Gender issues disappear at a certain level

Written by Surabhi Agarwal | Updated: Jan 3 2008, 05:55am hrs
What is proper for a man is proper for a woman. There is no particular work that is specifically feminine. This is what author Ayn Rand had said in an interview to the Playboy magazine. Small wonder then that she figures in Kiran Majumdar Shaws list of admirers. For, the chairman and managing director of Biocon is a lady who had to break not one but many glass ceilings. Having chosen brewing as a career for herself (her father was master brewer at United Breweries), she became Indias first women brew master. But, did not find enough takers. When she set up Biocon India, her loan application was turned down for many reasons. One of the reasons was that Kiran was a woman in a mans world and was wanting to do something of her own. Biocon India finally took birth in her garage with a meagre sum of Rs 10,000.When she wanted to recruit for her company, the issue was right back, staring at her face.

The challenges I faced are well known. There were concerns that women really would not be able to manage the business like a man would. Then, India was a tough environment to work in, it was a time of unions and licences. There was a lot of bureaucracy, and they felt that it wasnt a womens job to deal with all that, she reminisces.

But that was in 1978, almost thirty years back. Biocon is today India biggest biotechnology firm and Kiran is the countrys Biotech queen. In 2004, after Biocons listing on the stock exchange, Kiran became Indias richest women.

Hers is not a rags to riches tale. Its a story with a difference, of a person who knew her mind, had the conviction to pursue her passions come what may. But, this is every successful mans tale, you may say. Yes, a successful mans tale.

Once you reach a certain level of success, gender issues totally disappear. Today, I think I am at the same level, in terms of acceptance, as my male counterparts, she says.

All of 25 then, Kiran pioneered biotechnology in India at a time when the industry was not much heard of. I was very excited about having a business of my own. I had no clue how to run it. But, I was confident that I could, at least, give it try. She jostled with unions, dealt with the babu types, and survived and shone as a women entrepreneur in a mans world. I was warned that this is going to be tough. Yes, they did threaten me. I did go through scary times with the unions, but came out much stronger, she recounts. She adds, When you have a strong sense of ownership about your business, you are ready to go that extra mile. You can not buckle down then, you cannot be diffident.

For, the lady who built a billion dollar empire from the scratch, ambition evolved overtime and a maters degree is something she wishes she possessed. But, the grind taught her the tricks of the trade. The way I approached it was that I am going to be just not brainwashed by perceptions. I thought let me do it my way. The mantras, with a dab of her charismatic personality, evolved and became part of her unique leadership style. For one, she swears by the advantages of employee interactions, though she has a much larger team now and is not on the first name basis with many. If you are a hard taskmaster and very autocratic, there is an issue. But, people are willing to put up, if you are interactive and fair. Winners Never Cheat by Jon huntsman is her favourite book.

However, straight talking is an attribute that s she is known for and many a times has also landed her in controversies. You cant afford to waste time being diplomatic. Sometimes it gets you into trouble but most times, people learn to accept you for your style. They know you mean what you say, she concurs.

Shaw feels that women are more effective as agents of delivery and has a very interesting take on women in business. Women have a very strong interest in delivering, performing and being recognised. Once they stop being a minority, it will disappear. I think we should take advantage of the fact that we are still in a minority and want to prove themselves, she opines.

There is also a softer side to Indias Biotech queen. It is of an art lover. Whoever has been to her office or house, cant help but notice the compounds laced with paintings. Yusuf Arakkal, someone who is known for his depiction of sufferings of the underprivileged, is her favourite. It is not very difficult to guess the reason. As Biocon repositions itself from an enzymes maker to a biopharma major, high on its priority list is making simpler and cheaper drugs for the millions infected by cancer and diabetes.

Another issue that is very close to her heart and also a cause of deep worry is Indias crumbling infrastructure, especially of Bangalore, a city where she was born and brought up. I am very concerned about the infrastructure issues. We must look at private-public models, she says. She is very vocal about the sorry state of affairs in the city and is already walking her talk. She is proactively involved in projects like the Bangalore Agenda Task Force along with industry leaders like Nandan Nilekani.

It might come as a surprise to many but Kiran Majumdar Shaw is also an author of a book. No, its not any management title, but a coffee table book called Ale and Arty - The story of Beer.

Talk about her family and Kiran replies with a twinkle in her eye. I married very late in life. My husbandJohn Shaw and I have been married for the last nine years. John Shaw, who is Scottish by birth is director, International Business, Biocon and is the vice -chairman of the board. Ah! So, is it all work and no play, even at home Many evenings we do bring work home because it is inevitable. But, we try to talk about non-work related issues, she says. Since, John and Kiran share common interests like art, music and travelling (thats what brought them together),We take short breaks to our favourite parts of the world, which include Spain and Italy. Apart from business, I spend a lot of time with my brothers and their families, she says. However, she admits that nowadays she ends up spending far more time at conferences, which doesnt leave her with much time to pursue her other interests like golf. I miss all that.

However, for the 55 -year- old and a receiver of Padmashri and Padmabhushan, this is far from being the last stop. This is the first milestone I was supposed to reach anyway. But, there are much bigger challenges ahead... How do I help the company grow, how do we develop new drugs and find new markets for them How do we globalise and become an international company in the true sense of the word. There are so many ambitious plans I have, she goes on.

Fact File

* She studied brewing at University of Ballarat, Australia and started her career as trainee brewer in Carlton & United Beverages in 1974.

* She set up Biocon India in 1978 and the initial operation was to extract an enzyme from papaya.

* After Biocons IPO in 2004, she became the richest women in the country and Biocon was the only second Indian company to cross the $1-billion mark on the day of listing.

* Biocon is a healthcare company with a market capitalisation of Rs 58.28 billion that delivers biopharmaceutical solutions.