delivered to our house. (We had an entire pantry full of milk and shelf-stable juice.) Problem solved.

    Clearly the milk in the CEO story was deeply significant and represented some kind of deeper problem and resentment — in our house, it was just milk and I found an efficient way to solve the problem.

  2. That isn’t how we have lived, but I have to say, my mother would have been very happy to raise our daughter, if we had asked her.

  3. I’m not sure what the “Wow” is about. Maybe it’s about this: “You know, stay at home mothering was a full time job. Being a CEO for a company is three full time jobs rolled into one.” Maybe it’s more accurate to flip those numbers: stay at home mothering is (at least) three full time jobs rolled into one, and being a CEO is a full time time, albeit one that may be a 27/7 job. I’ve met enought CEOs to know that tears should not be shed for their so-called work-life balance challenges.

  4. Why is the husband not coming home until 8? Why didn’t he take on the role of the full time parent? I’m sure they didn’t need the second salary to pay the mortgage on the house.

    I’m sure her daughters turned out fine. With a grandmother at home and all the help, the girls were probably well loved and cared for. They probably don’t know their mother very well, but there are tons and tons of kids who don’t know their fathers very well, because they were at the office until very late at night. Relationships take time. They can’t be dialed in or outsourced.

    1. But it’s very predictable. Women. Do not be too successful. You will be punished. See what the mum said – When you’re here, you are a servant. Don’t get above yourself. Serve. Conform.
      It’s predictable, but still depressing.

  5. I spent two hours in the car this morning taking Ian to a special camp (hard to find such places) and then Jonah to his counselor job at the local Y. Then I prepped the back patio for a paint job. If I go back to work (a possibility), how will those things happen? I can outsource them, I suppose. But will I miss talking with the kids in the car ride? Will I miss taking pictures of spinach?

      1. Yes, you can outsource all of this. Some of it is for you (well, and us, your readers), like the spinach pictures. I will miss those things if you are working and don’t have time for them. But, you don’t have any responsibility to me. Which of those things would impact your children? That really depends on you and your children.

        I know that there are certain kinds of opportunities that would be more difficult for my children to take advantage of if I wasn’t here. Pure driving can be outsourced, but the knowledge, commitment, and encouragement depend more strongly on the relationship.

        And then, there’s you. Would you miss talking with the kids in the car? I did miss not being knowledgeable about my kids lives, which requires being with them, a lot. They only talk occasionally, but you can’t recreate the times when they’ll talk. I detest the driving, though.

    1. Will Steve miss talking with the kids and taking pictures of spinach?

      I’m waiting at the orthodontist’s office now. I’ve already had a disastrous shopping trip with the 15yo (why why why does she refuse to consider buying a bathing suit until she absolutely needs it????) this morning. After the ortho I have to rush home and shower then teach a class, rush home, take 11yo to drum lesson while husband takes 15yo to wind ensemble rehearsal. I would be happy to miss out on most of this.

      Also, our centralAC broke a week ago and two different repair people can’t figure out what’s wrong. I am a tad bit grumpy.

      1. Mine this week was the dishwasher and the kitchen sink–out half the week. But at least we can use paper plates. If our AC was out, we’d have to check into a hotel until they fixed it.

        We do all of our swimsuit shopping off of the Lands End website. I can’t even imagine taking our rising 7th grader swimsuit shopping IRL. Oh, the pain that would ensue!

      2. But, how would your children do without it? How would she get the bathing suit if you weren’t there? And, by no means is the question designed to suggest that you have to be there for the disastrous bathing suit shopping. It’s quite possible, for example, that sending her off by herself would be more effective (or with a friend).

        I want people to have more discussions about *how* things can get done while mothers are accomplishing something elsewhere. Not just that they can or can’t, but how, and what you gain and lose.

      3. Amy, I asked her several times about getting a bathing suit, and I am always buying from Lands End. She simply refused to consider it until today. Argh.

        bj, she asked me last night to go shopping today. The problem wasn’t arguing over her choices; it’s that I had next to no time available and I needed her to find something quick and she was screwing around trying to put rejected suits back on hangers instead of looking for a new one.

      4. Yeah, I don’t know what to do about the teenage brain’s inability to comprehend space and time. It’s kind of like a toddler’s, except, in the case of a toddler, you are in charge of everything (so, if they don’t have a bathing suit for an important event, it’s your fault). With a teen, they tell you five minutes before they need it, and somehow expect that you will be in all the places you need to be all the times, even though it is impossible within the laws of physics.

        We face this issue most recently with respect to our teens’ attempts to schedule group activities with her friends (an exercise whose difficulty is compounded by the teen exponential effect in inability to comprehend space and time — i.e. they are worse at solving the problem together than individually).

  6. Yes. He would very much like to talk to the kids more. And take pictures of spinach. He would be extremely happy to quit his job.

    1. Hmm, my wife didn’t feel like that at all. I thought she would go crazy when she was home on maternity leave. I told her many times that she could quit work, and she resisted until very recently, when she felt old enough to retire. Ferrying our daughter around would have been a nightmare for her.

      I would be happy to quit my job, except for the loss of status, but that’s enough to ensure that I never would. I would guess that Indra Nooyi’s husband felt either the way my wife does, or the way I do: either way, that explains why he kept working.

  7. My husband missed most of our kid’s babyhood and toddlerhood because he was deployed most of the time. He regrets it and occasionally we have conversations about how his relationships with the kids might have been different had he actually been there for those four years. Good point about the husband — I wonder why he was working til eight o’clock at night.

  8. Comparing having grandparents doing most of the hands on child care to a situation where someone has an addiction and can’t take care of their children seems kind of cold and wrong. There are just so many situations where parents have to work, and sometimes need to work a lot. The idea of biological mothers and fathers as primary caregivers is culturally based too. This is entirely separate from wanting time with your children day in and day out. I certainly understand that.
    I have several friends who were single mothers due to divorce, back in the day when child support was not easy to obtain. One went back to school to finish her BA when her son was a teenager and he resented this and began acting out. She sat him down and told him this was finally her chance to do something for herself and she was not going to let him take that away from her. Years later he remembers this as the moment he learned that the world did not revolve around him and maybe he needed to step up and be supportive.

    1. Great story. I like collecting stories of adults who felt that their working mothers parented them effectively. There are plenty, even though the ones about how their famous mothers made them feel lonely and unloved are the ones that tend to get published as books.

  9. Wow indeed. It seems incredibly screwed up for her to have gone and done it – can’t people eat cereal without milk? Getting bossed around by your mother (who could have bought the milk herself) and being told that not wanting to go back out at midnight means you’re wearing a “crown” is pretty crazy. I think you mean “insightful,” but it was “inciteful” too – it made me mad.

  10. It seems her husband was a Director at a consulting firm, Pittiglio Rabin Todd & McGrath, from 1991 to 2001.

    So he didn’t get home until 8, because he was working. At least he was in the same town as his family on that night. Management consultants travel frequently. PRTM seems to have been acquired by Price Waterhouse Coopers; today, it is a global company. It was probably global 14 years ago.

    It does not seem that he was by any stretch of imagination a “house husband.” They are a very high-powered couple, who have multiple people living in their household to take care of household tasks.

    I really think this isn’t a husband/wife sort of dispute. It’s a mother/daughter kind of dispute. Why did the mother not feel she could ask the staff for milk? Why was the milk so important she had to send her daughter out at almost midnight? Or was it the power to say to her daughter, you must do this.

  11. For some reason, mom feels a need to psychologically diminish the accomplishments of her daughter and for some reason the daughter needs to rationalize her mother’s need as an expression of family love.

    1. I didn’t see it that way, but to differentiate would require a deeper understanding of the the relationship than we could possibly have from the anecdote. My own mother is nothing like Nooyi’s mother, but I myself might be (i.e. the mother who might think that my appropriate role was to bring my daughter down to earth by demanding that she pick up milk; I’d also expect my child to put their socks in the laundry, no matter how old or famous they were, unless there were especially special circumstances), but in no case would it be to diminish my daughter’s accomplishments.

      My kiddo and I actually had a conversation about this, when I read Rebecca Walker believes that her own mother is jealous of her, and diminishes her accomplishments because of that jealousy. I read that differently as well, thinking that it was Rebecca Walker as projecting, and, well, being a child (I guess it’s possible that Alice Walker is jealous of the Rebecca’s writing but that would not be my first assumption. My first assumption would be that Alice was trying to help). But, I questioned myself enough to ask if my daughter would ever consider criticism of her work to be motivated by jealousy on my part. She assured me that she does not (though, admittedly, she is still very young, and, maybe, not old enough to see her work as being comparable to mine, even though it is in some instances).

      1. It might be wanting to help from the point of view of Alice Walker, but at the same time also viewing one’s child as an extension of oneself and as an opportunity to live her life again, but better this time.

        And yes, one might feel jealous of one’s daughter’s youth (hence the whole Snow White vs. Evil Stepmother thing).

      2. I think those possibilities are conceivable, but have never personally encountered those relationships. The mothers I know who try to mold their children are thinking of their children, and not themselves. Though the stories of mothers arranging murders of their childrens’ cheerleading competitors or bullying their friends suggest that my experience is not the only anecdote.

        I don’t think Alice Walker needs to live through her child (and, neither does Amy Chua). And, I don’t think they are. Alice’s child seems to fear it, but Chua’s doesn’t.

      3. Also, in the fairy tales, it usually is a stepmother. I imagined the Nooyi story told as her mother in law, and it sounded terribly more offensive. I myself had a similar story in which my inlaw called me in my office at work, instead of knocking on spouse’s door at home to ask, I think, for where jacket or a piece of equipment was. I’m still moderately bitter about that incident, though only moderately.

      4. bj said:

        “Also, in the fairy tales, it usually is a stepmother.”

        I’m about to blow the dust off my graduate education in literature: fwwwww.


        I didn’t ever teach the class myself, but my old grad department used to have a mega course on the Russian fairy tale, with a lot of use of different theoretical material on fairy tales and what they mean. I can’t recall which theorists say this, but as I recall, the use of the stepmother archetype in fairy tales is a thinly veiled “safe” way for the child to express hatred or resentment toward the child’s mother.

        “Many psychologists hypothesize that she is an Archetypal Character, devised by children to contain all they hate in their mothers so they can continue to regard Mother as perfect.”

        I couldn’t track down which psychologists those were exactly, but I’ll just leave it with that quote, because it jibes with my 15-year-old memories of hearing people talk about that course.

  12. This is not that unusual a cultural norm — grandparents taking charge of child caregiving while parents who are in their chief earning/career building years are concentrating on work. As care giving arrangements go, it’s has the benefit that the caregiver loves the child (and the child’s parent) as much as is possible anywhere.

    It’s an outgrowth of extended family relationships that are common in other cultures. In fact, in those cultures where the norm is an expectation that grandparents will dote on/care for grandchildren, people are shocked at the selfishness of grandparents who expect to spend their retirement years on cruises rather than caring for their grandchildren (and by extension, their own children).

    I read the interaction with the mother over milk being a self-deprecating attempt at saying that Nooyi has family to keep her grounded, and keeping her head from getting too big, even while she has all the power and prestige of being a CEO of a fortune 500 company.

    Whether that anecdote works or not depends on whether Nooyi thinks that her own mother loves her beyond reason. I think that’s what all children need, and that many successful relationships with different amounts of time and interaction can produce it. For some children and parents, time itself might be the most critical factor, for others, time might not be enough and other factors might be critical.

  13. I think there is an overemphasis among UMC parents on the time spent with children. Or, the importance of time spent is to the parents’ happiness and not necessarily to the children’s development. That’s fine, being around one’s children should make people happy, but we insist in making it all about the children. How it’s absolutely vital to spend as much enriching time with them as possible lest they because pregnant, drug-addicting teenagers.

    My mom stayed home until my brother and I (her youngest children) were in school, then worked part time, and not full time until we were older. And she was a teacher so she was home with us every summer. My dad–divorced from my mom when I was five–was a workaholic who was frequently gone from sun up to sun down six days a week. I’ve had a much better and closer relationship with him since childhood. That’s not always the case of course, sometimes too much time apart creates creates emotional distance, but it’s also not the case that more time spent with your children will unequivocally create a stronger long-term bond.

    1. I think that one of the failings of UMC motherhood is to want to make every decision be about the children and that part of the solution to the problem mothers/women face is that they need to take ownership of the decision to make choices for themselves independently of whether it’s the “best” for the children (we have an obligation to be good enough, appropriate, but not the best, even if something were the best — most of the time, it’s simply not worth worrying about whether it’s the “best”).

      But, I also think that time can matter, for some families, and some children, and some mothers. I think a part of the variable is how ‘present’ a person can be in someone else’s life, and how that depends on time. Some mothers (and fathers) might, as an extreme, be able to have the monthly sunday dinner and remain connected and make their child feel connected; others may not. Parents have to make the decision based on the people they are and the people their children are.

      (We can’t ignore the statistical information though — in the case of fathers, specifically, there’s fairly good evidence that parent/child relationships are significantly disrupted by infrequent contact in divorce, of the form of Sunday parenting that was common in the 70’s).

  14. My delightfully insightful child pointed out that the difference between Indra’s mother telling her to pick up her coat when she returns home from a stressful job (with fantastic news) and to pick up the milk is that the milk is a family responsibility, while picking up her coat would be Indra’s personal responsibility. Assigning the family job of milk procurement to the mother, when there are both staff and other adults to do it does seem out of bounds. I stand dutifully corrected in my analogy. I still think it’s fine for Indra’s mom to make certain demands on the grounds that some responsibilities shouldn’t be outsourced, but the milk doesn’t seem to be the right one.

    My kiddo further pointed out that saying those things, hearing them over and over again is part of the reason why girls decide, early, that they will opt out of the goal of becoming one of the 5% of women CEO’s. If you know you’re going to have to pick up the milk, then you decide early that you can’t do that and run PepsiCo.

    1. That just encapsulates the problem, right there.
      As long as women are expected to pick up far more than 50% of the domestic burden, many people are going to opt out of the more high pressure and potentially very rewarding jobs (well, some of them!) in order simply to have a life of their own. And then everyone says “Yeah, but women just don’t want those jobs.”

  15. When we read these stories from female CEOs and their work-life trade-offs, we have to remember that their lives are not our lives. They have the resources for help that aren’t affordable to most humans. They also work hours that most of us never have to deal with. They are married to high flier spouses who also have crazy hours. They aren’t dual academics with flexible work days. Or even NYC lawyers. She talks about coming home early at 10:00. That life isn’t conceivable to most of us. It’s important to those of us who would like to see more female CEOs, but her decisions and her sadness has nothing to do to with us personally.

  16. I do not think the interview reads as though she’s sad. I think she’s stating that there are trade offs — that her family might not have gotten as much of her time as they or she would have liked. In trade they got lots of intangibles — like — she spoke at one daughter’s graduation, and formed connections that go the other daughter a slot on the Clinton campaign team. Oh, and, millions of dollars, and the benefits that can buy. I didn’t get the feeling she has any regrets.

    Although her life as a CEO may not have much to do with high flying careers of the more ordinary kind, her career before then probably does, the career when she’s coming home at ten working on the deal. Many more significant jobs (in tech, in academia, in law, . . .) are like that — they do demand that you sometimes (maybe a lot of times) put your job before your family.

  17. I don’t really see this as a woman’s issue; it’s more an issue of living with a workaholic, in my view. Of course workaholics can’t have it all, whether they’re male or female, though women will be criticized more.

    In the anecdote, I side with the mother. That’s because I’m a homemaker with a workaholic husband, and it’s just a fact that sometimes it’s necessary to be tough or the workaholic will bring down the whole enterprise.

    Getting milk for her family when they need it is the least she can do, and she should do it. Not every day, obviously, but when there’s a milk emergency millions of dollars in the bank mean nothing, and what good is having a CEO in the house if you wake up in the morning and there’s no breakfast. I’m glad she went to get the milk and I think it reflects well on her that she did it.

  18. Someone upthread said that we all have slightly different definitions of what it means to be a good mother (or parent) and we tend to judge others by our definitions. I remember figuring this out when my kids were young. My mother in law regards feeding the children as the quintessence of parenting. I think this is because she grew up in a village in the third world where food was scarce. She is incredibly grateful to be able to put a full bowl of baby cereal in front of a grandchild and to realize that the baby can eat until it’s full. On the other hand, not ever having had the experience of food scarcity, I was much more comfortable letting our nanny feed the kids. But whenever my mother in law wants to disparage my sister in law, she hisses “she doesn’t even cook”. In her mind, that’s probably the worst sin a mom can commit.

    I figured out when my kids were little that I really enjoyed bathing them. I would put all three of our little kids in the bathtub at the same time and let them play, and interact with them, and at that moment I felt like a great mom. I also really enjoyed reading to them and doing crafts. I would have felt like a bad mom if someone else had done those things with them. (And later on, our nanny admitted that, yeah, my daughter walked for the first time when I was at work and she never told me — so that I would have the experience of baby’s first steps for myself.) But I think it’s really individual — what you are and are not willing to outsource or delegate — and it’s different for everyone.

    1. Our daughter’s first words were “Dada”–I understand that it’s pretty common for “Dada” to precede “Mama”–but I always wondered if she might have said “Betty” (her nursemaid) before she said either “Dada” or “Mama.” If she did, Betty had the grace not to tell us.

      1. My D’s first word was “Eo” for her cousin, whose mother watched her. My S’s first word was “Nana”, used first, we think for Banana and later for all food. That didn’t make me feel bad at all, and in fact, they are great stories now.

        I do think that what makes different mothers and children feel connected to each other varies from person to person.

      2. MH said:

        “My son’s first word was “expropriate”.”

        Our Baby T’s first word combination appeared yesterday: [name of big brother] book.

        So, essentially her first sentence was recognizing private property and another person’s right of ownership. Attagirl!

  19. Yes to shelf milk, also known as long-life milk (had that delivered by the boxful in Bangladesh).
    Swimsuit – when my 12-year-old daughter had to have it immediately and I was away on a weekend of dissertation writing, she went with her dad.
    My m-i-l reserving an avacado for kids/sons/somebody else once caused me to go to the market to get my own.
    Hated the driving of young teens, loved the conversations. Miss it now.
    Bettleheim as the fairy tale psychologist? The Russian analysis maybe Vladimir Propp’s “Morphology of the Folktale” with its Thirty-One Functions?

    1. Very likely on the Propp–that was one of the required reading books for the course.

      About the sending the daughter out–I’m a little surprised that the grandma would blithely send her daughter out late at night without a thought as to her personal safety. When I used to send my husband out for ice cream at 9 or 9:30 PM, I’d be wondering if he was going to make it back alive.

      1. You seriously worried that your husband would get killed driving to the store at 9 pm? Did you live in a war zone?

      2. It was your typical poor folk/student neighborhood, with the attendant level of crime (you see that pattern in a lot of college neighborhoods). I think it’s a lot safer now, but we had a long series of muggings just off campus. (Funny story–I’m told via the grapevine that the mugging spree stopped after a student stabbed the mugger while being attacked. It must have been just one really, really prolific guy, rather than several guys.)

        When we lived in residence at another urban college (and in a really nice neighborhood, too), there was a similar pattern where there was mugging after mugging on a particular stretch of road that was the natural path to take back from the bars to campus.

        So, yeah, I felt bad about sending my husband out for ice cream (but I still wanted the ice cream!). I haven’t done that for years, though.

  20. Going out for milk or bread at 10pm is not an unusual task around here. Monitoring food pantry is a major job, because a)teenagers have a way of draining the milk carton and then putting the empty container back in the fridge and b)we make lunches for the kids every day except Fridays. Also, I do a lot of things around here and sometimes errors occur.

    The other day, Steve got ticked off that he had to go out for supplies late at night. He was tired. Like the CEO in this story, he’s used to a work environment where people get fired for mistakes like this one. He required a reality check. I gave him one just like the woman’s mother. Maybe there were more four letter words in my reality check. But it was the same idea. A home is not a workplace. I am not the secretary. And I’m sorry that he’s extremely tired, but the kids need milk in the cereal tomorrow.

    People who work a great deal of hours in an office, particularly in a high-pressure, high-stakes environments sometimes have trouble downshifting to home life.

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