How One Corporate Indian Woman Became CEO

Bird’s-eye view: There are an estimated 1.27 BILLION people in India in 2014. The world population is 7.2 billion.

Zooming in: Shalini Puchalapalli grew up in a very small town in India – or, “a hick town in the dry part of India,” she said.

How did she become a CEO?


“Now looking back, I thought about what I should do five years from now? What I will enjoy next? And where will I learn the most things?”

“That is what is different from men and women: men look at career goals as a determinant, but women look at ‘How much fun will the role be? What can I learn?’ I see this a lot in my friends.”

“I had an opportunity to continue vertically in supply chain or take a side step into a sales role. I took the sales job for the learning it gave me and it was a fantastic experience.”

“I look at roles that are different and see they can only expand my world, broaden what I do.”

“Today I’m in a role that is an amalgamation – CEO at Lehar Foods Pvt. Ltd (PepsiCo India).”

“Pooja and I went to see Gloria Steinem [a few weeks ago], and I keep thinking about what she said: Treat yourself as well as you treat others. For women, it’s about self confidence.


“I was very keen on education because my dad was a doctor and my mom was in education,” Shalini said. “But in this part of town women were not expected to succeed. They were supposed to get out of college, get married, that usual attitude.”

“But for my parents, this was not an option. My parents wanted me and my sister to be successful and create a path for my success.”

“Today my mom runs a nonprofit that works with women and children. She’s trained 5,000 women to help make them independent and help women in lower society in India to chart their own path. She even started an orphanage for kids when I was in college, which now has 105 kids. She recently won the University of Southern California Global Women in Leadership Award for her great influence.”

“My parents always emphasized ‘I don’t care what you do, but I want you to be happy and do well at what you do.’ That has driven my career.”


“I went to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) for undergrad for engineering, and then I went to graduate school in human resources, but I did not enjoy it. After that, I went to INSEAD business school in France, one of the top five business schools in the world.”

“After INSEAD, I worked in Belgium and traveled to 40 countries, working in corporate finance, and supply chain, and logistics development at Inbev. I spent six and a half years in Europe with my husband.”

“But, I wanted to come back to India and even though they moved me around and gave me lots of opportunities, Inbev didn’t have very many new roles. So, I came back to a job with PepsiCo in India. I’ve now been here now for five and half years. My first three were spent in supply chain, a couple years in sales, then headed the Karnataka and Kerala regions, now I head one of their businesses.”


“In India the roles are changing but it is still patriarchal. I think young women need to look at structures around them and see that if they want to become independent – mentally more than anything – and challenge the perception. That is it. The biggest battle is in yourself.”

“In last 10 years, a lot more women are entering the workforce because the government is making policy changes. Now 30% of seats in colleges are reserved for women. When I started at IIT, there were only three girls for every 50 men.”

“Different professions, like in software and IT have opened up and created flexibility for women.”

“Women are coming into workforce but FEW ARE breaking the barriers and getting into leadership roles. Change is happening slowly.”

“I love to mentor women and young women of talent both through my mother’s organization and outside.”


“India has had some really good laws enacted recently – such as the sexual harassment law, defined in such a way that sexual harassment was brushed under the carpet now for a long time,” Shalini said. “I was recently saw a 2004 Boston Legal rerun on TV that had sexual harassment in it. It made me see it differently because women are taking it on now; there is an increasing number of women saying ‘We will NOT accept physical abuse or snide and derogatory remarks.’ This is increasing in the media, and people are standing up – I am hoping it happens faster.”

Shalini is the mother of an eight year old son, and has a very supportive husband all along her career path.

We are grateful for Shalini’s interview and powerful story of how she became CEO. We look forward to seeing where her drive, love of learning, and expertise takes her!

Erin Risner

Director of Community Engagement

Writer. Creative. Brand Strategist. Content Curator. Social Media and Marketing Maven. Passionate about connecting with women around the world and telling their success stories.