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She stormed into a science stream that had never seen a woman on its records before. Armed with a degree in brewing, when she came back to India looking for a job, she was told there weren’t any suited to women. In quintessentially Kiran style she promptly went ahead and started a business of her own. Today she is not only one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world, but also ensures she provides ample job opportunities for women scientists everywhere. And that essentially sums up Kiran Mazumdar Shaw – a woman who refuses to take no for an answer and plays a seminal part in showing women their true potential. Read More


She stormed into a science stream that had never seen a woman on its records before. Armed with a degree in brewing, when she came back to India looking for a job, she was told there weren’t any suited to women. In quintessentially Kiran style she promptly went ahead and started a business of her own. Today she is not only one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world, but also ensures she provides ample job opportunities for women scientists everywhere. And that essentially sums up Kiran Mazumdar Shaw – a woman who refuses to take no for an answer and plays a seminal part in showing women their true potential.

GJ: Would you like to talk about or give some anecdotes of your struggles?

KMS: When I was buying some of my raw materials from various vendors, they would feel very uncomfortable dealing with a woman and they would always tell me why you don’t send your manager, we’ll discuss the prices with your manager. These were traditional people who felt uncomfortable having women in their shops. I told them you have to deal with me. I had to educate them and I felt that in a way it helped me for them to respect women. If you can negotiate a strong business with them, they will respect you. So ultimately, I think that I took these weaknesses and converted them to my strength. Women should realize that ultimately in the economic world if you are the buyer then you have a strong position. 

GJ: What are your success mantras?

KMS: My success mantras are very simple. You have to be dedicated, determined and you must not give up and you must not have the fear of failure. Because I feel that a lot of unsuccessful people give up too easily because they fear failure and in this society we actually stigmatize people who fail. That’s not good because people will fail and you learn from your failure and you can succeed by learning from your failures. That’s the societal change we got to bring about in India. I have failed many times, but it has never deterred me, it made me stronger.

GJ: Your idea of a quintessential woman – How would you like to define it?

KMS: A quintessential woman to me is the one who is aware of her status in society and contributes in its change. This change indicates a positive impact in key areas of a community or society’s traditional needs and values.

GJ: Keeping in mind your philanthropic ventures and the civic activities you are part of, how have you evolved since the age of 25 when you first began?

KMS: My basic values have remained very steadfast. Basically, I have always been someone who wanted to bring about a positive change in Indian society and the Indian perspective. When I was building Biocon, I felt that a woman’s role in the society was not up to the level that it ought to be. During those days, I felt that women were relegated to second class citizenship where they did not have the courage to find an equitable social development opportunity in this country like men have. I felt that we were kind of stereotyped into what we could do and what we shouldn’t do. This very thinking towards women, I found it very insulting. I felt that women are intelligent and educated enough to succeed in any field and we are not given the opportunities. I believe we are even denied the self confidence that we can do any work with success. So, I felt why shouldn’t I take the lead role? I had a supportive family and especially my father who believed strongly in women’s role in society. With this kind of backing and the kind of education I received through school, I had a sense of self belief and self-worth and I felt that I should play that role. And therefore, when I set about my career path, I was always very daring, I always wanted to do something different. I wanted to attack the male bastion so to speak?

After pursuing a brewing career, my father said that why don’t you become a brew master? My father said that there is nothing called a male bastion. You should rather penetrate the male bastion very easily. So, I went ahead with brewing and then I came back very confident that I was a very accomplished brewer. But after reaching India, I found that that the Indian brewing industry was not ready for a brewer and I was very let down. However, I am somebody who wouldn’t give up, and therefore I started my own business in Biotechnology and that’s where I wanted to prove to people that women should not be looked down or denied those opportunities because of a gender prejudice or archaic mindset. That’s why I said that I want to show the people that I am fit to be a brewer and much more than that. I pursued an entrepreneurial path where I set up a biotech company and was determined to be the crusader for career-oriented women. What used to pain me a lot was that women scientists were sitting at home and especially in a country where we were really looking for people in science to do more for this country and I wondered why women aren’t doing their bit. So, I created this company where I wanted women scientists to work and innovate and research and build value. That’s what I did at Biocon. I created this scientific environment for all scientists, not only for women, but I felt that women scientists should be able to come and work here. I realized that in science and technology there were a lot of women, at the higher and university level education and yet, they would all get PSEs and masters degrees and even PhDs and then sit at home. So, I just felt that it was very wrong for a country like India to waste this very valuable resource. I feel gratified that I have built Asia’s largest biotech company and today, we are recognized as amongst the biotech employers in the world, and we are the only Asian company in the top 20 list. Today, we are the 7th largest biotech employers in the world and of that, a large percentage are women. Though I know that I have a long way to go, at least there is recognition today, I am not just a woman business leader, I am a business leader in the country. Today, I am the voice of Biotech, I am the voice of business in India and I am serving several platforms including the PM’s council, US India CEO forum and many others.

Apart from that, I work very closely with the government where I am leading Karnataka’s vision group on Biotechnology. I have just been invited to join the International Advisory Council of the Malaysian Biotechnology and Science in India, Innovation Council, so I really realize that if you want to and unless you get over this gender barrier, which is really something in people’s minds, you can do a lot. And I find a lot of women whom you have featured in your book are women who have basically broken out of the mould, broken out of the mindset and are changing this world. I think that’s what is important. 

GJ: How did you develop the skill set to manage this huge empire?

KMS: I think you use the word psychological mind track and that’s the real phrase you should use for all women. That they are psychologically caught in this trap and that they can’t do things that they need help for both financial and otherwise, and I think you have to have the strength of your conviction. I had no money, I had no sugar daddies, I had nobody to help me along the way but I had this conviction and the passion to build this company and when you have that total dedication and determination to build something, you can do it and I think all great entrepreneurs around the world have started with very little. It’s just an idea, the conviction that I can do it, and that I can build companies. And I think, there are many entrepreneurs who have done that in our very country. I happen to be a woman but I think there are many men who have done it in our country and why should women feel any different. Whether you look at this country or any other part of the world, those examples that stand upon are the people who have taken on that challenge. You got to have a sense of purpose and I find that most women get trapped in this as they are doing it either because they are fronting their husbands or families or whatever so they don’t have that sense of purpose or that they are doing it just to edge out a living. Then, they feel threatened because they feel that it’s too high risk. So, whenever you do it because you feel responsible for others and you fail for everyone, then it becomes a problem. But if you are doing it for yourself, where you are trying to build something for yourself and your responsibility is your own then you can do it. I took on this responsibility of building Biocon where I shouldered every risk and responsibility that went with it. So, if it failed it was my failure, if I was taking a risk it was me who was taking the risk and if it were responsibilities, I was taking the responsibilities, but I was determined to succeed. It gives you a different sort of orientation, where you don’t get intimidated for not having a financial support or any other support. You do it because you are going to get that support no matter what happens. I had a lot of problems along the way, I couldn’t get financial support, I couldn’t get people to work for me because I was a woman, but I overcame that because I felt that I will be able to convince people that I can do it. I can convince people to invest in me. Women have to understand that as entrepreneurs no matter what they are doing, you got to able to convince people to invest in you. And when you ask people to invest in you, then that is a huge responsibility. When people are investing in you, you make sure that you pay back to them. Philanthropy is also about paying back to them; so when a community invests in you, you got to pay back to the community, that’s what philanthropy is about. So, whilst you are building the organization you don’t have money to pay back because you are investing in a business and you are building it up trying to make it profitable. The moment you build a profitable organization then you have to make sure that some of that profit goes into investing in that community that supported you. This is because in your success is their success and in their success is your success. 

GJ: You got married late, was it by choice or destiny?

KMS: It was both, unless you find the right person you don’t want to get married. The criticality of getting married should not come in the way of pursuing what you want to and I feel that sometimes we get very besotted with the thought of getting married as women and as parents who want their children to get married soon. But we do know that many marriages don’t work out. I decided when I was building this company that I could only marry somebody whom I could share my life with on an equitable basis and I wanted to look for a man who was much secured. I find that most Indian men are very insecure about a successful wife; it’s very difficult to find secure men in this country. They want the power over their women and they are very insecure when they have successful wives. So, I waited for a long time and my person is a much secured man, he supports me all the way. He is like a mentor to me because I might be a great entrepreneur but he brings a lot of professionalism in the business. He is very proud of what I do and so, I think you should wait for a person with whom you can share that kind of life. In my own case, it was the support that my father gave me, my mom also. She is over 80 who run a business. My parents were very supportive of what I am doing; my whole family is my biggest fan. Every woman needs a man who can share the responsibilities and in our society, that is something that needs to happen. Men cannot dump certain responsibilities on women and I hate the phrase how you balance work and family. It’s always balanced, right? The reason we use this word is because men don’t share certain responsibilities. That’s why the woman feels that the whole home responsibility is hers. 

GJ: Most of the money invested in Biocon is through your own personal pocket, what makes you pay those 30% dividends?

KMS: When I was setting up the foundation, I could have called it the Kiran Mazumdar Shaw Foundation, but I just felt that I wanted the company to look at philanthropy in a big way. Today I am the majority promoter of Biocon and so, in that sense, what I do or what Biocon does are in a way intertwined, so I wanted Biocon to be something that invests in its community and that will add value to this country. Thus, when I was making a significant contribution to the organization, I wanted Biocon to develop an ethos of giving. I think corporate social responsibility (CSR) is very important for any organization and I also believe that personal philanthropy is equally important. Since CSR and I are targeting similar kind of initiatives, I thought the company should start getting a name for that. Therefore, I felt that in any case my name is being used, like for instance the cancer hospital that is my personal contribution and that is the big impact that I will make. On the health insurance, the Arogya Rakshya, even though I am supporting most of it, Biocon also chips in and I feel that over time Biocon will do more and more. So, although I am helping out in the initial years until shareholders also start understanding the importance of CSR in a bigger way, I think I should do my bit. Today, the problem in India is that people are not used to giving and I also feel that even at a company level. It doesn’t matter how much you give, it is the concept of giving. I want to see every employee of the organization to give, even if it is 10 rupees. Depending on how much you earn, you can give any amount of money. But if you have the philosophy of giving for some things that can change people’s lives that are less fortunate than you are, that is the sense of giving I want to inculcate in Biocon. It’s still not happening. I think I should lead the way if I believe in it. In our country people are very selfish, they think Kiran can do it because she is wealthy, Biocon is doing it so why should we, her company is doing it. We are employees of her company and so that’s fine - that should not be the attitude. In our country there are millions who are starving, who don’t have access to education, health care, jobs, and I think we as citizens of the country must get into that giving philosophy. In Biocon, I want every single Bioconite to give something as personal philanthropy and it doesn’t matter how much. And when we get people to give then I think there should be worthwhile initiatives to back where people can identify what they are giving. When Biocon has funded CSR initiatives, for instance we built a school and why did we build the school because there was a newspaper report saying that right in the middle of the electronic city there is this poor area where the children don’t even have a school or a covered classroom. And isn’t this a shame for this high profile city to not be able to support a village school. I felt that was really bad and I was not even aware of it. So we built the school. We tried to help all the communities in the area and even when we started the micro insurance health programme, we wanted all children to be insured so that whenever they fall ill, the parents should not be scared to get their child treated. Hence, we insured all the children in this area. Then we do a lot of education programmes because I felt that this is the IT hub and most of the kids don’t even know how to add or subtract because the way we teach math in village schools is really bad because they don’t know basic arithmetic. So, we built this whole thing on math education “Mathematics for Small Children”. Then of course we looked at health and hygiene and we built individual toilets and we also built 500 homes for flood victims in Karnataka. Basically, we are doing our little bit which should make a difference to the population. This is because if it doesn’t make a difference, then these initiatives are just sheer waste of money. 

Today, I am very angry because a lot of us built homes for these flood victims of Karnataka and the government has not yet allocated those homes to those people. Why? It is simply because there are political issues there. That makes me very angry and so now, I am very keen to make that political change. I think the way this country is being governed and the state is being governed needs to change. 

There is too much of corruption and politics has become ugly. How do we change it? I am involved with a group of people in Bangalore today that believes that can we bring in better governance by citizens being elected. At least, let’s start with the state level polity where the municipal corporation has terribly failed the citizens. When there is a crisis, you make an opportunity of it. I think there are many here in Bangalore who can influence that change as this is one of those fewer cities where actually people get involved, unlike the other cities where they are not bothered. If people in Bangalore can lead the way, may be it’s a city that should be emulated. 

GJ: Are you considering getting into politics?

KMS: Never. I will never get into politics but I will influence politics. I was in Chandigarh once and someone asked me in that CII conference that you know you are very bold and you make statements against the government, we don’t see many industrialists doing that because most fear the backlash from the political quarters. What makes you so bold? And I said if you run your business ethically and if you engage with governments for the right reason, then why should you be scared speak up when they do things wrong. It’s only if you have something to hide and something where you have taken favours from the government that you wouldn’t want to speak up. That has to stop. We have to make this country far more transparent and accountable; we have to demand things from our government. I said I never make demands from the government, I had that backlash every time I had spoken about the government of Karnataka… I have had backlashes. But it doesn’t worry me because I take them on. So, if I ask about that why is the garbage so badly managed, you can’t just respond to me saying Oh! you are polluting. No, I am not polluting, I am dealing with pollution. If you guys are trying to detract my mind not speaking up because you are wrong then you are creating huge problems for the citizens of Bangalore. This issue has been accumulating for the last 20 years or at least 10 years and today, the villagers are fighting back. What I am basically saying here is that you should not be scared. If you are doing your business ethically and in the right way, demand from the government. The government is elected by the people, they are supposed to serve the people but here they are ruling the people, which shouldn’t be. That’s a wrong kind of governance we have in this country. It’s basically crony capitalism; today if anybody succeeds in business succeeds because they get unfair advantage from the government. When you have that kind of a situation, you will never fight the government, whereas if it’s otherwise you will demand things from the government. I built my company in spite and despite the government. For our kind of industry, we need huge amount of investment and we got nothing. So that’s what is important. 

GJ: If you were the Health Minister of the country, what are the immediate policy changes you would recommend?  

KMS: You need to create a health care model that takes full advantage of what the private sector has built, what the government can do and how do you marry the two. This is a great public private partnership model.  Here, we need a model which looks at the government playing a very important role in insuring its people, in reimbursing health care costs and in public procurement of essential drugs and I feel, the private sector needs to do its bit. To create a healthcare infrastructure where 80% of the health care infrastructure is in the private sector, we all need to join hands. But it needs to scale up much more. Because right now the private sector will only set up infrastructure where it believes it can make a business case of it. But today, it cannot make a business case of setting up hospitals - both secondary and tertiary sector hospitals in remote areas of India. But if tomorrow, the government says that it will reimburse the medical treatment costs in these remote hospitals, who will not set it up? So, you need to create this kind of holistic infrastructure; plus I also believe that you need a very strong policy from the health care ministry in using IT and egovernance in health care. Already, information technology is very strong in this country and we do need to use software and internet enabled platforms to do public procurement so that it is transparent, it’s online and you can track everything that’s happening in a transparent and accountable way. There are already some states governments who have succeeded in doing these, like Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Kerala. The first policies that health care should announce are electronic medical accounts, the procurement of essential drugs where they would distribute them free of cost and we need to take on disease burden mapping where we could take on electronic databases where we could see what’s happening and whether the patients are benefiting from certain health care initiatives. There is already some good things happening where we got this huge army of ASHA workers, accredited social health assistance this is a women’s brigade actually and this is about creating health awareness, running health care camps. You’ve already got these so use them effectively. We need to do more diagnosis of the health of this country. Today, the IT and the mobile phones can very easily help you do this very effectively, but you need a policy for all these. You can’t do it in pockets and in sporadic way, there has to be holistic thinking and unfortunately what really saddens me is that nobody is thinking holistically. Everybody thinks of rushing off and doing things here and there and mot of these initiatives are about making money. It is not for really doing things in a cohesive way. Why are people interested in measuring diabetes in this country by glucometers and glucostrips because somebody in the government will be able to make some money and that’s very wrong. Just think about that if every company looks at some particular area and the government says ok and suggests that each company must do this in these districts, I think it will be very good… but not the diabetes stuff where a lot of people will make money out of it. That’s what we should avoid. If you put those gluco meters out and let the ASHA type workers work on them and get data that will be transparent enough for all to get access to it, then it will work. Where is the data being stored, you don’t know so it is all a wastage of resources. I think India is a country where we have huge wastage of resources and we know that by using IT in a smart way you can make it an efficiently run country. You can bring about huge levels of transparency and accountability.

GJ: You had said in one of your interviews that you have many milestones to go, can you tell us about some of those milestones? 

KMS: Milestones, in many ways. If I look at my own business then the milestones are developing a blockbuster drug, which to me is an ultimate milestone. Oral insulin is a milestone. First milestone is to become a billion dollar Revenue Company but in addition to that, I think when I had to look at my public role, I think we as a country have miles to go. When will Bangalore become a civilized first world city, it is not that today? That ways, we have many miles to go. When will the infrastructure be better, when will the power crises be over. We are hugely deficit of energy and power. When will we become a truly global country in terms of its economic potential? Today, if you look at it we do not have holistic planning to address energy. We have many ingredients of success, which we are not leveraging properly; we have the highest tele-density in the world in terms of population of our size. We are an agrarian economy with the lowest agricultural productivity; we are a country where our energy needs are not being met because we do not have enough resources. We live in a country where we do not even have basic health care and education. Our education system is really pathetic, because education does not address employability. We don’t want to just create employment; we should be creating employable educated youth. All these call for a revolutionary innovative ways of addressing these challenges. I believe very strongly in scaling up because we are doing things in pockets but how do we scale up. According to me, it’s not creating 100 IIMs and 100 IITs. It is about creating e-universities, e-classrooms, how do you get really good faculties catering to many more students, you have to think innovatively how you can create e-classrooms. It’s not easy but there are technologies available. We can lead the way, how do we use agriculture through the use of new technologies, biotechnology being one of them? How do we make sure that you look at the agricultural sector and you are not even bothered to use mechanization for agriculture? When I went to Chandigarh, I was pleased to see that a lot of their farms were mechanized. That’s why they look so much better than some of the land holdings you see in this part of the country. So, how do you bring about cooperative farming policy that incentivises people to create cooperative farming? But somehow politicians are interested in only winning votes and elections but they are not interested in the improvement aspects of this country. The greater good of the people is not on their minds.

GJ: What makes you so passionate about Bangalore? 

KMS: It is because I love the city. When I was talking about giving it back to your community where do you give it back. I wouldn’t give it to Delhi; it doesn’t make that kind of an impact though it makes a big impact everywhere else. Bangalore is the city I grew up in; this is the city I took advantage of when I was building the organization. This was the city that invested in me; the government invested in my business, the state government helped me in earlier days when they would give me the loans. So, I owe it to my city and community and from that point of view, any impact that I can make I should first make it in the city. I was engaged in the civic activities and initiatives where I could make a difference and as you become more successful you become more influential. And you must bring your influence to bring about a positive change. I mean you make your impact nationally in a different way but in terms of investing all my energies, I would like to do it in Bangalore. But in terms of bringing about policy change say about women issues, or on Biotech that has to be on a national and international level. 

GJ: What is your time management mantra?

KMS: I am a very multitasking person and so, I try to divide my time between Biocon, my philanthropy and my civic engagements with the government. I guess 60% of my time would be on Biocon and the balance 40% - I’d like to fit between my philanthropic and civic government engagements. The reason I can do that is because I enjoy both. With philanthropy, I like to spend a lot of time in my hospital because I am really very passionate about cancer care. About the civic issues, I am really very concerned. We tend to spend time on where we can make a difference because that’s the legacy we can live behind the company and what we can do in terms of societal impact.

GJ: Of all the awards and accolades, you got the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and others, which one is the closest to you?

KMS: Obviously, the national recognition, first the Padma Shri and then the Padma Bhushan, they are very special awards because it is a very large recognition in terms of what the country has recognized of you. And this is about government recognition, which basically sees that you have done something for the country. That to me is very important. Then the other recognitions are also very important like the global ones. For instance, the Time magazine ranked me as one of the 100 most influential people. If you are one of the 100 most influential people in the world then it was like ‘Wow! I didn’t realize that’.

GJ: How would you like to be remembered?

KMS: I certainly would want to be remembered as someone who was a pioneer, who built India’s biotech sector and pioneered India’s biotech sector and also as someone who brought in an important societal change for women in this country. 

GJ: Do you think glass ceilings still exist in India?

KMS: I think glass ceilings are in your mind. I think the glass ceiling is a transparent ceiling right so it’s up to you to either hallucinate that they are there or to think that they are not there. So break free.