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How Indian women have climbed the American corporate ladder

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By Uttara Choudhury

New York: Indian women have made steady progress over the past several years by ascending to senior positions in blue-blooded American companies. PepsiCo Chief Executive Indra Nooyi, Cisco Chief Technology and Strategy Officer Padmasree Warrior, finance high-flyer Sheila Hooda, nanotech innovator Anita Goel and McKinsey consultant-turned-restaurateur Rohini Dey are emblematic of the plodding progress of women.

Those coming of age in the executive suite often were educated at one of two institutions founded in the 1950s and 1960s, the now seven-city IIT and the six-member Indian Institutes of Management. IIM-Ahmedabad educated Sheila Hooda never tires of pointing out that education gave her a crack at working on Wall Street.

Hooda was a managing director in Credit Suisse before moving to the financial services giant, the $410 billion Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association — College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF). Less than 10 percent of the senior posts on Wall Street are filled by women and Hooda is part of that small statistic.

She finds it neither an advantage nor a disadvantage to be a woman in a male club. “My father died when I was nine,” said Hooda. “I had no one to fall back on — my mother was religious and quiet, and I was the eldest child. So even as a nine-year-old, I was driven, hardworking and focused.

“I knew it was the only way I could do well for myself and my younger brothers and sister,” said Hooda, now a senior managing director, mergers & acquisitions and corporate development, at TIAA-CREF.

Hooda worked at American Express in Mumbai before coming to the US in 1988 for an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business. “I did an accelerated MBA in Finance from Chicago and was hired on campus by McKinsey & Co,” said Hooda.

“As Indians, we have the tough quant and analytical skills to do data-crunching. But all the A-plus performing in the world goes unnoticed without soft skills. The US puts an emphasis on soft skills, so it is important to be a strong team player and a good presenter,” said Hooda.

By the numbers, PepsiCo has done a pretty good job since Indra Nooyi took the helm seven years ago. She has shown prescient business sense in the C-suite by taking Pepsi in a bold direction — from caffeine colas to healthy products such as juices and high-fiber oatmeal. PepsiCo Inc.’s fourth-quarter earnings rose 17 percent to $1.66 billion, or $1.06 a share, up from $1.42 billion a year earlier. The world’s second largest food & drinks giant forecast a 7 percent rise in 2013 core per-share earnings.

Indra Nooyi has doubled her executive team to 29 and has proved comfortable enough with her leadership presence to patrol the office barefoot at times and even sing in the halls, perhaps a holdover from her days in an all-girl rock band in Chennai. Indra Nooyi isn’t afraid to showcase her cultural identity. Coming out of Yale in 1980 with a master’s in public and private management, Indra Nooyi wore a sari to an interview at Boston Consulting Group and was offered the job.

The US media has hailed her as one of “America’s best leaders” for balancing the profit motive with striving for a net-zero impact on the environment and taking care of the workforce.

“When a woman like Indra Nooyi rises to the rank of a CEO of a major US corporation, it definitely makes her a great role model,” said Deepali Bagati, Senior Director, India at Catalyst Inc, which tracks women in business.

According to Catalyst, there are 21 women running Fortune 500 companies, including IBM and PepsiCo, up from 18 companies in 2012. Near the top there remains slow progress in the number of female directors and highest paid. But women receive about six in 10 college degrees in America, so change is coming willy-nilly.

Indra Nooyi spoke about the sacrifices  working mothers made to reach the corner office, during a panel on “Women and Global Leadership” at the Yale Club in New York. She was disarmingly candid about how it jolted her when her teenage daughter sent her an email asking for an hour-long appointment.

Naina Lal Kidwai country head of HSBC India told the same panel that women had to push past the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.

“I might sound irreverent but I think the biggest glass ceiling we have is ourselves. Self-imposed glass ceilings — feelings which tell us we can’t go beyond a certain level. Issues like the ones Indra referred to which are personal — Can I juggle home and career? Can I be wife, mother and work? These are self-imposed glass ceilings,” said Kidwai, the first Indian woman to graduate from Harvard Business School.

“You worry that you might drown. Then when you get there and take that leap of faith it isn’t so bad after all,” said Kidwai.

Indira Nooyi says being an immigrant fuelled her will to succeed; “I am a  first generation immigrant. I had  no safety net. If I failed, I failed. That kept me going. Any survey will tell  you first generation Indian Americans work extraordinarily hard. When I think of my beginning, where I was born and brought up, being  CEO of Pepsico is not just incredible — it is incredulous! I can’t even connect the dots.”