By Josie Cox ’22 and Traci Rosenthal
In the space of a hundred years, everything can change, and, at the same time, the most important things can stay the same.
This might sound like a clumsy paradox built on a cliche, but when Indra Nooyi, former CEO and chairman of PepsiCo, took the stage this spring to accept the 2022 Botwinick Prize in Business Ethics from Columbia Business School’s Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics, she elegantly illustrated—and proved—exactly this point.
In 1926, when the late Benjamin Botwinick—for whom the prestigious award is named—graduated from Columbia Business School, American society was undergoing a profound shift. “Women had just won the right to vote, the automobile was quickly displacing the railway, and the U.S. was on the brink of the Great Depression,” reflected Nooyi in her acceptance speech.
Now, almost a century later, change is inevitable on an almost incomprehensible scale. But one constant has remained the same: a need for ethical leadership.
“The world needs leaders with character,” said Nooyi, who led PepsiCo from 2006 to 2019. “Leaders who uphold the highest standards of moral conduct—who are the best of humanity.” Despite grand statements from bodies like the Business Roundtable, we cannot allow the notion of ethical business to be summed up by a collection of acronyms like CSR, ESG and DEI. It must, Nooyi urged, be an intrinsic feature of our entire system. “We cannot allow business ethics to exist in the shadows.”
The First and The Only
During her candid conversation with Bernstein Faculty Director Modupe Akinola, Nooyi—the first immigrant and woman of color to run a Fortune 50 company—revealed character traits that explain the enduring success she’s had as an international captain of industry: steadfast humility, endearing humor, and an unwavering thirst to succeed in spaces where she was the “the only.”
“I had three strikes—immigrant, person of color, woman. I’d say to myself, ‘They’re looking at me and asking why is she here? What can she contribute?’. So, I would overprepare for everything—I’d be the only person who read all the materials. I was careful about what I said, but I made sure that I added value to discussions because the pressure was on,” Nooyi mused.
Even as CEO, Nooyi encountered obstacles—rolling eyes, interruptions, feeling unheard. So, when asked what we, as businesspeople and a society, can do to create real, impactful change, Nooyi laid out a three-pronged plan of action: men in power need to call out bad behavior when it occurs, women in power need to support other women, and everyone with hiring capabilities needs to focus on recruiting and retaining the best and brightest talent.
“We cannot allow business ethics to exist in the shadows"
Beyond her leadership of PepsiCo, as well as several senior positions at BCG and Motorola, Nooyi continues to be one of the most sought-after advisers to entrepreneurs, established executives and government officials. Her determination to stand up for the things she cares about, often regardless of what others might think, coupled with her modesty, is one of the biggest assets she brings with her to every endeavor.
When Nooyi became CEO of PepsiCo, she decided to do something unusual—she would write personal letters to her employees’ parents letting them know their child was excelling at the company. The idea came to her after a trip home to India where her relatives praised her mother for Nooyi’s career accomplishments. “I came back from India and realized I never thanked [my employees’] parents for the gift of their son or daughter, so I wrote a glowing couple of paragraphs, each one a personal letter. It created an emotional connection between the parents and me—it was just fantastic and made my executives bond themselves to PepsiCo more profoundly,” Nooyi remembered. Throughout her tenure, she wrote between 300 and 400 individualized letters.
Passing the Baton
As part of the Botwinick legacy, prior awardees pass along their well wishes to the newest Prize recipient, and this year was no exception. Matthew McCarthy, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, who was honored with the Botwinick Prize in 2021, surprised Nooyi and the audience with a question of his own during the ceremony.
“What is your advice” —he asked Nooyi via video call from Vermont— “to business leaders fearful of being called out for being too woke when they’re just trying to live their values?”
“Companies cannot wade into every issue—they just cannot,” she explained. “You can only wade into issues that impact your value statement and really relate to the company.” In other words, Nooyi concluded, “you can’t swing the pendulum too far, in either direction. How we balance our actions is the challenge that we all have.”
At a retrospective point in the evening, Nooyi evoked memories from her youth, saying she “wanted to break the mold and be fearless.” She wanted to show the world that she could be anything she wanted to be. It is safe to say that young Nooyi would be proud of this accomplished woman who has embodied ethical leadership at the highest level.
To learn more the Botwinick Prize, please visit: https://www8.gsb.columbia.edu/leadership/speakerseries/botwinick