I'm a content shareholder of PepsiCo
But I recently became aware of a bit of a kerfuffle surrounding Nooyi. Earlier this month, when she spoke to the graduating class at Columbia Business School, she exhorted the grads to work together with people from around the globe, just as the fingers of a hand work together. That sounds fairly innocuous so far, right? Permit me to continue.
She likened each finger to a continent, leaving out Australia and Antarctica since hands tend to have only five fingers. Sandy Frank at huffingtonpost.com, who called the speech inane, offered some details: "Africa, you see, is the little finger, because while it 'has yet to catch up with her sister continents' (the way the little finger eventually catches up with the others?), when it hurts, 'it affects the whole hand.' OK."
Nooyi went on to liken North America to the middle finger, which she said "anchors every function," is "the key to all of the fingers working together efficiently and effectively," and "if used inappropriately ... can convey a negative message and get us in trouble."
Many Americans appear to feel that Nooyi gave them the finger. Many bloggers were up in arms. Nooyi had to issue an apology, explaining that she was using a simple analogy that she'd learned long ago.
Perhaps the speech might have gone over better if she'd found something with seven parts to better facilitate comparisons with continents. Perhaps the Seven Dwarves -- with the U.S. as ... Grumpy? Bashful? Or maybe the seven deadly sins... no, that would surely offend everyone.
It's a shame that instead of finding fault with a small part of her speech, more bloggers and commentators aren't discussing some of the more meaningful points she made, such as the importance of Americans not being insensitive or arrogant toward the rest of the world. She pointed out that we've developed an image problem recently and offered some thoughts on how we might improve: "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 ... it will also get you in trouble."
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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of PepsiCo. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.