Editor’s Plate: Indra Nooyi Wrote the Book on Corporate Social Responsibility

July 8, 2022
The former PepsiCo chairperson was making advances in social responsibility initiatives long before it became popular to do so.

June was a busy month for holidays. There's Flag Day, Father's Day, Juneteenth, and the whole month is dedicated to Gay Pride. Pick any or all to celebrate.

It also was the month I finished Indra Nooyi's book "My Life in Full." Its secondary title is more revelatory: "Work, Family and Our Future."

Maybe just enough time has passed that I need to introduce her. Indra Nooyi was chairman and CEO of PepsiCo from 2006 to 2019. She presided over a remarkable run that included sales and profitability increases, but also growth into new geographies and new product categories.

PepsiCo was our Processor of the Year in December 2015, she was on the cover, and that story carried the same headline we use this month: Doing Well by Doing Good. We debated whether it was wise to repeat ourselves, but the wording was too perfect to reject it.

At a time when there were few female CEOs, Nooyi was the first woman of color and an immigrant to run a Fortune 50 company. She was consistently ranked as one of the world's most powerful women, often consulted by presidents. She made PepsiCo an early leader in developing better-for-you foods – all the while being a wife and mother of two young girls.

What I like to remember her for was her sense of social responsibility and how she instilled it in PepsiCo. Much of it was directly from her own experiences: empowering women while also giving them time to be mothers; recognizing immigrants and people of color; looking out for the developing world and working so no one in this world goes hungry.

The company's guiding principle, which she developed, was called "Performance with a purpose." In its unveiling, she said the company would "add three imperatives to our work ahead: nourish humanity and the communities in which we live, replenish our environment and cherish the people in our company." By today's standards, that's not too far out, but it was radical for 2006.

"For a dozen years, I weighed every decision against these measures," she writes in the book's introduction.

In my efforts to stay on the subject of social responsibility, I can only briefly mention the book's story of her early life in India: sleeping on mats on the floor, often with boy and girl cousins side by side; no air conditioning; the men's-only socializing room. And she played in an all-girl rock band. But she had an enlightened grandfather who encouraged the great potential he saw in both of his granddaughters. Anyway, it's a fascinating read – with a purpose -- into a fascinating life. I recommend it.

Which brings me to this month's cover story. Those June holidays I mentioned – in some ways, they're all social causes; certainly half are. Every individual can pick the ones he, she, or they want to celebrate. Choosing one or more for your company to identify with is more complicated and a whole lot more public.

Our cover story this month delves into some of that decision making and the benefits and repercussions that come with those choices. And the choices are many. In addition to those hinted at above, issues to consider include environmental, workers' rights, animal welfare, diversity, equity & inclusion, poverty & hunger ... I could go on.

Interestingly, we also have a news story on member companies of B Lab questioning the certification of Nespresso as a public benefit corporation, given some questions about how it sources its coffee.

It's tricky stuff, but very much in vogue right now. So choose wisely, but do make a choice. Don't do it just for the brownie points; do it because the world needs it.

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