Indra Nooyi @ Columbia

story3.jpg Indra Nooyi – Fortune’s most powerful Desi woman in corporate America – gave an address to the Columbia B-School class of ’05 which veered pretty far from the standard “the best is yet to come” script -

After beginning her speech with words of praise and recognition for the graduates and their families, Ms. Indra Nooyi began to make the political statement du jour. After talking of her childhood back in India, Ms. Nooyi began to compare the world and its five major continents (excl. Antarctica and Australia) to the human hand. First was Africa – the pinky finger – small and somewhat insignificant but when hurt, the entire hand hurt with it. Next was Asia – the thumb – strong and powerful, yearning to become a bigger player on the world stage. Third was Europe – the index finger – pointing the way. Fourth was South America – the ring finger – the finger which symbolizes love and sensualness. Finally, the US (not Canada mind you) – yes, you guessed it – the middle finger…

I liked Instapundit’s reaction -

EVERY YEAR, somebody makes a fool of him/herself while giving a commencement speech. How about going to Riyadh and telling them how they’re seen? That would be real courage . .

I think it’s safe to say – regardless of whether you agree w/ Ms Nooyi or not – that folks assembled at a commencement don’t expect to be sent off into the wild blue yonder with a lecture on why the World sees them as jackasses…

UPDATE – Followup post from Powerline with more info including other folks who heard the speech, and Pepsi PR flack’s refusal to release the text of speech.

73 thoughts on “Indra Nooyi @ Columbia

  1. Almost forgot. Re: her national status.

    If you read the actual speech, she describes her origins in India (see the first exerpt at the beginning of this thread). Therefore, someone is eventually going to make some association between that and her statements. Given the increasing sensitivity to the illegal alien problem, this should be of some concern to legal immigrants, green card holders and naturalized citizens.

  2. Ms. Nooyi warns her audience about visiting foreign lands and acting like a boorish lout- a piece of advice she had just failed to heed

  3. She certainly has the right to say what she believes in. Problem is, her employer is in the consumer goods business. Pepsi spends hundreds of millions of dollars for bland, feel good advertising to convince people to drink their nasty sugar water. I would imagine this is not exactly what the board had in mind in terms of publicity. I’m sure she will be fine in the long run but I think Pepsi tosses her overboard.

  4. A more general lesson here is that it’s unwise for corporate chiefs, of any nationality, to use the forum provided by their corporate position to score cheap political points. The subtext of Nooyi’s speech was of course not individual citizens’ behavior but US foreign policy.

    So here’s a simple thought experiment: suppose a western multinational executive based in India who reads and admires Salman Rushdie becomes alarmed at what he, and many others, view as a dangerous trend toward militant, religious-based chauvinism in Indian politics. He thinks this trend may affect his company’s business prospects, but in truth, his concern stems less from any responsibility to his company’s shareholders than from the exec’s own personal political beliefs.

    Now let’s say our exec is invited to give the commencement speech to graduates of the Indian Institute of Management. He assumes, without doing any research, that most of his audience are supporters of the BJP, and he therefore decides to give a lengthy disquisition on the evils of religious chauvinism. He leavens his speech with cute metaphors and ends with a friendly admonition to the graduates to be culturally sensitive, to uphold the great Gandhian traditions of nonviolence and tolerance, and to uphold the India that he loves and that has benefited him personally. Some Q’s:

    Is this an appropriate use of that business executive’s position and status?

    Is it appropriate for business executives anywhere to make lightweight political speeches touching on complex questions of foreign policy and intergroup relations?

    Would it be a loss to the world if multinationals were to impose on their executives a strict rule that they not use their corporate position to address political or social issues?

    Appreciate anyone’s thoughts on the above.

  5. In what way exactly is Europe pointing the way? I think it might be better to switch a couple of fingers, and so that Europe is showing the middle finger to the rest of humanity with its history of colonialism and exploitation and the current entitlement society, and the US leading the way. That seems about right.

  6. I myself don’t think it’s appropriate for any corporate officer to try to leverage his business position and reputation to address questions of foreign policy or intergroup relations.

    Here’s another hypothetical. Shift the setting from India today to Eastern Europe in 1999. Let’s say an American Pepsico exec based in Warsaw heads up Pepsico’s East European operations. This American happens to believe passionately in US military interventionism and strongly supports the Clinton administration’s Kosovo policy.

    Would it be appropriate for this American business executive to lecture an audience of East Europeans, including Russians, on the subject of human rights in southeast Europe?

  7. regardless of which continent the middle finger represents in her pathetic and nonsequitur analogy, it’s offensive to some, given the colloquial use of flipping someone the finger….

  8. But the numbers don’t add up. My point is not related to the what might perhaps be viewed as the offensive nature of the comments, but to the sheer numbers in terms of GDP, market cap, or any other reasonable measure of development.

    Europe is hardly leading the way in anything – business, culture or technology. Is Europe then supposed to be the role model for us to follow? The United States has perhaps made certain moves that might be questionable in the last few years, but if you look at the last twenty, it has been America all the way. U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A!

  9. The Nation is to Kos as The Weekly Standard is to Powerline…

    Power Line is the blog which had this to say about India:

    It’s great to see someone standing up for colonialism, especially British colonialism. I agree wholeheartedly with this observation, for example: Had Britain had the courage to face down Gandhi and his rabble a few years longer, the tragedy that was the partititon of India might have been avoided.
  10. – I am going to have to take back some of my earlier cooments. after reading the full transcript, i think she really meant no harm…was naive rather….and i should have waited to have read the whole transcript before coming to judgement…just like so many of you, and the rest of the country. But I guess that what the media does well – selective publicity, and things out of context. indra – the intent was good, but delivery wasn’t as ! anyways – just writing this in case somebody decides to take a poll – like maybe one of the BODs of Pepsico before sparing her life or…

  11. >

    thibaud, I think a corporate officer has the right to express a personal opinion. At most workplaces, controversial subjects are avoided because most workplaces are diverse and you always risk offending co-workers who have different beliefs. The reason why an executive might want to avoid controversial issues is because their customers will invariably be of wide opinion range. Al Franken gave a commencement speech at (Harvard?) last year and he was pretty political but no one really took offense. Partly because he was funny but partly because how can anyone hurt him for what they find offensive since that is his stock and trade? Ms. Nooyi on the other hand works for a company that tries to do its level best to make people drink stuff that’s bad for them by using expensive spokespersons and imagery (Britany Spears ads of 90 seconds and 30 seconds at the Super Bowl a couple of years ago cost $8.5M for air time, production costs etc.) If one’s power derives from peddling useless products to overfed people around the world, one should probably refrain from potentially alienating a significant portion by making political statements. If you’re in the consumer business and you find a portion of your customer base repulsive, it’s probably not a good idea to voice that opinion if you want to keep that business.

  12. “I am going to have to take back some of my earlier cooments. after reading the full transcript, i think she really meant no harm…was naive rather….and i should have waited to have read the whole transcript before coming to judgement…just like so many of you, and the rest of the country. But I guess that what the media does well – selective publicity, and things out of context.”

    I have to disagree. I read the full transcript three times, and there is little doubt of her intent.

    Seriously, she is a highly intelligent woman who has lived and schooled in this country for many years. How could she not know the significance of her metaphor? How could you drive for fifteen minutes in a place like Boston or any big city and NOT know the meaning of the middle finger in American society?

  13. I actually happen to know the “Iron Lady from Chennai” living just 800 yards from her abode. In the global capital markets business, with corporate clients based in emerging counries, I probably travel overseas as much as she does, in economy class rather than the corporate gulf stream. Nevertheless I know first hand that the message she was trying to convey rather forcefully, of “global perceptions about the USA”, was factually correct, the speech not escaping the eagle eye of one Condi Rice. As a long time member of the RNC and the president’s club, knowing the power exercised by this administration, I salute her for her courage in making this delivery. But then, as an Indra, lord of the gods, she could do no less having ascended meteorically as she has with grit and determination.

  14. If you cared to read the entire speech, you will realize the value in her words. An important point (that probably was lost in your large egos) was the necessity to respect all – irrespective of their background (continent). Every person has something to contribute (in global business). I think this is a very important & appropriate point for today’s business graduating class.

  15. I think it is wrong to take her speech out of context. At the same time, she could have used a less controversial analogy to drive her point home.

  16. As a foreign born American who love this country with more if not a greater patriotism than the average citizen, I highly applaud Indra Nooyi’s speech.. In todays America, too much sensitivity and not enough sensibility is too common of a practice..Have we ever wondered why the countries we often try to help does not give us love back? If we strategically give as much sensitivity to as much as we give in planning (to whatever) to others cultures,tradition, et al.,the slogan of an Ugly American will no longer exist. Who in their right mind can be offended with such sensible, sensitive, and formost a straight forward if not also a humerous speech? We are sometimes too full of our selves, and as the kids will tell you, GET A LIFE!!!!

  17. Nooyi has a right to say whatever she wants. If they wanted a scripted message they could have gotten Bush (not that he wouldn’t screw it up). She simply expressed herself, as herself, and I can’t believe there is so much whining about context. It makes perfect sense to talk to new grads on the importance of representing your newly minted degree to the world – its a reflection of you, your parents, your school, and your country – she just chose an analogy that people would remember (and probably “get”), rather than droning on for hours to a dead / asleep audience. At the end of the day, the guy who dissed the toilet, made the US look bad.

    You can talk all you want about how “america isnt so bad that it has to be apologetic”… but its not a question of apologies, its a question of misrepresentation. You wouldn’t go to a job interview in a jeans / t-shirt, even if that’s who you are normally – you wear your best out of respect for your interviewer and the job, and to give off a positive image that shows that you actually care about the job you are interviewing for. It’s basic marketing. Despite however great a country is, it lives off the rest of the world, not in a vacuum. If a family member acted arrogantly/snobbishly towards other family members, regardless of however much good that family member has done, the rest of the family will not want to be near that family member.

    At the end of the day, i’m willing to bet Nooyi is a fairly nice lady. I think that for people to criticize her for a comment that she made in a given context, is rather petty. Context. The world would be a better place if we took people’s good intentions into account on a day-to-day basis, they don’t always pave the way to hell. I’m not justifying the actions of those who created chaos/disaster from “good intentions” …I am however saying that its good to keep things in perspective …she hasnt killed anyone …only pointed out something. I don’t see people throwing things at the stage when Russell Peters makes fun of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, or colors. He’s an entertainer. Likewise, Nooyi was attempting to be light-heartedly entertaining about a serious topic – how americans behave in foreign countries reflects badly on them in the end, and this impacts their future. I think that there the people in that college audience use the F word much more frequently than she probably has in her lifetime.

    The same speech in Africa, would have pissed them off too… she did afterall use the universal asian symbol for #2 (or is it #1?) to represent them. They would gladly take the middle finger over that position.

  18. I think she gave us a very simple yet poignant message which somehow seems to have been lost.

  19. heloo madam indra noiji goodday and congraculation for success (forbs listed 100 strong women) i pray to god for your health and every success and all thanks anil sharma 62lalbanglow arnya sch no 78 slice c sect. 5 ab road indore mp india ph 91-99933-49820pp