She’s reclusive yet outspoken, a through-and-through brand in herself. The chairperson of Biocon Industries and a formidable global icon, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw Gives HELLO! The privilege of an exclusive tête-à-tête at her private office in Bengaluru.
There are very few women in India who command the kind of clout that Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw does. As the chairperson of the Rs 2,223 crore Biocon Industries, she’s India’s second wealthiest woman — though she wears her fame lightly, almost dismissive of the trappings of success. Instead, Mazumdar-Shaw prefers to put her power to constructive use by vociferously expressing herself to her over million Twitter followers.
We’re at her sprawling office headquarters in the heart of Electronic City, Bengaluru. Given the times we live in, the security at the campus is stringent, but once you enter the hallowed portals, there’s an air of serenity that takes over. Well-manicured lawns, building blocks that house various departments and staff quietly heading to their domains.
Mazumdar-Shaw is oblivious to the surreptitious stares coming her way as she comfortably poses before the large Yusuf Arakkal sculpture, in the garden overlooking her office. We then head to her official work zone, where the melange of fine art and sculptures draw the eye immediately. That she is as passionate about art as she is about science is more than evident. Settled in her comfort zone, HELLO! catches up with the dynamic lady, as she takes us through the journey of her remarkable life.
HELLO!: You’ve been elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in Scotland, joining 1,700 others in the rank. How do you feel about this?
KMS: It’s a very prestigious society to be elected to, with very few Indians. I’d be the first Indian woman for sure. The society acknowledges thought leaders and people who made an impact on various aspects of the world. I was recognised for business, science, research and philanthropy.
HELLO!: You were also on the Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women list last year. How would you define power?
KMS: I always believed that when you’re recognised on any of these power lists, it means you’re an influencer. And all these recognitions help me bring about change. For instance, I’m proud of the fact that women are pursuing biotechnology as a vocation. I’m excited that youngsters today are enamoured by biotech. In fact, many even come up to me and say, “Ma’am, it’s because of you.” So power to me is being able to influence those young minds to pursue science, to pursue research and make a difference in healthcare, to bring about good, societal change!
HELLO!: The Order of Australia is another honour conferred upon you. How do you process such accolades?
KMS: It’s, indeed, a great honour to be awarded the Order of Australia. And, of course, I realise why. Australia is very special to me; I have very strong Australian roots. I studied there and owe everything to my Australian academic basis. If I hadn’t gone to the Land Down Under and studied brewing, I don’t think I would’ve had the opportunity to start Biocon. They even named a road after me in Ballarat called ‘Mazumdar Drive’! They had organised a superb ceremony for me when we inaugurated that road. It was quite a proud moment.
HELLO!: How would you describe your time back in Australia?
KMS: I had a lot of spunk even then. I look at that phase of my life as being very transformational and affirmative. I was the only woman in my class. I was studying brewing, which was quite a rare thing for women to do. It was also difficult to keep in touch with my family back in India. I’d ring them for three minutes every six week. It was mostly letters since calls were expensive. It was a time when I discovered myself and my strengths.
HELLO!: Was it hard staying away from family?
KMS: No, it wasn’t tough because I was there with a purpose. I was there for a year and a half. In fact, I celebrated my 21st birthday in Australia with my friends. It was a wonderful, memorable time for me because I realised I could make friends quite easily.
HELLO!: Did your time away teach you to value money?
KMS: Yes, absolutely. I used to give tuitions to young kids to earn pocket money. I had to ensure I had money to pay for a meal or buy something, otherwise I had to be frugal with my spending. For instance, I moved to a cheaper paying guest accommodation when I realised my hostel was quite expensive. The owner was a schoolteacher with four kids. He was a widow, so I tutored his kids in science at his request. Very often, my landlord would tell me, “You’ve done such a great job of teaching my kids. I’m not going to charge you rent this week.” Those small gestures meant the world to me.
HELLO!: How did you develop an interest in the health space?
KMS: Living in a country like India, you realise that the cost of healthcare is beyond the reach of many. You also realise that when there are life-saving medicines, very few can actually afford them. I focused on two areas: diabetes — wherein I began to develop an insulin based on a proprietary technology, to reduce the cost of insulin — and cancer. A dear friend had breast cancer and couldn’t afford the medication despite being a well- paid professional. I’d offer to buy them, but she’d refuse my help. That was when I told myself that I’d develop affordable cancer drugs.
HELLO!: You are passionate about art and Hindustani classical music. How did you develop these interests?
KMS: I developed an interest in painting when I was younger. I later developed an ear for music when I spent a few years in Baroda, the hub of classical music at the time. So I decided to learn Hindustani classical. I was fond of Western classical, but my husband John Shaw got me to appreciate it with even greater depth. John, too, was fond of art, so he introduced me to Western art. I’ve always been quite knowledgeable about Indian art.
HELLO!: Do you remember the first painting you bought?
KMS: It was a Yusuf Arakal. I paid all of Rs 1,800 for the small etching! Next I bought a more expensive painting. It was Rs 30,000 at the time, and I couldn’t afford it. But Yusuf was so sweet and allowed me to pay in three instalments. I still have it!
HELLO!: How else are you involved with art?
KMS: I’m involved with the Museum of Art and Photography that Abhishek Poddar started in Bangalore. I was one of the founding patrons; it’s going to be a fabulous museum. The whole plan is to keep organising art exhibitions and get curated collections from various collectors.
HELLO!: You’re quite vocal with your opinions on Twitter. How has this digital experience been?
KMS: I use social media, again, to influence people. I’m keen on bringing about positive change. When I look at India, a country with immense potential, as well as technological and scientific skills, it really irks me to see them not being leveraged enough. So I want to draw the spotlight to this potential, away from silly issues, which is why I comment on them.
HELLO!: You and John have a picture-perfect, stable marriage. Do you think it’s because you married later in your life?
KMS: We were both in our 40s when we met. Our shared interest in art and golf brought us together. We had a strong friendship and relationship till John was based in Bengaluru. We decided to get married when I visited him in Amsterdam after his transfer. John graciously gave up his job at the time, saying, “One of us has to give up our job, and that’s not you.” So he made that decision to come and help me build Biocon. It’s what it is today thanks to John’s support and knowledge in the multinational setting.
I admire him because he took a backseat. He always told me, “You built the company; you should be in the front row, leading it and getting all the attention. I’ll support you from the background.” That’s how John is! In fact, even after we got married, he asked me not to drop my name. He said, “Kiran Mazumdar is a famous name. Don’t change it to Kiran Shaw. Call it Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw if you have to.” And that’s what I decided.
HELLO!: Today, would you say you’ve fulfilled all the dreams you had as a 21-year-old?
KMS: My dream at the time was to work in a brewery. My reality turned out to be very different. Though I feel a sense of achievement in having set up a company that’s respectable, credible and research-driven. I created thousands of jobs for scientists, for the youth, for women... I think I achieved all of those goals I set out for myself.
Photography: Waseem Khan
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s August 2022 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!