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I am indeed delighted to pen this article on the occasion of Women’s Day as this gives me the opportunity to salute the grit and determination of successful women in the current business arena. Women have recognised that they can be as successful as their male counterparts and with encouragement, achieve any goal.

Being a woman provides us with special attributes: strong people skills, multi-tasking and above all, the zeal to excel in a man’s world. Women have travelled a great distance since my early days. Women now have a lot of support, from the government as well as financial institutions, and can excel in the professional arena. There is nothing that stands in the way of the young breed of Indian women reaching higher pinnacles.

Biocon is born
When I reflect on my early days, things were not all that simple. I set-up Biocon 30 years ago in the garage of my rented house. In fact, the garage doubled up as my office. I had to make the most of available resources and started with Rs 10,000 in the bank. Needless to say there were several obstacles that I had to overcome in my entrepreneurial journey. For instance, I faced credibility challenges: my youthful age, my gender and my unfamiliar business model posed enormous barriers. No bank wanted to lend to me, no professional wanted to work for me, and it proved to be a real challenge to set up a business because women were considered “high risk” in the business world. Once I overcame these, I had to face the technological challenges of trying to build a biotechnology business in a country where infrastructure was too primitive to support a high-tech industry like mine — that is so dependent on uninterrupted, high-quality power, high-quality water, sterile labs, imported research equipment, advanced scientific skills and the like.

Today, our challenges address those posed by new medical wisdom: addressing unmet medical needs at an affordable cost, researching new drugs, new drug delivery systems and new therapies. Overcoming each of these phases has been a rich learning experience that has helped me establish a world-class enterprise in biotechnology.

Women at the workplace
As women, we have special qualities such as compassion, sensitivity and an inner strength of honest and untiring commitment. With the right mix of skill, experience and resourcefulness, being at the helm can be one of the most rewarding experiences. Women are good team players and female bosses often make good democratic leaders.

Knowledge does not have a gender divide – women scientists, women engineers, women writers have enormous opportunities to excel and succeed. At Biocon, we do our best to ensure that gender sensitivity issues are addressed. Women are encouraged not to come at odd hours in the night and if women have to travel to interior areas of the country, a male escort is provided.

Biocon has a fully-equipped crèche that enables employees to have their children cared for while they pursue their careers at the workplace. These considerations take care of employee apprehensions. However, I would like to point out that I am not the kind of person who will appoint women for the sake of their gender but will do so for the role they play.

In my opinion, starting a family should not be a deterrent to a woman’s career goals. There is no reason for a woman not to get back to her work environment after the maternity leave period. Women should be encouraged to rely on their family support system or provide adequate care for the child at a suitable day-care centre. In fact, as mentioned earlier many companies today cater to the needs of mothers and have crèches on the campus to allow mothers to return to work after having a baby.

Family counts
For a woman to rise in the workplace, a supportive husband and family are a pre-requisite. Whilst it is true that I was single when I built Biocon, the real growth came when I got married, and my husband has played a vital role in our success today. We balance and complement each other: I am a scientist and he has a strong financial background. Men need to be emotionally secure and should not get a complex with successful partners. My husband is a very strong and secure human being. I am most fortunate to have such an understanding partner. My husband has invested in me in every way, and inspires me every day to build a company that will be a torchbearer for Indian biotechnology.

Strength of the Indian woman
I strongly believe that Indian women can prove to be an extremely successful breed over the next decade. In order to be successful, Indian women need to develop a sense of self-confidence, a sense of determination and a willingness to work hard. One should not be de-motivated with failure but learn from one’s mistakes. A sense of overall perseverance is very essential. I am proud to be a woman and strongly believe that the world belongs to those who want to make a difference.

I am truly inspired by women of courage and conviction in the business world who have broken glass ceilings, gained the respect of the corporate world and made a big difference to their companies by changing the gender mindset that unfortunately still exists in the so called intellectual arena. On Women’s Day, I would like to especially pay a tribute to Indian women in the corporate world such as Indra Nooyi, Naina Lal Kidwai, Shikha Sharma, Swati Piramal, Anu Agha, Mallika Srinivasan, the ICICI trio and many others who are helping to build a new India where women can hold their heads high.

It takes originality and a strong will for a woman to first study brewing, and then to turn to a nascent industry when hurdles in the brewery business prove insurmountable. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chairman and Managing Director of Biocon, India’s first biotechnology company (it was set up in 1978) has plenty of both. As someone who made unconventional choices – brewmaster, biotechnology pioneer, to personal life choices (she married at 44) – she says she admires people who dare to do things differently.

Her confidence, and her conviction in her idea at a time when the biotechnology industry barely existed, impressed Narayanan Vaghul, former chairman of ICICI Bank and founder of ICICI Ventures, at their first meeting. “It was difficult to not to place faith in her… she walked into my room, we spent half an hour talking, and I could see she had fire in her belly.” Mazumdar-Shaw, for her part, says Vaghul funded a technology that proved crucial for her business. “When I wanted to scale up our technology, I could not find anyone in India,” she says. “There was no venture funding. No bank wanted to touch it. Nobody wanted to fund a home-grown technology by some young scientist. But Vaghul said: ‘These are exactly the kinds of things we want to fund in this country.'”

Mazumdar-Shaw used that technology to develop enzymes for Ocean Spray, an American fruit juice company. “Till today, that enzyme has not been replaced,” she says with pride. “It feels so good that we did all that here, in Bangalore.”

Biocon, today a billion-dollar company and Asia’s largest biopharma concern, started in the garage of Mazumdar-Shaw’s rented home in Bangalore, with seed capital of Rs10,000 (around Rs4 lakh today). When she set up what is now one of the top 20 biotechnology companies in the world, banks wanted her father to be a guarantor.

Mazumdar-Shaw disagreed on principle. “I would argue that I am Managing Director, and bank norms require the MD to stand guarantee,” she says. “Why am I different?” When she met the General Manager of Canara Bank at a friend’s wedding reception, she complained about the bankers’ attitude.

The next day, the manager called her to say the loan had been sanctioned. The company’s shift in the late 1990s from enzymes to biopharmaceuticals made global scale possible. But for Mazumdar-Shaw, the eureka moment was its 2004 initial public offering, or IPO. It was oversubscribed by 33 per cent. “See, until you have worked hard and go for an IPO, you will not realise the value of what you have built.”

If Mazumdar-Shaw had succeeded at becoming a brewmaster, Biocon would probably not exist. But in the 1970s, brewing was a male-dominated industry, and she could not get a job. She says: “The words were: ‘You’re a woman. It is difficult for a woman to deal with labour unions. You are high-risk. Can you command the respect of your male colleagues?'” Today, things have changed drastically. “It is interesting to see how the people who said, ‘I have 15 minutes for you’ are in awe of me.'” Mazumdar-Shaw, who is one of India’s richest women, says she is a self-taught entrepreneur.

Among the influences in her life, she counts Vaghul, the banker who thought differently; Raghunath Mashelkar, promoter of science and technology in India; and cardiac surgeon Dr Devi Shetty, architect of the world’s cheapest health insurance scheme.

But there is reverence in her voice when she talks about her father, whose ashes rest under the almond tree outside her office. She describes his role in her success. At a time when fathers did not take their daughters’ intellect very seriously, Mazumdar-Shaw says hers told her: “I want you to use your knowledge to do something meaningful.”

While the 25-year-old Mazumdar-Shaw was setting up Biocon, her friends were getting married. It was her father who encouraged her to stay the course. “When I started the company, my father was so excited for me,” she says, her eyes moistening.

Her father taught her that people were the most valuable asset in business. She says: “My dad always said, ‘Treat them with respect. Everyone has something to contribute.'” Her ground-level office on Biocon’s leafy campus has a relaxed, informal feel, and her door is always open. Her staff is fiercely protective of her.

Her vision for the company has evolved from the goal of improving India’s scientific record to the dream of “a made-in-India novel drug”. When she talks about Biocon’s plans to take insulins global and move from cancer care to cancer cure, her enthusiasm seems almost childlike.

Behind many dreams that come true, there is a choice that many might quail at. “I got married only at 44,” says Mazumdar-Shaw. “My work was so important that I didn’t even think about having a family. I miss having a child. But that’s a sacrifice.” She says she is happy with all that she has achieved. “I have made discoveries about myself, and have learnt to get ordinary people to do extraordinary things,” she adds.

~ Excerpts from Women’s Day Special interview of Kiran Shaw ~

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