The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles business leaders from around the world. This week we speak to Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder of Indian pharmaceutical company Biocon.
When Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw wanted to get a job at a brewery, they all said “no” because she was a woman.
This was back in 1978, when the then 25-year-old had returned to her homeland of India with a master’s degree in brewing from a university in Australia.
Despite having this qualification every Indian beer company that she contacted “said it was not going to be possible” to take her on.
“They admitted that hiring a woman as a brewer was something they would not be comfortable with,” says Ms Mazumdar-Shaw, now 65.
While the situation was obviously very unfair, you could say it was fate that pulled her away from the brewing industry.
Unable to get work as a brewer in India, she instead founded pharmaceutical business Biocon.
Today this company is worth more than 400bn rupees ($5.6bn; £4.3bn), and Ms Mazumdar-Shaw’s personal wealth is estimated at $3.5bn (£27bn). This makes her India’s only self-made female billionaire.
Born and brought up in a middle class family in Bangalore, she gained a degree in zoology from the city’s namesake university, before going to Australia to study brewing.
When no Indian brewer would then employ her she decided to look overseas instead. And so she was due to start a job at a brewery in Scotland, when she had a chance meeting with an Irish entrepreneur called Leslie Auchincloss.
He was keen to set up a pharmaceutical business in India, and he was so impressed by Ms Mazumdar-Shaw that he asked her to be his partner and lead the business.
Ms Mazumdar-Shaw initially turned him down. “I told him, I am the last person he should ask because I had no business experience, and I had no money to invest,” she says.
But Mr Auchincloss ultimately persuaded her to give it a shot, and Biocon was born in 1978.
Ms Mazumdar-Shaw started the business out of a garage, investing her life savings of $150. And again her gender continued to be a stumbling block, as no-one was willing to work for a woman.
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“It was not just men, even women were not willing to work for another woman,” she says. “They would walk into the garage and see me. They would assume I am the secretary.”
After seeing 40 candidates she was finally able to hire her first employee – a retired garage mechanic.
Raising capital was the other big challenge – as banks were not willing to give her a loan to start the business.
“I was only 25 years old, so the banks felt that I was a girl trying to run a business which nobody understood, I was really high risk in every sense of the word,” she says.
Finally one banker agreed to give her a loan in 1979.
Biocon started out manufacturing enzymes used in the production of alcoholic drinks, paper and other products. Most of its clients were based in the US and Europe.
For the brewing industry it made an enzyme from papaya fruit that prevented beers from being hazy.
By the beginning of this century the company had started focusing on producing biopharmaceuticals, which are medicines that are made from a biological source.
This proved increasingly lucrative, and in 2004, Biocon became only the second Indian company to cross the one-billion-dollar mark on the day it floated on the National Stock Exchange of India.
“That was a huge eureka moment for me because we knew we were very different, but we hadn’t really ever visited the value creation that had happened along the way,” says Ms Mazumdar-Shaw. who holds the title of chairperson.
For its most recent financial year, the company’s revenues were $172m, and its profits totalled $18m. Now operating in more than 100 countries, some 68% of its income comes from international markets. Its key products include a range of insulin drugs.
“Kiran has been very disciplined about focusing on biopharmaceuticals,” says Abhimanyu Sofat, head of research at financial services group India Infoline.
He adds that if Biocon’s latest drugs get regulatory approval in more countries, then the company could see profits “rise four to five times by 2021”.
Looking forward Ms Mazumdar-Shaw, who owns 40% of Biocon’s shares, says she wants to take on the large Western pharmaceutical companies. “I want to challenge the big boys,” she says.
Her success in business has seen her win numerous awards in India, including the Padma Bhushan, one of the country’s highest civilian honours.
Looking at the wider Indian business community, she says that she is “very disappointed” that there aren’t other self-made female billionaires.
However, Ms Mazumdar-Shaw is optimistic that things are changing.
‘I hope in the next 10 years a lot more self-made women billionaires will emerge,” she says. “At this point in time, I don’t mind even if they’re not self-made. I just want more women playing more leadership roles in business.”
To help do her bit Ms Mazumdar-Shaw, also mentors a lot of up and coming entrepreneurs, both male and female.
She says her advice to them is that “failure is temporary, but giving up is final”.
“So don’t fear failure. Endure and make sure you get to the finishing line.”