Indra Nooyi becomes first Indian American to be inducted into Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Indra Nooyi, 64, the former chairperson and chief executive officer of PepsiCo — the world’s second largest beverages company — even in retirement, continued to create history, becoming the first Indian- American to be inducted into the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

At a gala ceremony on Nov. 17, graced by the likes of former First Lady Michelle Obama, and erstwhile First Lady, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State and the first woman presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, which was emceed by Gayle King — a chief anchor for CBS News and co-host of its flagship morning program “CBS This Morning” — Nooyi, was among five luminaries, including Amazon founder and CEO and the owner of The Washington Post Jeff Bezos, and members of the iconic musical group, Earth, Wind & Fire, whose portraits were unveiled at this prestigious gallery that was constituted by an act of Congress in 1962, to “tell the story of America by portraying the people who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the U.S.”

“The Portrait of a Nation Prize celebrates and honors exemplary achievements in the worlds of science, performing arts, business, fashion and media,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery said, and added, that “the Portrait Gallery is focused on bringing together people of different backgrounds and disciplines who have impacted American history and culture.”

Of Nooyi, Sajet said, “She has really broken all sorts of glass ceilings,” and pointed out that “She was the first female CEO of PepsiCo.”

The Chennai-born Nooyi, the 2006 India Abroad Person of the Year, who stepped down from PepsiCo on Oct. 3, 2018, when she ascended to become this beverages conglomerate’s first-ever female CEO, joined only a handful of women as leaders of Fortune 500 companies.

She was named by Forbes as one of the world’s 100 most powerful women and during her 12-year tenure, she not only established initiatives to meet the changing demands of consumers, increased the company’s net revenue more than 80 percent, and saw share price nearly double; she also led efforts — such as Women With Purpose and Spark A Future — to empower millions of women and girls through education, entrepreneurship, and employment opportunities. 

Besides Nooyi and Bezos,the biennial event, which raises funds for the museum’s exhibitions endowment and brings together some of the nation’s most prominent and respected voices also unveiled the portraits of Frances Arnold, scientist, engineer and Nobel Laureate; Lin-Manuel Miranda, award-winning composer, lyricist, actor and creator of the Tony Award-winning musicals In The Heights and Hamilton: An American Musical; Anna Wintour, artistic director of Condé Nast and editor-in-chief of Vogue; and the award-winning Earth, Wind & Fire band (Maurice White [posthumously], Philip Bailey, Verdine White, Ralph Johnson).

Unveiling Nooyi’s portrait was Alberto Ibarguen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Nooyi, in her remarks during the induction ceremony said, “To be an immigrant, a South Asian immigrant of color, a woman to be included in the Portrait Gallery... it really says that we are the country where people look for the people who make a positive impact and celebrate them.

“It doesn’t matter what your background, color, creed, ethnicity is. As long as you’ve made a positive impact to the country, we are going to celebrate you — actually memorialize — which I thought was even more spectacular,” she said.

She told the assembled media that “I feel very grateful to be making a home here in this country because this portrait gallery is an accolade which I’ve never dreamed of. And it’s heartwarming to see this.”

Nooyi said that her portrait, drawn in oils on canvas by artist Jon Friedman — and could easily pass off for a photograph — was something she watched Friedman paint in different stages.

According to Nooyi, “I think the big difference in my portrait is that they asked me a question, what’s meaningful for you — a picture of my parents, picture of my husband and kids, a picture of a PepsiCo annual report or a Yale hat.” She said that since “all these are major factors in my life, it’s in a way an unusual portrait because I have all that behind me, which most portraits don’t have.”

Nooyi acknowledged, “It is a pretty special day today — special because I’ve just begun to understand the value of the portrait gallery. I didn’t know a portrait gallery existed because I had never been to one. So, I came to visit this gallery about a year ago when they informed me about this. I was simply blown away by the fact that such a gallery existed, that portrait is a way to tell the story of the country and all the people who contributed to it. It tells a beautiful story.

“It’s not just a picture, it tells a story. If you go downstairs to the portrait gallery, there’s a room that is now showcasing the women’s suffragette movement. It’s a fantastic story of how the whole thing evolved,” she said.

Nooyi said being featured in this gallery, as a woman, as an immigrant and as a person of color “sends a message to the people that the U.S. is a great country to make your future in.”

And pointing out that “the fact that they chose to put me as part of that is a bit emotional for me,” she predicted, “Going forward, people like us paved the path for women to be viewed as equal, powerful and contributing as anybody else. And, so women should not feel like second class citizens. They should know they too have arrived on the scene. And their contributions will also be noticed irrespective of your background.”

Nooyi said this was key and reiterated, “To be an Indian- American, to be included among business leaders in the portrait gallery basically says, here is a country that only cares about your contribution, not necessarily where you came from and who you are.

“The fact that they are now including businesspeople and they are beginning to tell the story of how various businesspeople of all kind born here, immigrated here, from whatever country, doesn’t matter, all they say is you contributed to some thought or a change in the country, positive change and we appreciate you for that,” she said.

Nooyi also said she hoped that her induction into this gallery would not be perceived as just a message for women, “but a message for all business people that whether you are Indian- American or any other American or just American American—that as long as you conduct business with high integrity, as long as you make a positive change in society of significance, you will be perceived well in history, we will think about you positively.”

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