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Letters to Parents

Ankur Bora

"What lies before us and what lies behind us are small matters compared to what lies within us. And when we bring what is within us into the world, miracles happen." Each one of us is responsible for our own luck, instead of looking outside we should look for what lies within us and when we do, we can turn the biggest challenges into the biggest successes. I truly realized the power that lies within me when I met a special person, Indra Nooyi, the former CEO, and chairman of PepsiCo. Friends, it was a heartfelt, insightful, and thought-provoking moment for me.

When Indra joined PepsiCo in the year 1994, the company was going through an existential crisis. During that time, PepsiCo consisted of three divisions: Pepsi-Cola, the original soda company, Frito- Lay, the popular snacks, and the restaurants including KFC , Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. The restaurant business was faltering causing the whole company to miss profit estimates. One month into her new job, she was undergoing a baptism of fire as she was given the task of reviewing this failing restaurant business. Friends , it was Tuesday the 21st of March when Indra was about to give her lecture as part of the Maverick Speakers Series at the University of Texas at Arlington and we were on the edge of our seat, ready to listen to the dramatic account of internals of the largest food and beverage company in North America. With candor and good humor, Indra told the story of an everyday person who rose to an exceptional Industry leader of our era. Friends, I couldn’t but marvel at this remarkable woman who had the convictions to persevere and the will to stay on course even when the odds stacked against her.

Indra wanted to prove she could handle any challenge thrown at her and how she handled it was the next part of her speech. She told the audience gathered at the university auditorium how she realized that she needed to hit the pavement to understand the restaurant business from the ground up. Soon she began visiting the quick service restaurants. She would go into each restaurant, order something , get the food , look at it , taste a little bit , then get back in the car and drive to the next one. During every visit, Indra would track order times, waiting periods, food quality , cleanliness and any other variable that might affect a customer’s experience. “So I look at our business through a different lens and then I come back and I talk to my people about what I saw was good, and what wasn’t really good.” Friends, it was a revelation to her - PepsiCo, a packaged-goods company simply couldn't run the restaurant business. She presented a strategic review of the restaurant business to the PepsiCo board of directors - this business was hemorrhaging money and she proposed selling it off. The board readily agreed to back her proposal. Indra was telling us how pivotal the decision was for PepsiCo as there was immediate improvement in the company’s cash flow and profit. The victory rocketed Indra Nooyi to the position of CEO of PepsiCo.

After becoming CEO, Indra was ready to dream bigger, work harder, and confront challenges to humanity. As she was telling us about this historic moment , I realized she was swimming against the tide. PepsiCo was an iconic corporation, but the company was also built on sugary drinks and potato chips. The fat, salt and sugar in their products contributed to the scourges of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. Indra was telling us how she envisioned a new era for PepsiCo as a corporation of the twenty – first century, one that would carry into the future, shaking off its old image and showcasing healthier alternatives. She was about to take dramatic action as PepsiCo would provide consumers with informed food choices including juices, teas, oatmeal, low calorie pretzels and sport drinks. However, the investors and the shareholders were not ready to accept these changes. During the talk, Indra narrated how a portfolio manager in Boston confronted her, “Who do you think you are, Mother Teresa?”

When faced with obstacles, instead of trying to deflect the problems try to embrace them, turn them into something positive. Indra told us about an incident in her life and how it turned the tide in her favor. Shortly after her promotion to CEO, Indra visited India to see her mother. When she reached home, her mother’s friends came to see her. “Every one of them walked by me, nodded hello and then went straight to my mother to congratulate her and tell her what a great job she had done raising me.” I could not believe what I heard because I had the exact same experience. Twenty two years ago, when I received a job offer from a US based corporation, I paid a visit to my home town to meet my parents, friends, and neighbors. It was a festive moment, a boy from our small town going to America was a cause of big celebration! When I arrived, my neighbors came to see me. Everyone greeted me but then they went straight to my mother, “Congratulations, what a great job you have done raising a worthy son.” Like Indra’s mom, my mom also became the center of attention. Friends, I was stunned, her story entirely resonated with mine.

After the trip, when Indra returned to the US, she reflected on this incident. She thought about all the people working for PepsiCo and about their parents who worked hard to raise them. But do these parents get the recognition they deserve? She decided to write letters to the parents of some of the company executives. Over the next ten years, she wrote hundreds of notes. She told us how the mothers and fathers were overjoyed. That evening, the audience became emotional as she pulled a letter received from one of the company executives and read it, “My mother who had brought me up alone since I was six , had recently moved into a retirement community. In her sparsely furnished living room hangs only one item – a framed copy of the letter you had written to her.”

An act of kindness can also make people more likely to help you achieve future goals. She told us how the employees and stakeholders began to rally around her. The next year she unveiled her vision for the company in front of four hundred top managers from around the world including some of the people who had opposed her. This time, she told us , everyone was electrified and when she finished the group stood up and cheered. Friends, her ideas prevailed, and she won!

That evening as I was driving back home, I was reflecting on the day when people came to congratulate Indra's mother, how the same occurred to me, how she wrote the letters to the parents and how those letters steered everyone to rally around her. Friends, what lies before us and what lies behind us are small matters compared to what lies within us.


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