An Interview With Lester Holt, Host of CNBC's Pepsi's Challenge

PepsiCo is more than just a soft drink company, and Holt takes viewers on a globe-spanning journey to prove why.

By , Columnist
To most people, the brand name Pepsi brings to mind cola wars with its arch rival Coca Cola. In CNBC’s documentary Pepsi's Challenge, we learn that the company's interests are surprisingly diverse, and battling it out for the soft drink crown is a mere fraction of what they do.

When Indra Nooyi became CEO and Chairman of PepsiCo in 2006, she was instrumental in acquiring of two of the company's most important holdings:Tropicana and Quaker Oats. An outspoken woman who has retained the work ethic of her modest beginnings, she is adamant about taking the company in a new, healthier direction. Her goal is to more than double the revenue of PepsiCo’s nutrition business by 2020. Some call her a visionary while others question her motives.indra_nooyi.jpg

In Pepsi's Challenge, Dateline anchor Lester Holt takes us on a journey through Nooyi’s world. We’re given behind the scenes looks at the company’s research and development areas, where Holt samples "drinkable oats," a breakfast food that could soon be on supermarket shelves. He then travels to China to observe Greg Yep, PepsiCo’s Senior Vice President of Research, quest for new ingredients which could be the key to the company’s next big taste sensation.

Holt also gives us a look at Pepsi as a pop culture icon and also how the company strove to break down the race barriers by hiring the first all-black sales team in the 1940s.

In this interview, Lester Holt offers some insights into the making of this fascinating documentary.

What inspired the making of Pepsi's Challenge?

PepsiCo is the kind of company CNBC looks to profile - big influential, and a presence in our daily lives. One that affects not only Wall Street, but Main Street as well. PepsiCo is an American icon and household name, as well as a company in transition. This is a company that is betting its future on healthier products and is investing heavily in the hopes that its wager pays off.

The documentary covers an interesting mix of pop culture, sociology, and even racial issues. Do you think viewers will be surprised at what they learn here?lester holt photo.jpg

I think viewers are going to be surprised about how big companies like PepsiCo really are. This is a company that sells over 3000 different products in 200 countries around the world.  What many people don’t know is that PepsiCo is not just Pepsi-Cola and other soft drinks, but includes Quaker Oats, Tropicana, Gatorade, and Frito-Lay, which, by itself, is one of the largest snack food companies in the world. Viewers are going to come away with the feeling that PepsiCo really is a company that has a major influence on our lives and what we eat and drink.
You’re seen traveling the world during the course of the show. How long did the program take to complete?

We really did travel the world for this project. We started researching the project in late January and began production soon after.  Over the course of the year, we had a crew in rural China following a team looking for the next low-calorie sweetener, in Mexico City learning about the launch plans for a new PepsiCo product, and in India, where we spent the better part of a week following CEO Indra Nooyi during her annual visit to the region.
It is interesting and heartening to see that Indra Nooyi retains a sense of her modest beginnings and that she strives to understand what the average consumer wants. Do you see this as an important reason for her success?

Indra Nooyi seemed in many ways the embodiment of the American dream.  She came to America from a rural town in Southern India to further her education, and, through hard work and dedication, rose to be the head of North America’s largest food and beverage company.  She’s tireless and says she sleeps just four or five hours a night.  She even confessed to us that when she’s at a house party, she’ll sneak away to inspect the refrigerator and pantry to see what PepsiCo products are on the shelves. 
What did you think of those "drinkable oats?" Could they be the next success story in Pepsi lore?

I’m guessing that “drinkable oats” is more the description that Pepsi used for the product rather than its final brand name.  But I did get to try it, and it’s pretty good; it tastes like a creamy shake. As for it being the next success story, we’ll have to wait to find out.
Did you come away from this experience with the impression that Pepsi could succeed in reaching its goal to actually develop “healthier junk food”?

Food industry scientists and experts are probably better equipped to answer that.  I think the people at PepsiCo are excited about the challenge that’s been set before them. One of their Vice Presidents of Research told me that the men and women in research treat the products they’ve developed like their children.  They take personal pride not only when a product launches, but also succeeds.  The mandate from the top seems to have only energized their development team to push the envelope.

It seems that PepsiCo’s influence on the market is far more wide-reaching than its rival Coca-Cola. With the driven and ambitious Nooyi at its helm, do you think the company has a chance in eventually overtake Coke’s number one spot in consumers’ hearts and wallets?

I think the people at PepsiCo would tell you that while they’d like to overtake Coke, they don’t obsess about it. Pepsi is a much different company, one that makes everything from Cheetos to grits. While they see the Coke-Pepsi war as a major battle for the company, they told us it’s just one of many they’re fighting in the war for the consumer’s stomach.

Could you offer any other impressions of the company, its history and those who strive to make it succeed?

One of the most fascinating stories that we got to tell was the story of the first all-black sales team in corporate America.  In the 1940’s, Pepsi was a struggling underdog to Coca-Cola and sought to get the upper hand any way it could.  Pepsi began to court what was then known as the “Negro market” by sending black salesmen throughout the country to promote the beverage.  We were fortunate enough to get to meet one of the original salesmen, 91-year-old Allen McKellar, who told us about his experiences traveling through the Jim Crow South.  I’m glad we had the chance to bring this little-known story of civil rights to the forefront.

Pepsi's Challenge will premiere on November 10 at 9 PM ET/PT on CNBC.

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Mindy Peterman is a freelance writer whose focus is on television, movies and pop culture. She has written over one hundred articles for the award winning website and has conducted interviews with producer Peter Asher, psychic-medium John Edward, Greg Grunberg and Bob Guiney from Band…

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