Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw's dream was to be a brew master, just like her father. She went to Australia, got her training, and came back to India only to be shocked at finding out that women were not welcome in the field.
She then turned to her love of biology, and had a chance meeting with executives of an Irish biotechnology company. Determined to succeed in a male-dominated entrepreneurial field, she started Biocon at the age of 25 from her parents' garage in Bangalore. And that was how India’s biotechnology industry began.
Today she is an international symbol of that industry and Biocon is India’s largest biotechnology firm. She has been a pioneer, both as a successful woman leader in a country which has too few of them, and in advancing into unchartered scientific waters with her company.
In this interview with HuffPost India, she talks about her stand on genetically modified crops, making India a manufacturing power, and how to develop more women leaders in one of the fastest growing economies of the world that is still largely dominated by men.
You have expressed your support for GM crops based on scientific studies, but there are its opponents such as Vandana Shiva and Nicholas Taleb who believe GM crops are are harmful for the soil, and for people. What is your stand on that now?
There is overwhelming scientific evidence to prove that GM crops are safe. By choosing to ignore hard scientific data that debunk the perceived threat from GMOs to human health,anti-GM lobbyists are doing a great public disservice by forwarding half-baked and irrational theories of “Frankenfood”.
The truth is that farmers have for hundreds of years “genetically modified” crops through breeding to get desirable traits in their produce. All that scientists are doing today is using biotechnology to do the same at an accelerated pace with precision. Regulatory agencies like the US FDA and WHO have all declared GM crops as safe as conventional crops. Not only that, a recent meta-analysis has found that GM crops have large, widespread benefits for farmers and economies embracing biotechnology.
To ensure global food security in the years to come and bring succour to millions who go hungry all over the world, we need to lend our support to GM crops.
What policy, practice or mindset changes can help take India from being a collaborative manufacturer to a strong pioneer in innovation on the international stage?
Incentivizing innovation and IP creation is important for India’s future growth prospects. For innovation to flourish, India needs to draw inspiration from its age-old expertise in science and technology and build a national narrative around it. Our education system should focus on curiosity-driven learning, which nurtures the spirit of enquiry and catalyses the process of innovation. The government, on its part, needs to step up investment in research and translational innovation. It must identify key areas in which to build world-class scientific and technological excellence, e.g., genomics, nano-science, analytics, synthetic biology, information technology, space technology etc. Investors in India must change their mindsets and come forward to fund truly innovative, first-of-its-kind, and thus untested business models. I believe such an innovation ecosystem that enables entrepreneurs to propel ideas into sustainable businesses will add value to our economy in the long run.
Recently, reports said that promoters of major companies were meeting the mandatory requirement for at least one woman board member by appointing family members such as daughters and wives, which defeats the purpose. It also shows the lack of women leaders in India except a few who are being wooed by multiple companies to join their boards. How can the gender gap be bridged in senior management positions and in company boardrooms in India?
It is unfortunate that the recent rush to appoint women directors on the board was more an act of tokenism on the part of India Inc. than any real attempt at gender inclusivity. Corporate India needs to realize that more female oversight on running of companies can result in better overall performance — a fact that has been proved empirically. India has a huge pool of talented women professionals from skilled economists to social scientists and chartered accountants to social entrepreneurs who are waiting to be identified. Indian companies need to cast their net wide to identify this deep talent pool who can bring a fresh perspective to corporate decision-making in India and bring enormous value to the boardroom.
What is preventing more women from scaling the heights of success that people such as you have achieved?
A large number of people in India still believe that, for women, marriage must take precedence over their career. It is also common to see highly qualified women give up their careers and settle for a traditional homemaker’s role in order to conform to family expectations. I believe that starting a family should not be a deterrent to a woman’s career goals. There is no reason for a woman not to get back to her work environment after taking maternity leave. Many a time, women are forced to give up senior management responsibilities if their spouses are transferred or if marriage influences this. Women are also less willing to undertake extensive business related travel and both these put them at a disadvantage. Having said that, I think any women can achieve what I have achieved if they have the self-belief to think big and the determination to make it big.
How would you describe the entrepreneurship climate in India? What needs to change to make it more conducive to the growth of new enterprises?
India is a fertile ground for entrepreneurship, given its large pool of world-class talent and resources. However, Indians fail to take ‘ideas’ to ‘market’ because unlike in the West capital is virtually inaccessible here. There isn’t enough public funding available for academia to pursue discovery and invention. Similarly, critical risk and seed capital needed by entrepreneurs to translate concepts into “proof of concept” is hard to come by. Moving ahead in this cycle, Industry also finds it difficult to obtain private funding from financial institutions, venture funds and capital markets to innovate and commercialize. India, therefore, needs to create a virtuous cycle if it is to unleash the huge potential of the nation’s entrepreneurial energy. This financial eco-system will work only if all three components – Academia, Entrepreneurs and Industry – work symbiotically and in tandem.
To set the wheels spinning and make the model self-perpetuating monetization needs to happen at every stage of this cycle. Academia therefore needs to create intellectual property (IP) through its discoveries and inventions that can be licensed to either entrepreneurs or directly to industry with royalty payments upon commercialization.Entrepreneurs need to create value-added IP that can be licensed to industry with royalties upon commercialization. Industry needs to monetize through successful commercialization that enables the payment of royalties.
Do you think it would be easier to start a Biocon now than when you did? Do you think entrepreneurs today face the same challenges as you did, or are they facing a different set of challenges?
I believe there are much greater opportunities today for people to realize their entrepreneurial ambitions. Entrepreneurs today can start their own business with greater ease and less red tape. Thanks to the Internet revolution, they can take their ideas to financiers and markets in a way that was not previously possible. While the situation has definitely changed for the better, some of the obstacles that I faced as an entrepreneur way back in the seventies still remain. Entrepreneurs need to first build credibility for themselves and their businesses. They must be able to quickly adapt their businesses to be relevant and be able to take calculated risks when the right opportunity presents itself. The beginning of any entrepreneurial endeavour is always daunting as it is fraught with unknown and unexpected challenges. Facing challenges with ingenuity and determination are key to becoming a successful entrepreneur.
How do you attract top talent, and keep them energized and motivated?
I believe in empowering, trusting, enabling and mentoring leaders at multiple levels in my team. By providing ample opportunities to others to develop their leadership potential, one can instil a sense of ownership among team members to take forward the leader's vision and mission. I also believe in leading from the front. At the same time, I am tremendously result-oriented and always open to new ideas.
High-quality, reliable healthcare is absent for the majority of Indians, who are at the mercy of inefficient government hospitals. What can be done to ensure everyone has access to the healthcare they deserve?
India needs to implement a robust universal healthcare program aimed at providing affordable access for its citizens. Public health spending in India needs to be urgently raised to at least 2.5% of GDP from a mere 1% currently. The country also needs to develop a system that is based on Electronic Medical Records and e-Health Centres by leveraging information and communication technologies (ICTs). Also, close collaboration between private entities and public agencies will help augment existing government resources in order to increase healthcare delivery access and thus improve health outcomes. I believe a national healthcare model supported by ICTs and with private-public collaboration at its core can revolutionize healthcare delivery and transform the public healthcare scenario in India.
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