Brewing Success: How Kiran Mazumdar Shaw Became a Biotechnology Billionaire

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“I really believe that entrepreneurship is about being able to face failure, manage failure and succeed after failing.” – Kiran Mazumdar Shaw

Who runs the world? 

Girls! – Says Beyonce and so does Kiran Mazumdar Shaw. She is a billionaire and India’s most affluent self-made entrepreneur who has revolutionized the field of biotechnology and is continuing to do so. Kiran is the founder and chair of a biopharmaceutical company called Biocon with a net worth of about $3.4 billion. She has been frequently mentioned on Forbes’ lists such as the Power Women 2018, India’s Richest 2018, Billionaires 2018 and The World’s 56 Self-Made Women Billionaires 2017. She recently became a distinguished elected member of the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in Washington DC for her notable contributions to the field of biotechnology in India. Only a handful of foreign fellows are chosen to become a part of the distinguished fraternity of engineers that constitute the NAE. She is a true innovator and visionary who has challenged the boundaries of women’s achievement in the typically male-dominated field of biotechnology in India and globally as well.

How does a person go from having nothing but a vision to fulfilling every single thing she ever dreamed of?  Kiran’s entrepreneurial journey is remarkable in more ways than one. She was born in 1953 and spent her childhood in the Indian city of Bangalore. Initially, she envisioned herself as a doctor. When she was unable to crack the medical entrance tests, she took up a career in the brewery after completing her Masters in the subject from Ballarat College, Melbourne. An achiever from the start, she became India’s first female Brew Master. Kiran has always idolized her father who was a brewmaster at United Breweries. A woman in brewer was unheard-of at the time, and her foray into the field was met with a condescending attitude from her male peers. She worked as a brewer for four years and then went on to join an Irish biotechnology firm called Biocon Biochemicals Limited. “I realized that I was not going to be given a fair chance in this terribly chauvinistic field [Brewery], so I simply set up my own company, Biocon,” mentions Kiran in an article.

As a 25-year-old young woman, she set up her company called Biocon India in 1978 with a meager capital of 10,000 INR or roughly $140 in a rented garage. Kiran faced considerable challenges when she began her company. “I faced numerous hurdles because of my gender. No bank wanted to lend me capital, and I found it difficult to find people to work for me,” she recounts. She struggled to find trained scientists, equipment, and funding for her enterprise. She was often treated with a skeptical attitude but her formidable determination to succeed drove her on. “Entrepreneurship is a grueling journey. Most entrepreneurs give up at the first couple of pitfalls. That’s giving up too easily…I have gone through a number of pitfalls in the early days of business and I managed to scale up because I didn’t give up,” emphasizes Kiran.

In the short span of one year following its inception, Biocon became the first Indian company to make and export enzymes to the United States and Europe. In another ten years, Biocon achieved another milestone by becoming the first Indian biotechnology firm to obtain US funding for proprietary technologies. Kiran has steered Biocon India to dizzy heights with her focus on innovation and global presence. She underlines the importance of blending innovation with market gains. According to Kiran, it is not enough to develop cutting edge technology – it is also essential to be able to sell it. “When customers start to pay for your idea or product, that’s when you are successful. That’s how you build your entrepreneurial track record,” says Kiran. Currently, the company has over 7500 employees, is the world’s fourth largest producer of insulin, and has an established global presence in biotechnology. Biocon India developed the world’s first novel antibody (Alzumab) against psoriasis in 2013 and has recently entered the lucrative market of biosimilar drugs. Kiran has received many international and national awards for her pioneering work including the prestigious Padma Bhushan from the government of India in 2005. 

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Kiran always had clear business goals, but woman empowerment is a top priority too. “One of my objectives, when I started Biocon, was to make sure that I create a company for women scientists to pursue a vocation,” says Kiran in one of her many interviews. Her phenomenal success has shown the world that it is possible to rise above the gender divide to achieve goals. “As you become more successful, the gender barrier disappears. The credibility challenges you have during your growing up years start disappearing when you start demonstrating success,” says Kiran with conviction. She is a vocal activist for women, and also a prolific writer and speaker. She has used her knowledge of brewery to author the aptly-titled book ‘Ale and Arty.’ She uses her influence to promote gender equality and inclusive workspaces. “Across the world, educating and empowering women has time and again proven to be the catalyst for rapid socio-economic growth,” reiterates Kiran. 

Philanthropy is something that Kiran takes very seriously. “I was brought up by my parents to believe that wealth creation is about making a difference in society,” remembers Kiran. Her foray into the sphere of biosimilars is a testament to her goal of providing patients with reasonably-priced medicines. “My legacy is going to be in affordable health care. I am willing to invest in developing that model and the policies around it.” She is committed to innovation in cancer care as well. Kiran’s husband, John Shaw is a cancer survivor and she has witnessed her husband’s battle with the life-threatening illness firsthand. She co-founded the Mazumdar Shaw Cancer Center to offer comprehensive and cost-effective cancer treatment to patients. Kiran is also one of about 187 signatories worldwide of the Giving Pledge. It is a global initiative that encourages wealthy persons to donate a major portion of their wealth to philanthropic ventures.

 Kiran Mazumdar Shaw is a biotechnology billionaire, but her commitment to bridging the gender gap in business is what makes her exceptional. She sums it up by saying, “I hate the title of being called ‘the richest woman in India,’ but it’s the recognition that this was the value that I had created as a woman entrepreneur, and that makes me very, very proud.” It is indeed one small step for Kiran, one giant step for women entrepreneurs.

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