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In the boxing ring of life

Ankur Bora

The world we live in today is shaped by transformative ideas. However, any new idea almost always faces opposition. Any time you have a new idea, you have the odds stacked against you. Opposition to you is inevitable; the question is are you ready to face it. Do you have the tenacity to hold onto your dream ? It’s like facing your opponent in a boxing ring - you will be hit and punched, but the question is - have you built your muscles, increased your strength, improved your stamina and put up your fists? If you are prepared to fight, you will eventually knock out the opposition and your idea will triumph. Friends, I have learnt this valuable life lesson from a special person , Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo.

When Indra Nooyi 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. Each division was like a pillar of a three-legged stool. The restaurant business, the third leg, had began faltering causing the whole company to wobble as PepsiCo started missing profit estimates. Indra Nooyi was given the task of the review of the restaurant business. Drawing upon her analytic tools she and her department produced quarterly sales and growth projections for every division. The predictions were fairly accurate, but they also caused frictions. As the criticism of her department grew, she was accused of trying to run the company. Quarter after quarter, the hostility increased while no one ever backed her up, and finally, she was on the verge of resignation.

When we encounter opposition or negative experience, we tend to either give up or find an easy way out. Indra, however reframed her experience as a learning opportunity and she began knocking on other doors. She was savvy enough to realize that the analytic tools were not enough, she needed to hit the pavement to understand the restaurant business from the ground up. Soon along with the then CEO Roger Enrico , she began visiting the quick service restaurants. They would go into each restaurant , order something , get the food , look at it , may 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 experience. It became clear to her that PepsiCo which was a packaged-goods company lacked the expertise to run a service business. She presented a strategic review of the restaurant business to the board – this business, the third pillar of the three-legged stool was hemorrhaging money and the only option was to cut it off. This time, the Board readily agreed to back her proposal. The decision was a pivotal moment for PepsiCo as there was immediate improvement in the company’s cash flow and return on capital. It was also a victory for Indra , her conviction , her will to persevere and her determination to overcome any opposition along the way. Indra Nooyi rocketed to the CEO position just 12 years after joining PepsiCo.

Once you start taking action , you’ll see signs of progress. This feeds your confidence. Confidence is just like a muscle. In the boxing ring, the more you endure, the stronger you become. In the same way that muscles don’t get stronger unless you throw yourself in the ring, your confidence won’t grow unless you fight. After becoming CEO, Indra was ready to dream bigger, work harder, and confront challenges to humanity. 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 in the US and, increasingly , the rest of the world. In her dreams Indra envisioned a new era for PepsiCo, a corporation of the twenty – first century, one that would carry into the future, shaking off its old image and showcasing the healthier alternatives. The company would provide consumers with informed food choices including juices, teas, oatmeal, low calorie pretzels and sport drinks. Company would strive towards water conservation, reduce plastic in packaging, set up recycling systems, embrace hybrid and electric trucks, and guide its farming partners to the use of improved bottle-washing and irrigation methods. Her pitch immediately resonated with employees especially the millennials. But the investors and the shareholders were not convinced. They wouldn’t accept anything that might affect PepsiCo’s profitability; they wanted earning growth today , not a new strategy for tomorrow. A portfolio manager in Boston confronted her, “Who do you think you are, Mother Teresa?”

A few weeks later, in a hotel ballroom in Scottsdale , Arizona , Indra unveiled her vision for the company in front of four hundred top managers from around the world. She talked for more than an hour explaining how her plan was a new way to raise a corporation. In her memoir “My life in full, work, family, and our future” she tells her story from her early years in India to her student life at the university of Yale, to the corporate world to her speech at Scottsdale, her hour of reckoning. Friends, her entire life led her to that moment , even her childhood years. Indra Nooyi grew up in Madras, India. She and her elder sister were often assigned an unusual task by their mother – “Every night at the dinner table, my mother would ask us to write a speech about what we would do if we were president, chief minister, or prime minister.” Little Indra would give a speech, pretending to be a leader, and it went on as her mom made her to deliver a new speech, and as a different world leader every night! she recalls fondly. That night, in Scottsdale, Arizona she delivered her speech, this time as the CEO of PepsiCo. She pushed through, assured in her skills and abilities and when she finished, the group stood up and cheered. Everyone in the audience were electrified and Indra Nooyi finally was ready to take her company on the road. Friends, her ideas prevailed, and she won!

Every time you have a new idea, there will be push back. If you worry about offending others, or afraid to speak up, and back down too easily , your idea will never take off. But if you are ready to fight, have the conviction to persevere and the will to stay on course, nothing can prevent you from reaching your ideals. Friends, in the boxing ring of life, be prepared to take few punches and you will prevail, your ideas will triumph and you will succeed.

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