The pioneer of India’s biotech industry was denied her first job for being a woman

The pioneer of India’s biotech industry was denied her first job for being a woman
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After failing the exam for medical school, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw trained as a professional brewmaster. When no company in India’s male-dominated beer industry would hire her, despite her education and certification, she decided to start her own business developing industrial enzymes.

Thirty years later, Mazumdar-Shaw is chairman and CEO of Biocon, India’s largest biotech company and Asia’s biggest producer of insulin. The multinational company has more than 7,000 employees, a goal of $1 billion in revenue for 2018, and has expanded to develop novel biopharmaceuticals in addition to generic biotech drugs (or, more specifically, biosimilars).

Mazumdar-Shaw launched Biocon out of her garage in Bangalore in 1978. She used the early profits to fund research and development of pharmaceutical drugs and gradually transitioned the company to manufacturing generic medicine. As a female entrepreneur, she faced prejudice when banks refused to grant her loans, but still, she persisted. “I really believe that entrepreneurship is about being able to face failure, manage failure, and succeed after failing,” she said in an interview with the BBC.

Mazumdar-Shaw’s scientific knowledge and compassion for others have made her a powerful force in India’s public-health system. Through the Biocon Foundation, she’s launched a community “micro insurance” program to offer clinical care, testing, and medicine to rural communities within 10km (6 miles) of Biocon, and the Mazumdar-Shaw Cancer Center to improve access and affordability to cancer treatment, among other initiatives. “Innovation and commerce are as powerful tools for creating social progress as they are for driving technological advancement,” she believes.

In an interview with Quartz, Mazumdar-Shaw talks about leveraging the power of innovation, how knowledge is gender blind, and turning her biggest failure into her biggest success.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

My big idea is to marry affordability and access to ensure that we leverage innovation to develop affordable, cutting-edge therapies for chronic diseases. I am on a mission to make a global impact by ensuring affordable access to healthcare.

One third of the world’s population lacks access to medicines because they are too expensive. We need to ask ourselves: What use is our scientific endeavor and innovation when they are inaccessible to the people who need them the most? It is only when the benefits of research reach the person on the lowest rung of the economic ladder that it can be considered to have delivered true value.

My life’s work has been focused on building a new model of innovation that adds the condition of affordability to ensure accessibility. I have successfully challenged the Western world’s existing model of pharmaceutical innovation, which leads to the creation of monopolistic markets for novel, life-saving drugs that deliver high margins at low volumes.

At Biocon, we focus on leveraging the power of “affordable innovation” to develop blockbuster drugs that are not about a billion dollars, but about expanding access to a billion patients. It’s a business model that goes to the core of ensuring a global right to healthcare through affordable biopharmaceuticals.

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

I believe in never giving up, no matter what the odds. My mantra is, “Failure is temporary. Giving up is permanent.”

It is this trait that led me to surmount the “credibility” challenges I faced in my initial days as an entrepreneur due to my age, gender, and innovative business model. Later, it helped me steer Biocon through the uncharted waters of innovation-led biotechnology research at a time when the prevailing business ethos of the Indian pharma industry centered around manufacturing and supplying chemically synthesized generic drugs.

3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

I strongly believe that we can increase the number of women in leadership roles if we can plug their exit post-motherhood. In order to do this, we need to have a more enabling ecosystem that comprises the workplace, the home, and society at large. Good childcare infrastructure at the workplace and a strong family support system can help in a big way. As corporates, we can contribute by providing flexible human-resources policies that allow women to transition back to their jobs post-maternity in a smooth manner.

We are seeing heightened awareness and discussions in India around facilitating women at work and addressing the issue of gender diversity. Recently we have seen the passage of the maternity bill in India, which has extended the maternity-leave period for women to 26 weeks. More recently, the Indian parliament is debating a proposal of awarding two days of paid menstrual leave every month to women at work in public and private sectors.

4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

I was totally unprepared for the gender bias that a young woman had to face for daring to start a business in the male-dominated society of India of the 1970s. But, actually, my experience did not make me change my belief that knowledge doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender, and a woman can achieve anything if she puts her mind to it.

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

It was the period when I was looking for a job as a master brewer in India in the late 1970s. It was the most depressing period of my life. Despite my class-topping academic qualifications, and after successfully completing one of the best international courses on brewing available then, I was denied a job because I was a woman! I was told there was no place for me in the male-dominated brewing industry in India. It was galling!

However, I refused to give up and transformed myself into a biotechnology entrepreneur, who went from setting up India’s largest enzymes company to creating Asia’s premiere biopharmaceutical company! From being a job seeker, I became a job creator.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

I have always believed that successful businesses thrive on great human relationships, which are formed through collaborations and extend out into personal and professional networks. Very often, strong personal networks lead to robust professional relationships.

At the workplace, I believe in empowering my colleagues to assume challenging responsibilities that involve decision-making. It is a great way to build trust, motivate people, and foster strong professional relationships.

7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I have ever received was from my father. After finishing school I wanted to become a doctor, but I unfortunately did not have the grades to make it to medical college. Like many of my friends, I expected my father to secure a seat for me by paying capitation fee. However, he refused and told me: “I have provided you with the best of school education, and if your efforts have not helped you to gain admission into medical college, it means you haven’t worked as hard as someone else who has made the grade. Money is not the currency with which you buy favors, but a currency with which you make a difference to society.”

That day he taught me an important lesson in meritocracy and about not having a sense of entitlement.

8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…

I think men should stop looking at women as the “weaker” sex and should not make assumptions regarding their capabilities. They should not assume that women don’t “get”certain things, and curb their need to be old-fashioned skeptics!

Bonus Questions:

The mountain I’m willing to die on… is the one that is considered unconquerable.

I wish people would stop telling me… and start acting on what they preach.

Everyone should own… up to their mistakes.

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.