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Humble roots to corporate icon

By Shobha Warrier
March 24, 2007 11:14 IST
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Thirty-five years ago, a group of young men and a woman ran from their college to the railway station to catch a train to the city. They then got on several buses. Their aim was to coax business houses into sponsoring their department magazine. One of those young men is currently the principal of that institution, Madras Christian College. The only girl in the group was gutsy Indra Krishnamurthy, now known worldwide as Indra Nooyi, CEO, PepsiCo Ltd.

Bubbly, confident, enthusiastic, easy to get along with, a born leader, one who excelled in music, dramatics and languages, who never left a job halfway, and often talked nineteen to the dozen -- this is how a classmate describes her. MCC Principal Dr V J Philip and Indra joined college at the same time, in 1971. He was a postgraduate student while she was in her first graduate year. By the time she got to her final year Bachelor of Science in chemistry, he had completed his masters and joined the college as a lecturer. "So," he smiles, "I was both her classmate and professor!"

About the running around to collect money for the department magazine, Dr Philip remembers, "It was the early seventies and she was the only girl ready to help us. Unlike other girls, she used to run with us to catch buses and trains. We would run from one company to another. She was good at leading a group and played a very important role in organizing events. I could see her leadership qualities even then. Nobody else would take the initiative of going to the city to get advertisements."

He candidly admits she wasn't an extraordinarily brilliant student of chemistry. "Her interests didn't lie in the subject; there were many students better than she. But, she stood out in class because of her all-round personality. She was excellent in cultural activities like singing, strumming a guitar or leading a band. She had her own music group; she played guitar and participated in dramatics. There was nothing she hadn't done in college."

Dr R Wilfred Sugumar, head of the department of chemistry at MCC, was Indra's classmate from 1971-1974. He remembers her as someone who mingled with everyone, irrespective of social class. "She came from a privileged family. Her father worked in a bank, and her grandfather was a retired judge, but she never discriminated against anyone. She was down-to-earth and friendly." He also remembers how she used to sing old

Hindi songs on stage and also act in plays. "She had a drama group that went to north India for a competition and came back with a prize. She was that kind of person; she never accepted defeat."

Though Dr Sugumar always got more marks than Indra, it was she who everybody in college knew. Other than her lively personality, he also remembers the way she used to `exploit his shy nature and bully him.' "I used to be next to her in the lab, and we were supposed to do experiments together. Coming from a small place, I was very shy and felt embarrassed standing next to a girl. She knew my discomfort and used to bully and tease me a lot. She played a lot of pranks on me."

Neither Dr Philip nor Dr Sugumar imagined the girl who studied with them would reach such heights, although their college produced such eminent men as Dr S Radhakrishnan, T T Krishnamachari, K P S Menon, Dr Raja Ramanna and T N Seshan. We knew she would fly high, they say, but not to such heights!

Even after leaving MCC, Nooyi stayed in touch with her friends. When Dr Philip became principal, he e-mailed her and she responded immediately, congratulating him. After she took over as CEO of PepsiCo, Dr Philip was in America and met his old classmate and student at her office. "It was an amazing experience!" he says. "I don't think I have been in such a plush place before. She was very warm and friendly. I told her she looked more or less the same." They both laughed about the early days of chasing buses and begging multinational companies for money. He told her that, unlike her time when girl students constituted just 10 percent at MCC, they now comprised 45 percent. "I thought she would be happy," he says, "but she asked, why just 45 percent? Why not 50 percent? We must have 50 percent."

It was a proud moment for MCC when the government announced the Padma Awards this Republic Day, says Dr Philip. Three former students won - Dr E C G Sudarshan was awarded a Padma Vibhushan for science and engineering and Dr Raja Chelliah for public affairs, while Indra Nooyi was awarded a Padma Bhushan for her contribution to trade and industry.

When Nooyi was in Chennai, December 2006, the college was closed for Christmas, so Dr Philip couldn't arrange for her to meet the students. "I have requested her to give a motivational talk and she has agreed," he says. "Imagine a person who has reached such heights talking to 4,000 students. It could change their lives!"

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