As part of this month’s Fast Forward India season, BBC World News Business Correspondent Sameer Hashmi interviewed Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, India’s first billionaire woman entrepreneur and founder of the country’s largest biopharmaceutical company Biocon. She spoke to new series India’s Game-Changers about her rise to the top, developing new drugs to treat diseases at an affordable cost and her success in a country where women find it hard to get past the first rung in business.
On the challenges of being a woman starting a business in the 1970s:
Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, “No-one wanted to work for a company run by a woman, that too, a company which is said to be a biotech company which nobody understood what it was. So banks were not willing to give me a credit line, people didn’t want to work for me because I was a woman. And I was only 25 years old, so people never took me seriously.”
“It was not just men, it was women as well. They would walk into the garage and see me. They would assume I’m the secretary. So it was very, very difficult in the early days to even hire people.”
On her ambition to develop affordable healthcare in less developed countries:
KMS, “Diabetes is a global pandemic that needs scale to address. And if you look at India, India is at the epicentre of diabetes and it is very important to cater to this particular need. Cancer is perhaps the most expensive disease, and the most difficult disease to treat. Many cancers that spelt a death sentence a few decades ago are now curable. So I think I am basically very excited to be playing that space because we want to move from cancer care to cancer cure.”
“I really believe that in India the one opportunity we have is economies of scale. So the moment you get a large number of patients you can actually defray that cost in investing in high-end equipment which then can be basically deployed over a large number of patients which then brings down costs. The second thing is of course making sure that drug procurement then becomes easier. You get big discounts when you buy in bulk and basically, the hospital then offers the kind of discounts to the patients.”
On women as business leaders:
KMS, “I think it takes a lot of strength and courage for women to get to where I am today. I know how much flak I take every day. And I know that I have to continuously build credibility for what I am doing…I think the world has accepted women in political roles much easier than in business leadership roles.”
“I just think that capital has always preferred male entrepreneurs because there are not enough of women entrepreneurs. And it’s a bit of a conundrum. It’s a bit of a catch 22 because if you don’t invest in potential and promising women entrepreneurs or women leaders, you’re not going to get more women populating this space. So I too am very disappointed that I don’t see more women joining me in this league. But I hope in the next 10 years a lot more women billionaires and self-made women billionaires will emerge.”
On her secret to becoming a successful entrepreneur:
KMS, “So I keep telling young entrepreneurs my journey has been dotted with failures and you must understand that failure is intrinsic to entrepreneurial success, so don’t worry about failing but make sure you don’t keep failing again and again on the same things. I think that is a worry. But another message I have to young entrepreneurs is failure is temporary, but giving up is final. So don’t fear failure. Endure and make sure you get to the finishing line.”
India’s Game-Changers will air on Saturday September 22nd at 07:10 GMT and 22:10 GMT and on Sunday September 23rd at 08:10 GMT on BBC World News.