It's a simple bit of rhetoric to describe the global economy using a metaphor of a hand, distinct fingers working together, and each finger representing a different geographic region. You might, for example, call Africa the little finger, Latin America the ring finger, Europe the index finger, and Asia the thumb.
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 -- just like the U.S. itself -- the middle finger can convey a negative message and get us in trouble. You know what I'm talking about.
It's a somewhat clumsy rhetorical point, and if you were to make it in a blog post, people might forget about it the next day.

If you were to make your point, out loud, in front of an audience, say, in a business context, people might start looking around and wondering if they had stumbled into an episode of The Office.

But if you were to make these remarks as part of a commencement address, say, at the Columbia University Business School, you would likely attract some attention in the media-- especially if you happened to be the President and CFO of a Fortune 500 company with global brand recognition.

In May 2005, after making the remarks above, Indra Noori of PepsiCo issued a formal apology within the week on the company website, hoping to quell the flames that the conservative American blogosphere was fanning before the speech turned into a public relations nightmare.

Did such a blunder hurt her career? Not really. In fact, on August 14, 2006, Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi was selected to become the Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo, the first woman to hold the position. (I suspect that she's also the first one to wear a sari to board meetings, the first practicing Hindu, the first one born in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, the first one to keep images of Ganesha in her corporate office, and the first one to front an all-girl rock and roll band while in college-- but I haven't thoroughly read up on the previous six CEOs, so this is conjecture on my part.)

When former PepsiCo CEO and Chairman Steven Reinemund announced his retirement, it wasn't surprising that the position was given to the CFO, a 12-year veteran of the company. Nooyi's prowess as a strategist and negotiator was well-deserved, having steered the company through the 1997 divestment of fast-food brands (Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut), and acquisitions of Tropicana in 1998 and Quaker Oats in 2001 (why did Pepsi want Quaker Oats? Two reasons: the brand would help in the company's diversification into healthy snacks (Pepsi's Frito-Lay line doesn't exactly inspire visions of health-consciousness), and: Gatorade).

Since becoming CEO (and Chairman of the Board), Nooyi's focus has been on "Performance with Purpose," which adds social and environmental measure of performance alongside financial performance. Nooyi believes that a 21st century company must treat workers and suppliers fairly, develop talent and diversity in the workplace, take care of the environment, and create products that are safe and healthy (and Nooyi is quite aware of the irony of this last aim, for a company whose flagship product is a sugary carbonated beverage with adverse health effects).

In addition to serving on the boards of Motorola, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and the International Rescue Committee, Nooyi is a member of the Trilateral Commission. Once a Democrat moves into the White House, watch for Nooyi's name to make the rounds for an appointment in Washington, DC.

Sources:
Simon Hobbs. "Meet the Framebreaker." CNBC European Business. June 2008. <http://www.cnbceb.com/Articles/2008/June/43/meet-the-framebreaker.aspx> (May 23, 2008)
Betsy Morris. "The Pepsi Challenge." Fortune. February 18, 2008. <http://money.cnn.com/2008/02/18/news/companies/morris_nooyi.fortune/index.htm> (May 23, 2008)
Nandan Nilekani and Indra Nooyi. "Nandan Nilekani chats up with Indra Nooyi." The Economic Times. February 6, 2007. <http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/msid-1568995,prtpage-1.cms> (May 30, 2008)
Indra Nooyi. "Graduation Remarks." Columbia University Business School. May 15, 2005. Business Week. May 20, 2005. <http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/may2005/nf20050520_9852.htm> (May 30, 2008)
Bill Saporito. "Indra Nooyi - The TIME 100." Time. 2007. <http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/time100/article/0,28804,1595326_1615737_1615996,00.html> (May 23, 2008)
Amardeep Singh, "Two Lessons from Indra Nooyi's Success." Sepia Mutiny. August 16, 2006. <http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/003694.html> (May 30, 2008)
"Indra K. Nooyi Biography," Encyclopedia of World Biography. <http://www.notablebiographies.com/news/Li-Ou/Nooyi-Indra-K.html> Thomson Gale, 2006. (May 20, 2008)
Wikipedia contributors, "Indra Nooyi," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,<http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Indra_Nooyi&oldid=213219466> (May 23, 2008).

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