We have been inundated with messages responding to our posts on the graduation remarks by PepsiCo president Indra Nooyi at the Columbia Business School MBA recognition ceremony of this past Sunday. Many readers (approximately a third) have written to comment that, unlike our rapporteur — graduating Columbia MBA Wes Martin — they did not find Ms. Nooyi’s remarks objectionable. I am grateful that PepsiCo posted the remarks today (together with the accompanying statement) and that we can all determine the issue for ourselves based on “the ocular proof.”
The Harvard-Yale game this year was played in Cambridge. Consistent with some mysterious Eli tradition, Yale students executed a brilliant prank. During the game a fake Harvard pep squad wearing red and white face paint distributed 1800 pieces of construction paper on seats covering the Harvard side of the stadium. When turned over in unison by the occupants of the seats, they were purportedly to spell out “Go Harvard.” Instead, they spelled out “We suck.” (See the Harvard Sucks Web site for the back story and multimedia presentations.)
Ms. Nooyi’s graduation remarks don’t rise to that level of sophomoric genius. I am struck most forcibly, however, by the immaturity of her remarks; they are indeed sophomoric, as though an audacious undergraduate had sought to impersonate the distinguished executive of a multinational corporation and parody the genre of the commencement speech. The trope of the middle finger brings it almost to the level of the transcendent tastelessness of the “Harvard sucks” prank.
Wes Martin seems to me to have come remarkably close to capturing the Nooyi essence. Martin wrote:
Finally, the US (not Canada mind you) – yes, you guessed it – [is] the middle finger. She then launched into a diatribe about how the US is seen as the middle finger to the rest of the world. The rest of the world sees us as an overbearing, insensitive and disrespectful nation that gives the middle finger to the rest of the world. According to Ms. Nooyi, we cause the other finger nations to cower under our presence. But it is our responsibility, she continues, to change the current state of world opinion of the US. It is our responsibility to make the other fingers rise in unison with us as we move forward. She then goes on to give a personal anecdote about some disrespectful US business women in an Asian country and how that is typical of Americans overseas.
In her graduation remarks, Nooyi actually said this:
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