2011: Speaker Indra K. Nooyi

Commencement Address

By Indra K. Nooyi, PepsiCo CEO
May 16, 2011

Indra K. Nooyi

Click to view a photo gallery from the ceremony.

Thank you, President Hatch. Members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty, guests, friends and family, and most of all, graduates of the class of 2011: I’m honored to be with you on this very special day.

It’s such a pleasure to look out at all the faces in the audience full of excitement, hope and relief. And those are just the faces of the parents.

I’m thrilled to be invited back here because I have a special place in my heart for this great university. In several ways, I am CEO of PepsiCo today in part due to Wake Forest. The first reason is Wayne Calloway, who not only earned a degree here but also served as Chairman of the Board. And the Calloway School of Business and Accountancy was named after him. Wayne hired me into PepsiCo and gave me much needed support and guidance in my early years at the company.

The second is Steve Reinemund, your Dean of Business. Steve nudged and egged me on to great performance and pushed me over the finish line. I succeeded Steve as CEO of PepsiCo. If it wasn’t for the guidance and support Wayne and Steve gave me, I wouldn’t be standing up here today. I have a lot to thank them for. I have a lot to thank this university for. The other reason why I am so fond of Wake is because this is one of the warmest and most welcoming universities I have had the privilege of visiting. And I know this is thanks to Wake Forest’s approach to valuing and nurturing its students as individuals. The approach here is to build both your intellect and your character. It’s hardly surprising that students from Wake go on to do great things, to make a real difference in the world.

Your motto here: “Pro Humanitate” — for humanity — says it all. Wake nurtures your humanity. To attend not just to your intellect, but to your character and compassion. It teaches you to care for all humanity by encouraging you to give back to your communities and help those in need all around the world. It’s no accident that an astonishing 50 percent of Wake students spend a semester abroad.

So as you leave the safe, warm and nurturing environment of this university, I am certain you are all set on a course to make a difference to humanity. And I urge you all to step into the world with the firm belief that you can make the world a better place.

That may seem difficult. The challenges we face today are wide-ranging and complicated: globalization, climate change, political unrest and a global financial crisis. And we have witnessed them all just in the years you have been at college.

But at the same time, think of the progress humanity has made. Since you have been at school, we have seen greater global cooperation on the environment; we have seen economic growth and recovery. And despite some predictions of doom, the downturn brought us closer together, rather than tore us apart.

We have seen a rapid increase in social networking, real-time communications and digital technologies. These advancements are already generating bottom-up, community solutions to economic and social challenges, and greater civic engagement than we have seen for many years.

So while you may be inheriting old problems, you will not be bound by old solutions. Yours will not be a generation that carries the baton for your predecessors. Yours will not be a generation that does things in the way they have always been done. Yours will be a generation that breaks old molds, that forges new paths and that tears up the rule book. And that, believe me, is a cause for celebration. You have more opportunities, more possibilities, than any generation that has come before you.

But of course, there will be times where you feel like the explorers who first charted unknown terrain centuries ago—setting out on virgin territory with no map, so to speak. You have to create wholly new solutions to global problems and chart your own course. But you will need more than your optimism and can-do attitudes to guide you.

So I want to give you some meaningful advice that will help you navigate your way. That will help you be the best you can be and meet the global challenges facing humanity, but at the same time, help you stay true to yourselves and your own humanity.

The first piece of advice I have for you is to never stop growing intellectually. I’m sure now that you are graduating you are all desperate for a break from the books. I can understand that. But please don’t lose your curiosity—your quest for learning. One of the greatest gifts of childhood is something that too many people lose as they grow older — that curiosity to know how the world works, to find out the answer to the question: why?

Yes, today is the end to your formal education. But your real learning never ends. The education you can gain out in the world is a source of wonder if you choose to embrace it.

In 1986, I was hired from the Boston Consulting Group to be the head of strategy for the automotive electronics division of Motorola. It was the smallest division of the company, but run by a visionary leader. I was one of a handful of women in a senior position. I got to Motorola and attended my first senior executive staff meeting. And, I was lost. Everyone in the room spoke electronics and cars — two subjects that I was relatively clueless about. They all wore pocket protectors, walked around with scientific calculators — the ultimate techies of 1986!

As an ex-consultant, I could have asked a few pointed questions, drawn some framework and survived, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to meaningfully contribute to the company, shape its future, and in the process I wanted to be respected and mentored by the people there; all engineers, I should add.

So, I decided to go back to school. I hired two professors — one to teach me electronics, another – cars. Three days a week, from 7 to 9 a.m., the electronics professor gave me lessons using a reasonably daunting textbook. As a chemistry/physics/math undergraduate, I could grasp the concepts, but believe me, it was hard work! And once a week, someone from the local automotive technology training school came by and taught me the inner-workings of a car.

It was a full year of extremely hard work. But something incredible happened along the way… I began to contribute more meaningfully to my job and my peers began to respect me — not for my position, but my curiosity and tenacity. I was now surrounded by helping hands — all wanting to give me that little push, a little nudge.

So, never give up your passion for learning. And zoom out of your field before you zoom in. Some of my very best business insights have come from reading around subjects. They have come from approaching questions at a strange angle, from thinking about them from a different point of view. A lot of the knowledge that has really given me an edge in business has come from history, psychology, even chemistry. Connecting seemingly unconnected dots is what has served me well.

We live in an era that prizes the ability to adapt. You simply can’t afford to rely on what you know today when, tomorrow, what you know now will seem like yesterday’s wisdom. You can’t rely on knowing one thing, one narrow field, when increasingly, different experts from different fields are working together to solve complex problems. To be the best that you can be you need to stay in front. And that means you must be a lifelong student.

The second piece of advice I have for you is to see everything — a failure, a boring task, a horizontal career move — as an opportunity. Every single experience you have is a terrific opportunity to learn and expand your experience. And, when you grasp the opportunities, do it to the best of your ability and give it 110 percent.

However, in order to grasp every opportunity, you cannot — you must not — decide your “career path” in advance. Don’t have a job fixed in your sights and work backwards — it can be the road to disappointment because you risk passing up opportunities that might take you “off-course.”

Steve Reinemund, my mentor and former boss, walked into my office at PepsiCo one day in the late ‘90s. I was head of corporate strategy and development at PepsiCo then. He said, “I want you to go to Frito-Lay and lead a project to transform the whole route distribution system.” Now, this was a full time job. And I already had one of those in New York.

But I sat back and said to myself, “I know Steve is a big supporter of mine. If he’s asking me to do this job, there’s got to be a reason.” And, in a way, what Steve was saying to me was, “You need Direct Store Delivery experience, which only Frito-Lay has. You need to go get that experience to move ahead in the company. So kid, you’ve got a choice: you can invest your time, take on this challenge and learn. Or you can turn it down. It’s your choice.”

So I decided I was going to invest my time. I spent Monday through Thursday at Frito-Lay, commuting from New York to Texas. Then Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I did my regular job in New York. It was an incredible commitment of time but it was an amazing developmental experience. It was challenging, broadening, and helped me reach the position I have today.

But it is not just about grabbing opportunities that come your way. It is also about doing the absolute best you can in whatever you set out to do. Only then will you inspire confidence in others and generate your own tailwind. Let me tell you a story about one of my mentors, Henry Kissinger, that illustrates what I mean.

Henry is a very distinguished man, a former United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. One day, Henry called in his speech writer and asked him to write a fairly important speech. A day later, the speech writer knocked on Henry’s door and gave him the speech. Henry told him to come back in a few hours, for feedback on the speech. A few hours later, the speechwriter went back to get Henry’s feedback. Henry held the speech out and asked the speech writer, “Is this the best you can do?” A bit nervously, the speech writer said, “Let me go take another crack at it,” and went away to make it better.

Now, he really sweated blood on this speech and when he took it back to Henry he was convinced that it did the trick this time. Henry took it and told the speech writer to come back in a few hours. He did that and, when he knocked on the door, Henry thrust the text into his hands again with the same words: “Is that the best you can do?”

By now the speech writer was getting very anxious indeed. He really thought the speech was good and wasn’t sure he could improve it much further. But he decided to give it one last go. He worked at it, squeezing every ounce of meaning out of every line, polishing every sentence until it glowed. When he thought there was nothing more he could do, he took the speech back to Henry and he was told, again, to come back in a few hours.

When the speech writer turned up on Henry’s doorstep he was shaking with nerves. Henry answered the door with the speech in his hand and said the same thing: “Is this the best you can do?” This time the speech writer had had enough. “Well, yes it is, actually. It is the best I can do.” “OK,” said Henry, “Good. I think I’ll read it then.”

So my point is to strive for that final draft, straight away, in whatever you do. You will inspire others to have confidence in you. You will generate your own tailwind. Whether it is your first job, your dream job, whether you are running a business or running a photocopier your effort always has to be 110 percent. Be the best you can be at the task at hand, grab every opportunity that comes along. Don’t let your future ambitions or career plans lead you to close doors too early.

My third piece of advice is assume positive intent. Be positive in everything you do. In your working lives you will encounter people of all ethnicities and backgrounds, in other countries, across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Seeing the best in everyone will mean you look for the similarities, not the differences. When you think the best of people they will very rarely let you down and most of the time they will think the best of you in return.

And in your working lives you will always encounter criticism and detractors. But it’s to be expected. Believing in yourself will help you see criticism, and set backs, and even spectacular failures for what they are: opportunities to learn and do things differently the next time.

When you have a positive outlook, and you are positive about other people, people will warm to you. They will offer advice and assistance. They will want to work for you. The most successful people I know understand the value of other people and, in a virtuous circle, are valued by others. Positivity attracts positivity. Warmth attracts warmth.

If you want a great guide to the positive attitude I’m describing, take a look at Neil Pasricha’s blog, 1000awesomethings.com. Read his book, The Book of Awesome. Listen to the speech he gave at TED. Neil describes the three As that you need to feel awesome: attitude, awareness and authenticity. I want to quote his closing lines from TED because I think they summarize what I am trying to convey:

“You will never be as young as you are right now. And that’s why I believe that if you live your life with a great attitude, choosing to move forward and move on whenever life deals you a blow, living with a sense of awareness of the world around you, embracing your inner three year-old and seeing the tiny joys that make life so sweet and being authentic to yourself, being you and being cool with that, letting your heart lead you and putting yourself in experiences that satisfy you, then I think you’ll live a life that is rich and is satisfying, and I think you live a life that is truly awesome.”

So remember, with a positive attitude, every success you enjoy, every breakthrough you have, every difficulty you encounter — you will do this with others. You will never walk your path alone.

As you take your first steps beyond Wake Forest, I urge you to be optimistic about the challenges ahead. To nurture that can-do attitude Wake has already instilled in you, and to make a difference to the world. And, if you find the possibilities too overwhelming, remember these three pieces of advice.

Keep your childlike curiosity and never stop learning. Grasp every opportunity that comes your way. Give 110 percent to the task at hand in order to generate those opportunities. And, finally, stay positive. Stay positive about yourself, and stay positive about other people. It creates a virtuous circle of common humanity where you get what you give.

If you do all these things, I have no doubt — not for one second — that you, the class of 2011, will make a difference and help change the world. You will live up to the spirit of Wake Forest’s “Pro Humanitate.”

But you can start on that tomorrow. Today, enjoy your family, your friends and your loved ones. Congratulations Class of 2011!