The world is a tough place for women. From the historical accounts of denial of the fundamental rights to the contemporary challenges in daily life that women face, their journey is far too different (and more difficult) than it is for the opposite gender in the race. More so, India is an even more difficult country for women to succeed in and navigate through life.
Case in point, one of today’s most successful entrepreneurs and amongst the biggest names in India’s business circles, described as the ‘original slumdog millionaire’, a compliment as backhanded as it is degrading – Kalpana Saroj. Saroj is an Indian Dalit woman who once attempted suicide to escape discrimination, poverty, and physical abuse and is now the Chairperson of a multi-million dollar company.
Here we attempt to document her journey, which is the epitome and an icon of the Dalit struggle, as well as the difficult life of a woman from the margins of society.
Rags to Riches: Story of the Woman who has lived this Phrase
Kalpana Saroj’s is a story that is seldom heard in India and is even rarer to become a sensation for not only women but an entire generation of entrepreneurs. Her life seems like the outline of a Hindi film, with a narrative that has overturned so many hindrances to resolve with a pleasant ending. The “rags to riches” cliché can be overused, but it goes some way in describing the story of Saroj, a woman who struggled on almost all the occasions on her way to the top.
Born into a family from the Dalit community, she was harassed at school, coerced into marriage at the age of 12, and fought discrimination and social pressures to leave her husband, before she tried to take her own life.
India’s caste system is an ancient orthodox social hierarchy still practised by a majority of Indians. This hierarchy puts people into different strata by virtue of their birth – people born into the lower castes have historically faced oppression and discrimination. As a Dalit woman growing up in a remote village, Kalpana’s gender and caste made her life more challenging as these identities hung like a double-edged sword over her in her journey to the top.
After being wedded off at the tender age of 12, she was forced to live in a Mumbai slum with her husband’s abusive family, only to be later rescued by her father. She went back to her village to live with her parents. There, she attempted suicide after being ostracised by the villagers.
Kalpana Saroj faced an extreme life crisis, on one dark day when she was in her lowest moment; she decided to end her life. She consumed three bottles of termite poison insecticide.
Her aunt walked into the room and saw her in a critical condition. She rushed her to the hospital and, thus, saved her life. The incident became a watershed moment for her. At 16, she came back to Mumbai to live with her uncle.
She started by making less than a dollar (Rs. 50) a month by sewing and tirelessly learning how to operate industrial sewing machines. As a result, she saw her salary rise. But the money she made was not enough to pay for her sister’s treatment which could have saved her life, an incident that defined Kalpana’s entrepreneurial spirit.
The Tragic Making of ‘Entrepreneur’ Kalpana Saroj
Money was always scarce for Kalpana. Amidst an already financially thin situation, her youngest sister fell ill. Her family could not afford the treatment. Despite scrounging everywhere for help and resources, she could not be saved. This incident made Kalpana realise the value and necessity of money more than ever. She came to the realisation that life without money was worthless and she was going to earn lots of it. She began working sixteen hours a day, a habit which she still maintains.
The next stage of her life was no different from the already escalating problems and challenges, but this time she was prepared. In the mid-1990s, after working in a hosiery shop for several months, she decided to open her own shop. While working, she often listened to the radio. There, she heard about various government programmes on the radio and subsequently applied for a loan under the Mahatma Jyotibhai Phule scheme. She used this little seed money of Rs. 50,000 to start a small furniture business and sold cheap imitations of luxury furniture from Ulhasnagar, Thane. On the other hand, she continued her sewing business.
When she started making some profits, along with the money from the grant, Kalpana founded an NGO that is now the Kalpana Saroj Foundation. After suffering from the pain of not finding a job despite numerous attempts, she wanted to save as many people as possible from this employment crisis.
Around the same time, an individual offered to sell her a disputed land at a discounted price of Rs. 2,50,000. After the case and litigation were resolved, the land value soared to Rs 50 lakh, paving the way for Kalpana’s entry into the construction industry in Mumbai.
The strange case of Kamani Tubes
Ramjibhai Kamani, a prominent businessman in the newly independent India, was a great admirer and disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. After independence, he came to Kurla and set up three companies: Kamani Tube, Kamani Engineering and Kamani Metal. Everything was a fortune for him with these industrial enterprises.
But shortly after his death in 1987, a quarrel broke out between his sons and the workers’ union. The union then went to court and asked for a transfer of ownership to the workers because the owner’s behaviour was contrary to the company’s interests. Subsequently, Kamani became the first Indian company whose license was granted to the workers union by the Indian Supreme court instead of the founder’s heirs.
But if there will be three thousand owners, who will do the actual work?
This inevitable self-conflict soon erupted into a crisis in the company. Union leaders had no interest in the company; they just wanted to make a quick buck. As part of the reforms during the time, the company was inundated with loans, renewals and credits from banks. The government also provided them with various resources and services. As a result, they had a huge capital, but no one had the experience to use these resources for the company’s welfare and growth.
Thus, from 1987 to 1997, the company continued to survive one way or another. But as soon as the investors realised what had happened with the money invested as part of the reforms and credit, they came down heavily. Authorities stopped electricity and water supplies for Kamani industries. 140 cases were filed against the company, and it owed Rs. 116 crores to investors. Of the three Kamani companies, two had already gone under. The third, Kamani Tubes, appeared set to go down the same rabbit hole.
At that time, the workers came to Kalpana Saroj, imploring her to save their company and, thus, their livelihood. Her flourishing NGO and business acumen had earned her a decent reputation among business circles. Her knowledge about the industry was not much, but the thought of 566 starving families made her help the distressed company. She had nothing to lose, and the rest is history.
Turing Fate Around – the Kalpana Saroj Way
She took the company’s reins in her hands and formed a core team of ten, each an expert in their respective fields. Then she hired some consultants and created a proposal on how to go about fixing the damage. When Kalpana took her recommendation to the board made up of several IDBI and bank representatives, they agreed to go ahead on the condition that she sits on the board and undertake the responsibility of all liabilities. She agreed and was appointed company president in 2000.
From 2000 to 2006, Kamani Tubes ran in and out of courts. After numerous high-level meetings, requests, and diplomatic considerations led by Kalpana, the penalty and interest amounts imposed on the company were eventually forgiven, and 25 per cent of the principal amount was also deducted. Courts almost halved the company’s debt as compared to the original sum. In 2006, for leading the company out of a literal existential crisis, Kalpana Saroj was appointed as the Chairperson. The court transferred ownership of Kamani tubes to her.
In restarting the company and shedding the past weight, Kalpana and her team needed to focus on revamping manufacturing and getting the firm back on its feet. They started by replacing all the machinery which either had been stolen or fallen to disrepair. In 2009, they shifted the factory to Wada, and the company began its uphill path from there.
Today, Kamani Tubes is a growing business worth more than $100 million. Moreover, according to numerous estimates, Kalpana has a personal net worth of $112 million.
A multi-millionaire at the helm of a profitable and successful company, Kalpana Saroj rubs shoulders with prominent people in business and has won awards for her professionalism.
She was awarded the Padma Shri for Trade and Industry in 2013. She was assigned a seat at the board of directors of Bhartiya Mahila Bank, a bank principally made for women by the Indian government. She serves as a member of the Board of Governors at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore.
Kalpana Saroj’s Expanded Entrepreneurial Umbrella
Kalpana Saroj started KS Film Production and produced her first movie, which was dubbed in English, Telugu, and Hindi. Khairalnji Movie is produced by Deelip Mhaske, Jyoti Reddy, and Mannan Gore under Kalpana Saroj’s banner.
She regularly visits her home village and does charity work to help those in her community. As a Dalit and a woman, her story is all the more remarkable in a country where so few CEOs are from such a background. She finds her inspiration in Babasaheb Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the key architect of the Indian constitution and a Dalit social reformer.
Kalpana Saroj is genuinely a person of substance in all senses. Under her leadership, Kamani Tubes Limited, Kamani Steel Re-Rolling Mills Pvt Ltd, Saikrupa Sugar Factory Pvt Ltd, Kalpana Builders & Developers, Kalpana Saroj & Associates, and KS Creations Film Production have thrived to mega success. The fact that she has more than six successful companies with a net worth of over Rs. 1000 crores under her name are testament to her life, struggle, and success.
It is like the coming of a full circle for a girl from an underprivileged small-town family to topping lists and making limelight on the most prestigious national and global stages.
Kalpana Saroj is armed with a lifetime of experience and an admirable journey. Her journey proves that to be a successful entrepreneur, you don’t necessarily need big degrees, just big dreams and the determination to achieve them. Working on her exceptional principles of honesty above proficiency, strength in adversity, and action rather than oration, Ms. Saroj has made an indelible mark in Indian society and the business world for generations to take inspiration from.
Ramjibhai Kamani started Kamani industries with a vision for what the newly minted nation of India would look like. Kalpana Saroj has taken that vision and values of justice, fair play, and equality to a new high, inspiring everyone who aims to succeed in life despite an underprovided background and societal baggage of discrimination.
For more inspiring stories like this, read our Inspire Section!