Skip to main content
The Web      Powered by
powered by Yahoo!

Chairman of Biocon, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw TalkAsia Interview Transcript

Airdate: September 4th 2004.

LH: Lorraine Hahn
KMS: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

LH: This week on TalkAsia: India's Biotech Queen. A Bangalore native who has transformed a small business operating out of her garage, into a 150 million dollar company. This, is TalkAsia.

LH: Welcome to TalkAsia. I'm Lorraine Hahn. In our effort to continually bring you variety, TalkAsia recently traveled to India to interview a series of inspirational personalities. This week-we bring you our first guest: Chairman of Biocon Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw.

When she took her company public earlier this year - it was evident that Biotechnology had become the new kid on the block in India. Biocon's shares were 30 times oversubscribed. And by the end of Biocon's first trading day, Shaw had become India's richest woman, worth over 400 million dollars. It all began in the late 70's. Her first product was a plant enzyme extracted from papaya to clarify beer. Today, Biocon has become an integrated biopharmaceutical company, focusing on research and development of therapeutic, affordable medicine.

We caught up with Ms. Shaw in Mumbai. Over the next half hour, we're going to find out how she went about starting India's first biotech company, let alone list it. And where does she go from here? But first-her thoughts on being called various titles -including "India's Mother of Invention?"

(KMS) Well I guess I've had many titles and I just take all these titles in my stride without really taking them too seriously.

(LH) Why? Why not?

(KMS) Well I think I have done many things in a sort of a path breaking way, and I guess I do sort of tend to acquire these kind of titles, but I think basically one has to go about doing what one is without sort of getting distracted by accolades of this sort.

(LH) What are you trying to achieve with Biocon?

(KMS) Well you know when I set up Biocon a little over 25 years ago I guess I was just focused on building a good company and I guess over the years it has evolved into a great potential for me and the way I look at it today is with a very different sense of purpose. I certainly want to build a globally recognized biotech company and that's the path I am on today. I think Biocon to me stands for this particular potential, and doing something like this out of India means a lot more to me as well.

(LH) From your home base right?

(KMS) That's right.

(LH) When you got involved with Biotech, in the 70s that was, Biotech wasn't a very sexy sort of industry at that time, what was the attraction?

(KMS) It was nothing actually. In those days, actually people didn't even know how to spell the word biotechnology. I was a biologist by trading and I guess it was an opportunity that very accidentally came my way, and once I sort of got involved with this business of biotechnology I decided to make a go of it and I guess that's what it was all about.

(LH) Right, initially when you were thinking about doing this work and setting up your company, you were what 25 years old, I presume you didn't have very much money?

(KMS) No in fact when this offer came my way from my Irish partner, in fact I did say to him, are you quite sure you want me as your partner because a) I am a woman and that too in a country like India - I'm not even a business woman so I don't have any formal business training, and most importantly I'm not even a rich woman. So I guess I tried to convince him that maybe I wasn't really the right choice, but I guess he had more confidence in me than I had in myself at that time.

(LH) Wow, and you didn't even have an office space correct?

(KMS) Well I used my garage as my office for at least a year and a half.

(LH) Was it difficult to convince people that you had a great idea or great ideas - things that you really believed in and really wanted to try and develop?

(KMS) You know I must say looking back on my early days, I really think about it and I look at myself and say - my god that was really foolish courage because really when I started the company I was considered to be a high-risk factor in many many ways. One, because I was a woman, two, because I was in this bizarre field called "biotechnology" and, three, because it was a business that didn't make sense. So you know it was a very high-risk business for anyone to back. So I did have a lot of problems trying to raise finance for the company initially. Just at the time when I thought no one was going to back me, low and behold there was a bank manager who said - come on, I'll give you a, I'll open up. I'll give you a credit, cash credit. You know those kinds of things so I think it was a...

(LH) A bit of luck

(KMS) A bit of luck is right, yes.

(LH) I mean the challenges you must have faced. I mean it must be overwhelming, like you said you were a woman, it was so rare in those times correct?

(KMS) I couldn't even get people to work for me those days because again that was considered to be a very risky proposition -- you know working for a woman. I still remember the time, I mean can you imagine having a garage as your office being a woman boss and trying to hire people and they would come to me. I was young, I was 25 years old and people would take one look at me and you know (LH: turn around) turn around and say look this job is not for me so I did have a problem. But you know it's, I think that's the challenge I think that's what keeps you going because you're determined to make a success of things, you're determined to get over these kinds of hurdles and that's what makes it exciting.

(LH) Up next on TalkAsia: why Ms. Shaw credits her family for much of her success.


(LH) Welcome back to TalkAsia and our conversation with Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. Over the years, the chairman of India's premier biotech firm Biocon has been continually recognized and honored for her pioneering work. In 1989, she received the Padma Shri-one of India's highest civilian awards from the president at the time. While Ernst and Young named her "Best Entrepreneur: Healthcare & Life Sciences Award" in 2002. So how did she become, such a success?

(KMS) I had a very progressive family and that's why I got to where I got to. My father was a brew master. He was the one who I was very close to, he influenced me in many many ways including my pursuing a career as a brew master. My mother of course went along with my father so to speak, both my parents were very very contemporary people with very very unconventional views about what they wanted their children to do. So I guess I was very fortunate, I had a very very, lets put it this way, I had very wonderful upbringing and a childhood, where my parents of course exposed us to many cultural aspects not only of India but other parts of the world. Not that we traveled overseas, but they used to travel a lot and we used to through their eyes see a lot of the world.

(LH) As a child, would you say you're pretty scientific?

(KMS) I was very (LH: curious?) I was very studious, you know I was... of course science fascinated me so I was very very inclined towards sciences and of course my two brothers -- who also I shared this childhood with -- also had this great penchant for science and mathematics so I guess the family culture was very scientific in that sense.

(LH) Is it true that you tried to get into medical school but you couldn't?

(KMS) Absolutely true.

(LH) What happened there?

(KMS) Well I guess, well I was found psychologically unfit to do medicine and I thought it was so wrong at that stage. But then I think they're right, because you know I realized I couldn't have made such a great doctor but I understand a lot of science, the medical science aspect, so I guess in that sense I am doing what I am really good at which is really researching science and not practicing medicine.

(LH) So they thought you were psychologically unprepared?

(KMS) Well basically it had something to do with my not being able to really sort of react to blood in a way a doctor should.

(LH) Yes, I can relate to that! But that didn't stop you right? You went and took up zoology?

(KMS) That's right.

(LH) You know when you talk about zoology, you're talking about cellular biology, you're talking about genetics, that's what really got me interested in biotech in the first place.

(LH) You mentioned about your father and therefore your interest obviously in brewing. Maybe it might have been a blessing in disguise, you never know, that you didn't set up a brewery?

(KMS) Well I'm sure glad that I didn't set up a brewery and I set up Biocon instead. You know so I think. Yes certainly I'm pleased that the gender-bias that I faced after I qualified as a brew master -- which again prevented me from getting into a brewery -- got me to take up this particular opportunity.

(LH) But who gave you, you know the nerve to take such risks?

(KMS) I guess having a good -- first and foremost it has to come from within you, I think there's a large part of it that tells you this is a great opportunity. I'm actually a person who likes challenges so that's something which is I guess inborn, but as I said I had a great supportive family, and that's very important especially in a country like India. Where you know the family pressures for girls to get married at a very early stage in their lives is very strong, and I didn't have that. In fact so much so that my father would say to me -- look Kiran I don't want you to be like the rest of your friends and just focus on getting a good husband, I want you to make use of your education and pursue a good career, you'll always find a good husband, but don't give up this opportunity of pursuing a good career. So you know that was very unconventional.

(LH) How do you think or why do you think success has come to you?

(KMS) I have a great team who has helped me build Biocon, I was very fortunate to be able to share my vision with a group of people who really were as excited about challenges as I was. And I think it is this team of people who have actually helped me build Biocon and I think success in any enterprise is about a team effort, and I think that's what it has been.

(LH) There are also very many high profile Indian women in society, but not very many who have sort of made it to the top of the echelon, such as you, why do you think this is?

(KMS) I think a lot comes from the fact that Indian society has never really sort of fostered this culture to get women to pursue careers very seriously. And I think the ones who have had that opportunity have been very successful, so I do know a lot of women in India who have reached very dizzy heights in that sense. And I think they've all done it because a) they've all had it in themselves and b) because they've had this support from their family and friends and I think that's what is required. So I think although you don't see too many -- I think this is a worldwide problem, I think women in general do face the glass ceiling, largely because they believe they don't have enough confidence in themselves. I guess I am a role model in that sense, and I do hope that you know my example -- I keep telling people -- I said if I can do it anyone can. And I think if that could be the kind of message that I could convey to other women I would really encourage them to pursue these kind of opportunities.

LH: Well whether you're a man or woman, if you're an aspiring entrepreneur- you might want to stick around and hear her advise. That's just ahead.


LH: Welcome back to TalkAsia with India's Biotech Star Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. She didn't have a chance to pursue her first career option of becoming a brew master. But her early fascination lives on through her coffee book called "Ale and Arty: the Story of Beer". It also features paintings, done by prolific Indian artists-another one of her passions. But back to her role as the chairman of India's premier Biotech firm, Biocon.

(KMS) Well I think in terms of corporate philosophy I've always believed that you've got to treat people in a very very egalitarian manner in the sense I like to treat people on a one-to-one basis. And I like people to take on a lot of responsibilities because I think with a sense of responsibility also comes a sense of purpose. To me that's a very important part of the corporate philosophy: we have a very flat structure, I encourage a lot of informality in our workplace. Everyone at work calls me Kiran, which is a very different kind of a culture to have especially in a country like India where people are very reverential about the heads of companies,

(LH) Do you ever still go into the lab and still do research and things?

(KMS) I don't do research with my own hands but I go to the labs every single day (LH: really?) and of course we very frequently have brainstorming sessions whenever we are looking at certain research programmes that are having some difficulty. So it's, I still sort of have some valuable inputs to provide.

(LH) Do you miss that aspect of biotech? Being in the lab, seeing it all created, you know step-by-step?

(KMS) You know when I look at the brilliant young scientist we have today I sometimes wonder whether I can really match their talents. But yes I do miss it in one way but on the other hand I know that they're so much better at it so I get a lot of pleasure just being able to brainstorm with these young scientists.

(LH) So what would you say is your main role of focus or emphasis right now?

(KMS) Right now I see myself as someone who is a steering kind of role where I sort of have to basically make sure that I get the company to be heading in the right direction. Strategy is a very important part of my function today, so strategizing about where the company should be and the kind of technological spaces that we should occupy -- I think those are very very important aspects of my role today.

(LH) And what is your vision for the company going forward?

(KMS) I certainly see Biocon being in the top five biotech companies globally in the not too distant future.

(LH) How do you see Biocon for example, helping the people of India?

(KMS) We are focused on a lot on drug molecules, one of course is insulin- you know India has one fourth of the world's population of diabetics here -- the other new area which we are really seriously focused on is cancer, so we are developing a number of oncology products which are all based on a new concept of immuno-therapy. So we are developing a large number of antibodies and cancer vaccines with which we can look at these oncological challenges so to speak So it's all going to be very important to this country -- affordable drugs.

(LH) Right, I was just going to say, a lot of these drugs, insulin, or whatever vaccines you have, I presume a majority of these people can't afford.

(KMS) That's very true, especially in a country like India, and I think what Biocon is definitely addressing is how to make these very very expensive drugs affordable to the Indian population. So certainly that's we're very much focused on.

(LH) Aside from Biocon, you advise government right, on policy matters, you do work for charities, for example cancer I read. How do you balance your time?

(KMS) I find it very difficult to do justice to all these various activities that I participate in.

(LH) And get some sleep at the same time right?

(KMS) Yeah that's true. But I guess you know when you're passionate about something you do find the time. So of course my husband very often tells me, he wonders how I manage to do so many things at one time, but I do make the time, I find the time.

(LH) I read that you also love to collect art?

(KMS) Yes that is a great hobby and a passion for me.

(LH) Why are you so interested in art?

(KMS) You know as a young girl I used to paint, I used to love painting a lot, so I think it stems from that. But then over the years I've got very interested in art and of course as I've said I can't paint anymore, but at least I have the good fortune of being able to appreciate other people's work. And that's a common interest that I share with my husband as well.

(LH) Wow, wow, so he backs you up 100% doesn't he?

(KMS) Absolutely, yes he does.

(LH) So you get support from your family but you get support directly from your husband as well? (KMS: Absolutely.) You're blessed.

(KMS) I am... I am

(LH) What would you advise other entrepreneurs who might be thinking of going it alone, giving it their best shot -- what would you say to them?

(KMS) Well basically entrepreneurship is one very exciting journey but a very unknown journey and I would say to every entrepreneur it's a very exciting journey, just take that first step. I think that's what's important about entrepreneurship. You can sit and analyze everything you want to but that's not going to help you build an enterprise. I think what is important is to mentally say that I want to do something and if you identify what you want to do then take that first step because you never know where it leads to. In my own case I started a journey that began with papaya enzymes and today I make cancer drugs. If you asked me, did I see all this when I started up the company, the truthful answer is no. But you know as you go and progress along this journey I think there are some wonderful paths that open up to you and I think it's about taking these paths and finding for yourself which of these are really worth following.

(LH) Aside from Biocon, what more would you like to see yourself doing?

(KMS) I would like to really get involved with some of the national issues, there are some very important areas to address in terms of how do we make India into an economically strong country. And I think there has to be a lot of private/public partnerships in getting to this process. And I really believe that today industries like ours - who are beginning to become very important - have a role to play in shaping the destiny of our country.

LH: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. A woman who's doing all she can to place India on the global map, for Biotechnology. And that is TalkAsia this week. You can check out our website at for upcoming guests. And be sure not to miss next week's show with India's biggest Bollywood star - Shah Rukh Khan. Thank you very much for joining us. I'm Lorraine Hahn.

Let's talk again next week.

Story Tools
Subscribe to Time for $1.99 cover
Top Stories
Iran poll to go to run-off
Top Stories
CNN/Money: Security alert issued for 40 million credit cards


International Edition
CNN TV CNN International Headline News Transcripts Advertise With Us About Us
   The Web     
Powered by
© 2005 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us.
external link
All external sites will open in a new browser. does not endorse external sites.
 Premium content icon Denotes premium content.
Add RSS headlines.