Entrepreneur in Profile: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw - biotech powerhouse
January 12, 2015
It is quite possible that you haven’t heard of her but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a household name in the industry where she has made her fortune. Considered to be one of the most powerful female entrepreneurs in the world, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is certainly a significant force. Based in Bangalore India, Mazumdar-Shaw is the Chair and Managing Director of Biocon Limited, a biotechnology business. She currently has a net worth in excess of $655 million and at age 61 there are no signs of her slowing down.
Biocon came about when she met Leslie Auchincloss, founder of Biocon Biochemicals Limited from County Cork in Ireland (you could not get any more distant than Cork and Bangalore), Auchincloss’s company produced enzymes that were used in the brewing process of beer, food packaging and textiles. Kiran by that stage had a background in sciences and had grown up in the fermentation industry. Her father, Rasendra, was the head brew master for the iconic United Breweries.
It was he who suggested that Kiran study his art form of fermentation but she declined and went onto study zoology with the hope she would be able to get a scholarship and head to medical school. While women in the India of the 1970’s would gaining ground with their male counterparts there was still the embedded thinking that women only real had a place in some roles or in the home. By 1974 her direction has changed and she attended the Ballarat College of Advanced Education in Australia where she studied malting and brewing. In other words she began to follow in her father’s footsteps!
Soon after she began work as a trainee brewer at Carlton and United Breweries in Melbourne before heading back to India. When she arrived she was shocked to discover that the possibility of getting work in either Bangalore or Delhi were near impossible and at one stage she was told that “It’s a man’s work.
This meant she had to once again leave her native India and headed to Scotland where she was offered a role - but that’s when she met her future Irish boss who was looking for Indian entrepreneur to help expand into the Indian market. By 1978 she had started the Biocon brand in India in the garage of her rented house. With seed capital of only Rs. 10,000 she had 70% controlling ownership of the business (as a result of Indian law).
The challenges began to stack up as Kiran noted once in an interview: “I faced a number of challenges whilst I built Biocon. Initially, I had credibility challenges where I couldn't get banks to fund me; I couldn't recruit people to work for a woman boss. Even in the businesses where I had to procure raw materials, they didn't want to deal with women.” And “The brewing industry is a very, very male dominated industry. It's a male bastion.”
Getting access to skilled labour was also a problem irrespective of the gender issue with her first employee being a retired garage mechanic. In 1970’s India infrastructure was also a problem with challenges around water quality, power supply and the technology required to establish an advanced business. Within a year of establishment the hard work began to pay off with the business being able to produce enzymes of a high enough quality that they could be exported to the United States and Europe.
The rest is business history with the organisation going from strength to strength and in some respects moving ahead of India’s innovation development curve by establishing technologically advanced processes that were ahead of competitors.
So, what lessons can you learn and what does Kiran say in her own words?
Gender can be a challenge but can be overcome but hard work and determination
Taking risks can sometimes mean the difference between success or failure. When she recognised the opportunity being presented by her Irish business partner there must have been a spark that did some quick calculating in her head about the potential. In the end what seems a complicated myriad of decision making can turn out to be quite simple.
Hardwork is needed in establishing any business or bringing an idea to life. Things never happen overnight, instead they are a sustained series of targets and objectives that often need to be achieved over time.
Innovation was an obvious element of the process of success – at each step or stage of growth the business remained ahead of the curve and might be argued that because of her training as a brewer in the heart of beer drinking country (Australia) that she was able to sit back and see the potential – instead of drinking her profits she re-invested them.
What does Kiran say in her own words?
“I've had many failures in terms of technological... business... and even research failures. I really believe that entrepreneurship is about being able to face failure, manage failure and succeed after failing.”
“As a traditionally risk-averse nation, India has rarely been at the forefront of innovation. Indian companies have mostly imitated others and became very good at it.”
“I guess I was very fortunate; I had a very very, lets put it this way, I had very wonderful upbringing and a childhood where my parents, of course, exposed us to many cultural aspects, not only of India but other parts of the world.”
“I think, in terms of corporate philosophy, I've always believed that you've got to treat people in a very very egalitarian manner in the sense I like to treat people on a one-to-one basis. And I like people to take on a lot of responsibilities because I think with a sense of responsibility also comes a sense of purpose.”
“You have to build a culture of philanthropy. In a country like India, we need to be sensitive and caring about the poorer, more disadvantaged section of our country.”
“When I started Biocon in 1978, the obstacles I needed to navigate were manifold - ranging from infrastructural hurdles to issues related to my credibility as a business woman. With no access to venture capital, money was scarce and high-cost, debt-based capital was all I had.”
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