These nine first-generation Indian entrepreneurs started from humble beginnings, but turned around their fortune with the right mix of intelligence, ambition, determination and perseverance. Long before India's startup boom, their stories of hardship, labour and success set new benchmarks, and serve as an inspiration to everyone.
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The founder of the Reliance empire, Dhirubhai Ambani was born to a poor schoolteacher in the Gujarati village of Chorvad. He started his career by working as a labourer, a gas station attendant in Yemen, and then a yarn and spice trader in Mumbai, before setting up his first cloth mill in Ahmedabad in 1966. Ambani’s rise as one of India’s leading business tycoons was also embroiled in controversy, especially the way he used the license permit system to his advantage. Reliance Textile Industries went public in 1977, and is today the third-most profitable company in India. When he died of a stroke in 2002, Ambani was ranked as the 138th-richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of $2.9 billion.
The reclusive 61-year-old owner of the supermarket chain D-Mart, Radhakishan Damani shot to fame after the overwhelming success of the IPO of his company Avenue Supermarts this month. A successful stockbroker, Damani decided to enter the retail industry in 2002, when he set up the first D-Mart store in Mumbai. Today, with an estimated worth of $5.4 billion, he is now among the top 15 Indian billionaires. He also holds a stake in other firms such as India Cement and tobacco firm VST Industries.
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Often called India’s Warren Buffett, 57-year-old Rakesh Jhunjhunwala is an ace investor, trader and the owner of asset management firm Rare Enterprises. The son of an income tax officer, he began investing in stocks while he was studying chartered accountancy in college. In contrast to his reticent mentor Radhakishan Damani, Jhunjhunwala has a much more public persona. His family’s net worth crossed Rs 10,000 crore recently. In 2016, he pledged to donated at least 25% of his wealth or Rs 5,000 crore, whichever was lower, in 2020, when he turns 60. According to Forbes, his current net worth is around $2.3 billion.
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As a female Dalit entrepreneur, Kalpana Saroj’s success as the head of the metal tubing company Kamani Tubes is doubly inspiring. Born in a Maharashtrian village, Saroj was forcefully married at the age of 12, and dropped out of school at 14. She left her husband after a period of physical and verbal abuse. After training as a tailor in Mumbai, she took a government loan to expand her business. In 2006, she took over the debt-ridden Kamani Tubes, and turned around its fortunes. Today, the company is worth over $100 million.
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The founder of India’s leading luxury hotel chain Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, CP Krishnan Nair was born in rather humble circumstances, to in a large and poor family of eight children in a Kerala village. His fortune turned when he was awarded a lifetime scholarship by the ruler of Chirakkal. Nair went on to join the Indian army, rising to the rank of a captain. In 1951, he resigned from his position to set the All India Handloom Board to promote Indian yarn abroad . His exposure to international hotels led him to open the first Leela hotel, named after his wife, in 1987 in Mumbai. In 2016, it clocked revenues of Rs 661 crore.
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Born in a small village in the erstwhile Madras Presidency, Prathap Reddy was a cardiologist by training. He decided to start the first Apollo hospital in 1979, after being moved by the plight a young patient who had died due to the lack of adequate facilities in India. The 150-bed Apollo hospital in Chennai was India’s first corporate hospital. Today, Apollo Hospitals is one of the largest hospital chains in India, and also manages hospitals in countries such as Nigeria, Mauritius and Oman. In Forbes, estimated his net worth to be around $690 million.
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Born in a small town in Karnataka, Shetty was the second-youngest of nine siblings. He chose to become a heart surgeon, performing severals feats including India’s first neonatal cardiac surgery on a nine-day old baby and the first video-assisted open heart surgery. However as the founder of the Narayana Hruduyalaya hospital chain in 2001, he is best known for making life-saving cardiac surgeries affordable for million of Indians using the economies of scale. Narayana Hruduyayala was valued at $1 billion in 2016.
After earning his master’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, Murthy worked in Paris and Pune. In 1981, Murthy co-founded Infosys with six other software engineers with Rs 10000 borrowed from their spouses. He steered it over the next two decades as its CEO until 2002 and chairman until 2006. Over the decades, Infosys grew into a global software and IT services firm, becoming the first Indian company to be listed on an American stock exchange and kickstarting the country’s outsourcing revolution. In the process, Murthy and his co-founders demonstrated that ordinary educated Indians could create a new industry on par with the rest of the world with their skills and innovation.
The founder of the Nirma empire, Karsanbhai Patel started his entrepreneurial journey by making detergent in his own backyard and selling it on his bicycle from door-to-door after finishing work at his state government job in Ahmedabad. He launched the low-priced Nirma brand in 1969, naming it after his late daughter Nirupama. Its low price and good quality made Nirma a household name among middle and lower middle-class families. According to Forbes, Patel's current net worth is estimated to be $2.9 billion.