Q/ The duality of being an Indian and an American at the same time; what are the positive aspects of this?
A/ I was born in the world’s largest democracy, and I thrive in the world’s oldest democracy. So, I think I have always been in the free market, where capitalism has yielded tremendous opportunities and I have been the beneficiary of all of that. The great thing is that I have brought to the US all my family values from India. And the creativity, the innovation and all of that I have imbibed from here.
All of us live with a duality, of work and family and trying to juggle all of that. So, in some shape or form, we are all struggling with duality. That is what makes us richer people, that is what makes us more grounded.
Q/While in the US, were there some features, some of your ‘Indianness’ that helped?
A/ I grew up in Madras in a simple, conservative family where the emphasis was on hard work, doing well in school and being respectful of elders. All of those values I brought here. In every job I had, I worked hard, I really understood the material, I wanted to do my best to make India proud of me and the US proud of me.
Because I felt that as an immigrant, I was invited into this country, so I wanted both countries to be proud of me. So, I brought all those values I learned while growing up, and those are the values that stood me in good stead. Because, had I not worked hard, had I not studied everything I was working on, had I not had a respect for the system, I am not sure I would have been very successful. So, I credit both sides for who I am.
Q/Which are the elements from both ways of life where you feel one could learn from the other?
A/ The single biggest benefit I had from the Asian way of life, if you want to call it that, is multigenerational living, and its benefits. How each generation gives back to the next and how grandparents are so invested in the life and career of a grandkid and how much energy and effort they put into that. I think that is something every family, or a community, can think about as a model for the future. We have to think about that in a very different way.
Q/And the other way around?
A/ One amazing thing about the US is the creativity, innovation, the can-do spirit. There is no challenge that an American will say cannot be done. It is like ‘how do we reconceptualise the issue to get it done’. Even the most difficult problem gets addressed and solved. I think that sort of a can-do spirit is something that is infectious, can be taken and studied and put into practice in India which has a lot of issues to be addressed. The can-do spirit with a must-do sense of responsibility is something I love about America.
Q/What is that special something that a typical Indian-American immigrant can bring to the high table of corporate America that is a unique value addition?
A/ They are all hard-working. You get the best and the brightest to immigrate from India to the US. It is a wonderful thing that it is in itself self-selection—the best of the best come from India, they are self-driven, all are English-speaking.
Q/Will we see more and more Indians rising to high positions?
Q/Did it ever sink in, the impact you taking over at Pepsi had on India?
A/ In one way it did sink in that this was a major role model that people were going to look up to. But I was also scared because I never wanted to let anybody down. Because the great thing about role models is that they elevate you on a pedestal. And the problem with role models is that you can get knocked off that pedestal very fast if you do not deliver.
I was more worried about how do I make good on this role model designation that I had, how do I double down and work hard and show that it can be done, whatever I was setting out to do, and do it the right way with integrity and leave behind a legacy that people will be proud of. The responsibility of that was a little bit awesome than sitting on a pedestal and feeling great about all the publicity and power.
Q/Looking at the dichotomy of how we treat women in India—women are respected, yet ignored in a curious way—how do you think things can be changed?
A/ India has very progressive laws when it comes to women, support systems for families; great laws on the book. But somehow there seems to be a gap between the laws on the book and how it is followed. I think the time has come for everybody to come together and say “Come on guys, we have a society where everybody is equal in a democracy”.
People have different roles, but we are all equal. Equal, good treatment of everybody is very, very important. We have to get to a point where we tap into the potential of everybody in the country, not hold a portion of society down so that the rest can benefit from the hard work of women, who are lifelong labourers who don’t get paid, who get abused. That’s just got to change.
It is going to come from education, it’s going to come from the corporate sector, government sector, NGOs, communities all working together. And it has got to come from a fundamental place that says, it is not just about gender equality, it’s because the economy does better. Because when you get a chance to study and contribute to the economy in any shape or form. It’s got to come from a deep knowledge that India will do better if we tap into the potential of everybody.
A lot of women join the IT sector at the entry level. But by the time they reach level 2 or level 3, the attrition rate is huge. It’s not because they don’t want to work—they want to, they want the power of the purse, but they have issues at work, unconscious biases at work, every headwind is thrown at them. There is no support system for them to manage the family and the job—I think we have to have a dialogue on all this. For the sake of India, we have to change the environment.