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Kiran Majumdar Shaw, the city crusader

Beyond her avatar as the head of a multi-crore biotech company, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is a powerful voice of change for the city she lives in

Indulekha Aravind  |  Bangalore 

"Do you know which city in the world has been ranked the most innovative this year?" Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder-chairman of Biocon, interjects during our hour-long conversation in her office in Bangalore's Electronic City. Shaw's office is spacious, and has wooden flooring, carpets and various works of art from her collection. The reception and the conference room adjacent to Shaw's office also have paintings, including the works of Scottish contemporary painters James Fullarton and Archie Forrest as well as an Anjolie Ela Menon.

I choose not to hazard a guess in reply to Mazumdar-Shaw's question, which turns out to be just as well. "It's Medellin in Colombia. It used to be a drug city, one of the most dangerous places in the world," she says. The city has been transformed by an enlightened mayor and citizenry, she adds, - and then ponders, "If Medellin can do it, why can't we?" This is not a rhetorical question. The richest self-made woman in India, a pioneer in India's biotechnology industry and head of a Rs 2,485-crore company, has engaged with social causes for over a decade, and has been "seriously involved with big issues" in the last six or seven years. She has been lending her voice not just to the concerns of the industry she represents, but to issues of governance and urban reform as well.

The Saturday preceding this interview had seen her take the stage to highlight the advantages of an initiative to upgrade Bangalore's roads to world-class standards, undertaken by Jana Urban Space Foundation in partnership with the government. Mazumdar-Shaw had helped finance the designing of the project, and had been involved in negotiations with various government agencies as well. "When Swati (Ramanathan, who heads Jana Urban Space Foundation) told me about it, it really excited me," she had said at the public meeting. Those used to a more strident Shaw may have been a little surprised when, towards the end of her speech, she beseeched: "Please, please cooperate with us. We are making history."

Ramanathan says what sets Mazumdar-Shaw apart from other business leaders who support causes is the fact that she is relentless. "We know how hard it is to work with governments, and it can be very exhausting, but Mazumdar-Shaw stayed the course." She had come on board nearly three years ago, but the project slowed down when chief ministers and governments changed. But whenever bottlenecks came up, says Ramanathan, she was willing to act immediately. Rather than getting exhausted by the government and bureaucracy, she probably exhausts the government, Ramanathan jokes.

Mazumdar-Shaw says the question before her is how to build innovative cities and deliver a better quality of life to its citizens. "That's the underlying, driving impetus for me." The 60-year-old, with a net worth of $655 million according to Forbes, attended Bishop Cotton Girls' School, one of the more exclusive schools in the city, and Central College in Bangalore, before going to Melbourne for a Master's degree. "The reality is, Bangalore, though a global brand, is not a world-class city today. And if you feel that way, you can't just say the government has to take it up. The government needs help from like us to find new solutions for old problems," she asserts. Mazumdar-Shaw is also an active member of City Connect Foundation, a non-profit trust that creates a common platform for urban stakeholders and the government to discuss civic issues.

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The Agenda Task Force, an initiative of former chief minister SM Krishna and Nandan Nilekani, ex-Infosys head and the man steering the Aadhar scheme, was one of her first dalliances with "activism" though her role in it was restricted to financing.

Mazumdar-Shaw is also one of the leading lights of a high-profile initiative launched earlier this year - the Political Action Committee (BPAC). Formed before the Assembly elections with the aim of promoting good governance, the committee vetted candidates contesting the elections from the city and "endorsed" 14 on the basis of criteria such as education and track record in public service, contributing Rs 5 lakh to their campaign expenses. Of the 14 candidates, five were elected. Mazumdar-Shaw, who is the managing trustee and president of BPAC, says they plan to do the same for the 2014 general elections. "We also gave the chief minister a 10-point agenda on city improvement," she says, but adds blandly, "Of course, nothing much has happened."

Fashion designer Prasad Bidapa, who is also a member of BPAC, says that with an achiever like Mazumdar-Shaw heading the committee, politicians have to come to the table. "She's one of the who created a business climate in the city," says Bidapa, who has known Mazumdar-Shaw for over 25 years. "She's proactive, and is often one of the first to respond to queries on the email group we have."

But while BPAC been lauded in some quarters, it has also come in for criticism for being a platform representing only the views of the educated, urban middle class. Ask her about this and Mazumdar-Shaw bristles. "It's very easy for to criticise," she says, her voice rising. "This is where I get very upset because the poor don't have the wherewithal to help themselves, so it's up to people like us to pull them out of poverty." Mazumdar-Shaw doesn't take too kindly to the elite tag either. "I have also been a poor person at one stage of my life. I don't think people realise that I once couldn't afford to fly." That, of course, may not be your average definition of poverty but Mazumdar-Shaw adds "When I started Biocon, I used to travel in buses and by second-class rail, because that was all I could afford." Mazumdar-Shaw had started in 1978, after she realised it was tough to find a break in the male-dominated brewing industry

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Mazumdar-Shaw has always been very vocal about issues relating to her industry, and has long been an advocate for cheap generics, whether at industry conclaves or through opinion pieces in newspapers. When Ranbaxy was slapped with a $500-million penalty by the US department of justice for falsifying data and other violations, Mazumdar-Shaw wrote that the incident should be a wake-up call for the Indian pharmaceutical industry to safeguard their reputation through "action rather than rhetoric". She is also vocal about other issues relating to the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, such as speaking out against the curb on clinical trials.

The chairman and managing director is also active on Twitter, with over 7,000 tweets so far, shared with over 85,000 followers. Mazumdar-Shaw says she tweets a lot because she likes to talk about what she is doing. "I like to share my thoughts with people and I want to see what they think." Inevitably, some tweets have landed her in controversy, such as when 65-year-old S R Patil was appointed as state information technology minister, she tweeted that she was surprised a "younger, tech-savvy person" had not been picked for the post. She apologised to Patil later.

How does she manage to find the time for other activities? "Nothing will eat into your time if you plan." If you take ownership of something, she says, you will find the time for it. For example, the Wednesdays that she is in Bangalore she sets aside time from 3 pm to 5 pm for BPAC meetings.

And how does she deal with the prickly criticisms her "activism" has attracted? "It's criticism bordering on hostility. But if you're passionate about something, you won't give up," she says with conviction.

First Published: Fri, December 06 2013. 21:12 IST