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May 22, 2005

Pepsico's Indra Nooyi's Graduation Remarks

Pepsico's Indra Nooyi, commented on by Day by Day Cartoon

I saw today's Day by Day Cartoon and wondered just what on Earth the cartoonist was on about. I searched the Internet and found it difficult to find the remarks. Instead, I found a lot of commentary about the remarks, and it just didn't seem to me that she'd actually said anything all that bad. In a nutshell, the commentary suggested that she asserted that the rest of the world views us as giving them the middle finger - flipping them off. Well, maybe that's true. She's a major player in a global corporation - perhaps she has the experience to know. So why are people trying to kill the messenger? It occurred to me that, perhaps, she said it in a way that suggested that the United States actually is giving the middle finger, as opposed to just being perceived that way. And, perhaps, she suggested that whatever the United States is doing which translates into giving the middle finger is something that is near and dear to our patriotic hearts. It's one thing to be an honest messenger, but it's quite another to jump on board and support the message. So, I had to know - I kept up my search until I found her speech. Here it is, with interspersed commentary:


Good evening, everyone.

Dean Hubbard, distinguished faculty, honored graduates, relieved parents, family, and friends, it's a distinct pleasure to be in New York City this evening to celebrate the biggest milestone to date in the lives of you, the young men and women before us: your graduation from Columbia University Business School.

It may surprise you, graduates, but as big a night as this is for you, it's an even bigger night for your parents. They may look calm and collected as they sit in the audience, but deep inside they're doing cartwheels, dancing the Macarena, and practically speaking in tongues, they're so excited. This is what happens when parents anticipate that their bank accounts will soon rehydrate after being bone-dry for two years. So, for everyone here this evening, it's a very special occasion. And I'm delighted to share it with you.

I am keenly aware that graduates traditionally refer to our time together this evening as the calm before the storm. Some graduates -- perhaps those who minored in self-awareness -- refer to the commencement address as "the snooze before the booze." However you describe my comments this evening, please know that I understand. It wasn't that long ago that I was in your place. And I remember the day well. I knew that I owed my parents -- my financial benefactors -- this opportunity to revel in our mutual accomplishment. Yet, as the guy at the podium droned on about values, goals, and how to make my dreams take flight, I remember desperately checking and rechecking my watch. I thought, "I deserve to party, and this codger's cramping my style!"

In one of life's true ironies, I am now that codger. Well...I'm the female equivalent. A codg-ette, I guess. And I now understand that values, goals, and how to make dreams take flight, really are important. So being a firm believer that hindsight is one of life's greatest teachers, allow me to make belated amends.

To that distinguished, erudite, and absolutely brilliant man whom I silently dissed many years ago: mea culpa. Big, BIG mea culpa!

This evening, graduates, I want to share a few thoughts about a topic that should be near and dear to your hearts: the world of global business. But, I'm going to present this topic in a way that you probably haven't considered before. I'm going to take a look at how the United States is often perceived in global business, what causes this perception, and what we can do about it. To help me, I'm going to make use of a model.

So far, so good, I suppose, though I can't help but notice that she's really saying, "I'm worth listening to," in a passive aggressive manner. Passive-aggressiveness, it seems to me, tends to annoy people most when it slips under the radar unnoticed. People don't know why they're irritated, they might not even know that they are, but it tends to close their minds a bit nonetheless. Well, it seems to me, anyway.

To begin, I'd like you to consider your hand. That's right: your hand.

Other than the fact that mine desperately needs a manicure, it's a pretty typical hand. But, what I want you to notice, in particular, is that the five fingers are not the same. One is short and thick, one tiny, and the other three are different as well. And yet, as in perhaps no other part of our bodies, the fingers work in harmony without us even thinking about them individually. Whether we attempt to grasp a dime on a slick, marble surface, a child's arm as we cross the street, or a financial report, we don't consciously say, "OK, move these fingers here, raise this one, turn this one under, now clamp together. Got it!" We just think about what we want to do and it happens. Our fingers -- as different as they are -- coexist to create a critically important whole.

Fans of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged may wince a bit on that last line. It's awfully reminiscent of Orren Boyle saying that the steel industry must be preserved "as a whole", by which he really meant that the profitable steel companies must be made to pay subsidies to non-profitable ones. Those "critically important as a whole" arguments are usually code for socialism, and the rest of her speech doesn't do much to pull us away from that interpretation.

This unique way of looking at my hand was just one result of hot summer evenings in my childhood home in Madras, India. My mother, sister, and I would sit at our kitchen table and -- for lack of a better phrase -- think big thoughts. One of those thoughts was this difference in our fingers and how, despite their differences, they worked together to create a wonderful tool.

As I grew up and started to study geography, I remember being told that the five fingers can be thought of as the five major continents: Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America. Now, let me issue a profound apology to both Australia and Antarctica. I bear neither of these continents any ill will. It's just that we humans have only five fingers on each hand, so my analogy doesn't work with seven continents.

Clearly, the point of my story is more important that geographical accuracy!

First, let's consider our little finger. Think of this finger as Africa. Africa is the little finger not because of Africa's size, but because of its place on the world's stage. From an economic standpoint, Africa has yet to catch up with her sister continents. And yet, when our little finger hurts, it affects the whole hand.

Are you starting to see this "as a whole" concept starting to shape up? It's not "my" interests, or "my family's" interests, or "my state's" interests, or "my country's" interests...instead it pushes all of those aside in favor of "the whole hand". (But the "whole hand" analogy falls very flat - more below.)

Our thumb is Asia: strong, powerful, and ready to assert herself as a major player on the world's economic stage.

Our index, or pointer finger, is Europe. Europe is the cradle of democracy and pointed the way for western civilization and the laws we use in conducting global business.

The ring finger is South America, including Latin America. Is this appropriate, or what? The ring finger symbolizes love and commitment to another person. Both Latin and South America are hot, passionate, and filled with the sensuous beats of the mambo, samba, and tango: three dances that -- if done right -- can almost guarantee you and your partner will be buying furniture together.

This analogy of the five fingers as the five major continents leaves the long, middle finger for North America, and, in particular, the United States. As the longest of the fingers, it really stands out. The middle finger anchors every function that the hand performs and is the key to all of the fingers working together efficiently and effectively. This is a really good thing, and has given the U.S. a leg up in global business since the end of World War I.

However, if used inappropriately -- just like the U.S. itself -- the middle finger can convey a negative message and get us in trouble. You know what I'm talking about. In fact, I suspect you're hoping that I'll demonstrate what I mean. And trust me, I'm not looking for volunteers to model.

Discretion being the better part of valor...I think I'll pass.

What is most crucial to my analogy of the five fingers as the five major continents, is that each of us in the U.S. -- the long middle finger -- must be careful that when we extend our arm in either a business or political sense, we take pains to assure we are giving a hand...not the finger. Sometimes this is very difficult. Because the U.S. -- the middle finger -- sticks out so much, we can send the wrong message unintentionally.

Unfortunately, I think this is how the rest of the world looks at the U.S. right now. Not as part of the hand -- giving strength and purpose to the rest of the fingers -- but, instead, scratching our nose and sending a far different signal.

I'd challenge each of you to think about how critically important it is for every finger on your hand to rise and bend together. You cannot simply "allow" the other four fingers to rise only when you want them to. If you've ever even tried to do that, you know how clumsy and uncoordinated it is.

Even though the above furthers the point that I've been making, I'm going to skip commenting on why (hopefully, that's obvious). Instead, I'll point out another message which is being weaved between the lines, and it's a message which supports the first: She's saying that the United States should not be pursuing its own interests, but instead following the example of the rest of the world.

She very cleverly words that point by suggesting that if the middle finger, the United States, is extended while the others are not, that it's us that has done it and that makes us wrong. That, in and of itself is offensive, since it categorizes independent action in and of itself as being wrong, regardless of what that action is. But what is truly clever about her wording is that it puts the United States squarely into the role of the assertive party. But there are two ways that the middle finger could find its way standing on its own: first, the way she suggests, with it suddenly extending itself away from the other fingers, but also second, by the other fingers abandoning the middle finger and closing into a fist below it. This is the way that, I think, most Americans see the international political landscape right now: the rest of the world has failed to be the friend to America that they should be, and which America deserves them to be. But Indra's comments seem to be judging right and wrong by popularity - and that's just plain relativism. It's no wonder she's stepping on toes.

My point here is that it's not enough just to understand that the other fingers coexist. We've got to consciously and actively ensure that every one of them stands tall together, or that they bend together when needed.

My point exactly. Rather than standing tall together, much of the rest of the world has left America high and dry. Australia, interestingly, has supported America very strongly, however. Australia did not leave America high and dry, but instead remained a good, true, and strong friend. Perhaps there is more to Indra's leaving Australia out of her finger analogy than originally meets the eye. Isn't it interesting that her "five continents" are the United States (in the lovely role as the middle finger), three less than "rich" continents, and Europe, which gets praised as being "cradle of democracy...[which]...pointed the way for western civilization and the laws we use in conducting global business." The European way is the right way, the U.S. is a middle finger, and the other three are significantly different culturally from the U.S. Why did she rule out using Australia in favor of the others?

Today, as each of you ends one chapter in your young lives and begins another, I want you to consider how you will conduct your business careers so that the other continents see you extending a hand...not the finger. Graduates, it's not that hard. You can change and shape the attitudes and opinions of the other fingers -- the other continents and their peoples -- by simply ascribing positive intent to all your international business transactions. If you fail, or if you are careless, here's a perfect example of what can happen:

A U.S. businesswoman was recently in Beijing, China, on an international training assignment for a luxury hotel chain. The chain was rebranding an older Beijing hotel. As such, the toilets in the hotel had yet to be upgraded. There were no porcelain commodes, just holes in the floor. Until recently, this was the standard procedure in China.

Now, 8,000 miles removed from the scene, you and I -- and most Americans -- can shake our heads and giggle at the physical contortions and delicate motor skills necessary to make the best of this situation. We're simply not used to it. But to loudly and insultingly verbalize these feelings onsite, in front of the employees and guests of the host country, is bush league. And yet, that's exactly what this woman observed.

In the hotel's bar, the woman overheard a group of five American businessmen loudly making fun of the hotel's lavatory facilities. As the drinks flowed, the crass and vulgar comments grew louder, and actually took on an angry, jingoistic tone. While these Americans couldn't speak a word of Chinese, their Chinese hosts spoke English very well, and understood every word the men were saying.

And we wonder why the world views many Americans as boorish and culturally insensitive. This incident should make it abundantly clear. These men were not giving China a hand. They were giving China the finger. This finger was red, white, and blue, and had "the United States" stamped all over it.

This, it seems to me, was a strange turn for her to take. I doubt that anyone, up until this point, in her audience had this in mind when they heard or read her speech. While she's obviously correct about the rudeness of those individual's behavior, I have a hard time believing that she put much thought into it in terms of her overall speech. Or - more cynically - that she intended it to really be what she was getting at in her speech. Surely she realizes that every country has its angels and its jerks, and that individuals in other countries meet both American angels and American jerks and assess them individually.

Graduates, it pains me greatly that this view of America persists. Although I'm a daughter of India, I'm an American businesswoman. My family and I are citizens of this great country.

This land we call home is a most loving and ever-giving nation -- a Promised Land that we love dearly in return. And it represents a true force that, if used for good, can steady the hand -- along with global economies and cultures.

Yet to see us frequently stub our fingers on the international business and political stage is deeply troubling. Truth be told, the behaviors of a few sully the perception for all of us. And we know how often perception is mistaken for reality.

We can do better. We should do better. With your help, with your empathy, with your positive intent as representatives of the U.S. in global business, we will do better. Now, as never before, it's important that we give the world a hand...not the finger.

In conclusion, graduates, I want to return to my introductory comments this evening. I observed that as big a night as this is for you, it's an even bigger night for your parents. I ascribed their happiness to looking forward to a few more "George Washingtons" in their bank accounts. While this is certainly true, there is another reason.

Each of your parents believes that their hard work has paid off. Finally! They believe that maybe -- just maybe -- they have raised and nurtured the next Jack Welch, Meg Whitman, or Patricia Russo.

Don't disappoint them. Don't disappoint your companies. And don't disappoint yourselves.

As you begin your business careers, and as you travel throughout the world to assure America's continued global economic leadership, remember your hand. And remember to do your part to influence perception.

Remember that the middle finger -- the United States -- always stands out. If you're smart, if you exhibit emotional intelligence as well as academic intelligence, if you ascribe positive intent to all your actions on the international business stage, this can be a great advantage. But if you aren't careful -- if you stomp around in a tone-deaf fog like the ignoramus in Beijing -- it will also get you in trouble. And when it does, you will have only yourself to blame.

Graduates, as you aggressively compete on the international business stage, understand that the five major continents and their peoples -- the five fingers of your hand -- each have their own strengths and their own contributions to make. Just as each of your fingers must coexist to create a critically important tool, each of the five major continents must also coexist to create a world in balance. You, as an American businessperson, will either contribute to or take away from, this balance.

So remember, when you extend your arm to colleagues and peoples from other countries, make sure that you're giving a hand, not the finger. You will help your country, your company, and yourself, more than you will ever know.

Thank you very much.

More of the same.

And here's why her whole hand analogy either falls flat, or is monumentally offensive: Countries are independent, fingers are not. That is, fingers are not indpendent in that their actions are governed by one mind which controls them all. That one mind wants to pick up an orange, and those fingers, bereft of independent thought, take orders from that mind and grasp the fruit. So the analogy either falls flat because, unlike fingers, countries are independent, or she's presenting the highly offensive assertion that the United States needs to subordinate its independence to a higher authority. And who might that be? The United Nations? Who?

Indra Nooyi deserves to be in trouble for her comments. Ostensibly, she's in trouble for saying that the rest of the world views us as giving them the middle finger. I think its far more complex (and damning) than that. This is not simply a case of killing the messenger.

Posted by Jeff at May 22, 2005 05:32 AM


EXCELLENT analysis!!!

Did Ms. Nooyi "send the wrong message unintentionally," in a fashion similar to that which she accuses the U.S.?

Or, did she imply that we should acquiesce to international complaints, out of concern for "how we are perceived" - which complaints may be largely economic extortion.

Ms. Nooyi's non-apology, likely crafted by corporate flaks, appears just as disingenuous as if the boorish "U.S. businesswoman" in China attempted to spin her previous insensitive remark. It does not appear remotely credible.

I will write PepsiCo's Board of Directors. Anything less than an immediate dismissal will only continue the insult.

Posted by: Chris Stirling at May 26, 2005 09:22 AM

I think it's clear what her political views are. If not, then she really - really - should have chosen the text of her speech better.

Nevertheless, I can't claim to be on board with wanting her dismissed. That sort of thing would be an example of top down, corporate Mt. Olympus style, controlling of political opinion, a method that shuts out the little guys.

People may buy (or not buy) Pepsico's products based upon those products alone. Once a political position, such as Ms. Nooyi's, enters the fray, people have an additional reason to vote (with their dollars) for, or against, Pepsico's products. This is the way that the offended or sympathetic should (in my opinion) enforce their convictions. Pepsico corporate Mt. Olympus, then, may make its decisions based upon the real impact on the bottom line, and not upon threats nor their own political views.

Hell, Pepsico has always been the "liberal" one, the "choice of a new generation", that sort of thing. It just may be that her speech was a deliberate attempt to appear sympathetic to the liberal masses. Perhaps she did not write that speech alone.

Posted by: Jeff at May 26, 2005 03:11 PM

This is exactly what Indra was saying some of you guys are just not emotionally sensitive.The fingers are controlled by the same brain, true that, but they exist in an interdependent reality they need to exist in harmony. For the record I am from the small finger- Africa, and what I see from your responses is that it is not just the big guys like the George Bushes that create the wrong perception about what America is but even ordinary guys like you. I just hope one day you will learn from history and realise that that fact that you are the longest finger (for now) it dont make you more important the the other fingers.

Posted by: solomon at September 12, 2006 09:44 AM

Who are the customers of Pepsico? The people from the globe. If an American corporation needs to gain globally, then there should be local sensitivity. I think Indra's analogy is highly
appropriate to the new graduates in today's global world. Reading this blog only validates Indra's point.

Posted by: libra at October 19, 2006 12:48 PM

personal business men all over the world

Posted by: Lambert at November 25, 2006 01:41 AM

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My regards,
Ramatu Kamokai.

Posted by: Ramatu Kamokai at December 28, 2006 05:25 AM

Yes that was a remarkable speech i have ever read.Inspite of all the circumstances that students go thru during the persuit of their careers, the speech calms you down and you start to realise the achievement you have made in life.
Threre is nothing more interesting in life than counting the achievements you have made and you can only do that when you are made aware of them by the people who are around you.
Thanx for the speech and we need more of such.
Bravo comrade

Posted by: Constantine at February 5, 2007 06:50 AM

to reply to your last paragraph - the hand is the same as the world as - as rightly described ny indra...coz one economy affects another. Do you think that if there was a tsunami in India or China, US is not going to be affected? Or do you think that the Euro exchange rates dropping will not have any affect on US. The truth is all u americans think there is nothing outside your country and all you guys can do is be racist. Get a life.

Posted by: pk at September 12, 2007 11:56 PM

I am a bit late to comment because I became aware of this speech only recently. I think that Indra's point that perception plays a very important role in any relationship either business, international or personal is very relevant. I am in Customer Service and in our company, we are always encouraged to give value and respect to customers' percetion and not bilittle it when they express it to us, even though sometimes it may not be correct. So yes, Indra's request to the Graduates to be aware of other's perception of America in general and its business and business persons in particular is very valid.
Her analogy, however may not be completely accurate or appropriate (especially when she could have banded together North and South America as one and included Australia as a separate Continent is it is inreality). I also believe she over-emphasised the 'Middle Finger' part of it and did not give a chance to the listeners to just take the spirit of the anology. She repeated it too often and left only the negative connotaion remain in the listeners' and readers' mind.

May be a case of good tactic poorly executed.

Posted by: S Mohanakrishnan at September 30, 2007 01:20 AM

Well spoken by Indra, and a very good analysis.

Posted by: Dameure at April 14, 2008 07:53 AM

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Posted by: LnddMiles at July 21, 2009 12:27 PM

I am not in awe at this speach, however in spite of being a non US citizen, I do tend to agree with the author of the speach.

I do tend to agree that the emphasis on the middle finger might have touched a few raw nerves in spite of the sincerity of deliverance.

In these challenging times, this is the best every US business person can do for his/her nation.

Posted by: hubert at September 13, 2009 10:38 AM

You go girl, I am with women of today because they are not going to take this grap no more from men. It is time for a change in history for women, like it was time for a black man to become President of The United States. We need achange badly, look at all the companies who are causing this country to become the World Most Scandalous country on the globe. I feel women like Indres and Andra are great example of what women can do if giving the chance. Women can rule men in so many ways, I want list them this time, but I will be back with more comments.

Posted by: American at December 13, 2009 08:25 AM

mm. cognitively thread..

Posted by: kiniOgue at December 20, 2009 04:09 PM

any updates coming ?

Posted by: kiniOgue at December 21, 2009 11:58 PM

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