Dalit child bride to $112 million CEO: The wonder story of Kalpana Saroj
Kalpana Saroj is described as the 'original slumdog millionaire', a compliment as backhanded as it is degrading. Born in poverty and subjected to inhuman abuse, she overcame impossible odds to become one of the most sought after entrepreneurs in the country. Today she is at the helm of a $112 million empire that is growing rapidly. How she did that is as heart breaking as it is faith affirming. The only lesson you need to understand from her journey, she insists, is that ivy league degrees and fancy MBAs are not what make an entrepreneur. Grit, perseverance and a superhuman ability to have faith in yourself does. Her story, in her words:
I was born in Vidarbha. My father was a constable and we used to live in the police quarters assigned to us. I had three sisters and two brothers. I was a bright student and loved school. In the quarters where we stayed, I and the other children would play with abandon. It is the adults who posed the problem. They expressed displeasure if I ever came over, scolded their children for playing with me and forbade them from visiting my home or accept any food I offered.
This attitude, though hurtful, was unsurprising. It is the behaviour of the faculty at school that shocked me. They tried to make me sit apart from other students, constantly prevented me from participating in extracurricular activities and undermined any dreams I had for myself. It didn’t matter anyway as I was pulled out of school in class seven and married off.
My father was not a very educated man, but courtesy his job in the law enforcement, he was emancipated in his views and wanted me to complete my education. But in the Dalit community where I grew up, child marriage was the norm. My father’s refusal was drowned out by the clamour and clangour of the extended family- people who placed little to no worth in the life of a little girl. My father was powerless against their united front. I was powerless.
The kind of society where I grew up, it was a given that life post marriage would not be a bed of roses. I was mentally prepared for all the slavery that was expected of me. But even I couldn’t have foreseen the hell that was to come next.
I was a scrawny kid of twelve, responsible for all the cooking, cleaning, laundry etc. for a household of about ten people. But that wasn’t enough. They were a sadistic lot and I was the easiest scapegoat around. They would look for the slightest excuse- too much salt in food, house not scrubbed clean enough and so on- to hit me, brutally kicking, punching and thrashing. They starved me and heaped emotional and physical abuses on me. When my father came to see me six months later, he was horrified. He said he saw a walking corpse, not his daughter.
Walk of shame
In my community, and most poverty stricken societies across the nation, girls are burdens to be cast off at marriage, never to be thought of again. When my father brought me back home, not a single eyebrow was raised at what I had been made to go through. What caused the hysterics was the ‘shame’ I was bringing upon my family, community and society at large by daring to return home a married girl.
I was determined not to be a burden on my father. I applied at a local women’s constable recruitment camp, nursing school and even the military. But either my age or lack of education got me rejected. Forlorn, I picked up some tailoring skills and started sewing blouses at rupees ten apiece.
But the levels of hate and taunts kept rising. My father gently suggested I go back to school, but I could not fathom putting up with the humiliation and vitriol coming my way every time I tried to leave home. People kept whispering that only if I killed myself would the dishonour that I had wrought upon my family be expunged. So I obliged.
A second chance
Living is hard, but dying is easy. These were my last thoughts as I downed a bottle of poison. My aunt caught me in the act and rushed me to the local hospital. I was in a critical condition and doctors informed my parents that if I didn’t regain consciousness within twenty four hours then all hope was lost.
I don’t know how it is I didn’t die, given the quantity of poison I had had. But when I opened my eyes in the hospital room I was not the same person anymore. Gone was the naïve helpless girl the world had deemed too worthless to exist. I felt strong, recharged and empowered. I had been given a second chance at life and wasn’t going to waste it on self-pity for one more second.
A new life
I convinced my parents to let me move to Mumbai, where I stayed with an uncle and committed to my tailoring gig full time. A little while later, due to bureaucratic shuffles, my father lost his job. I was the eldest daughter and only earning member of the family. I put down my savings as deposit and rented a small room at forty rupees a month. My siblings and parents joined me here. The space was cramped and money was tight, but we were together and that’s what mattered.
The tragedy that made me an entrepreneur
As I mentioned, money was scarce. Amidst this, my youngest sister fell ill. We could not afford her treatment. We scrounged everywhere, but to no avail. She kept crying, “Didi save me. I don’t want to die.” But I could not help her. Her words are seared in my memory. That’s when I realized that life without money is useless and I was going to earn lots of it. I started working sixteen hours a day, a habit I still maintain.
I went through various government schemes and applied for a loan (Mahatma Jyotibhai Phule scheme). With that small seed fund, I started a small furniture business where I sold cheap versions of high end furniture from Ulasnagar. I did not give up my tailoring gig either. Our circumstances gradually began to improve.
I learnt everything about being an entrepreneur from the ground up through this business- sourcing raw materials, the art of negotiating, identifying market trends and, above all, holding my own among a sea of crooks trying to take advantage of me.
I also started a small NGO where we aggregated and distributed knowledge about the various government loans and schemes available to people like me. I did not want a single child, boy or girl, go through what had happened to me. I wanted to let them know that they could do wonderful things with their life if only they cared to find out how.
It took me two years to pay off my initial loan. Meanwhile I was on the lookout for other business opportunities and an interesting offer came my way. The proprietor of a litigation locked land need cash urgently. He offered to sell me his property for a pittance because the land was practically worthless to him. I ‘begged, borrowed and stole’ the funds to buy it and then threw myself into the ensuing legal torture that unfolded.
The next two years I was in and out of the courts, trying to get my property cleared up. After that was successful I wanted to get the land developed, but had no resources for the same. So I took on a partner who agreed to invest if his share was sixty five per cent of the profit. Soon a building came up on that land. With my thriving furniture and real estate business, I felt life had come a full circle. But the best was yet to come.
The strange case of Kamani Tubes
Ramjibhai Kamani was a disciple of both Nehru and Gandhi, a pioneering entrepreneur in a newly independent India. After independence he came to Kurla and opened three companies- Kamani Tubes, Kamani Engineering and Kamani Metal. His ideas were firmly rooted in worker rights and their welfare. He had big visions for the country’s economic progress and wanted to be a key player in the nation’s development.
All went well for him. But in 1987, not long after his death, dispute broke out among his sons. The Union at the time went to court to demand that the ownership be transferred to the workers since the owners were acting against the best interests of the company. At that time such changes were sweeping across countries like France, Germany and Japan. In India Kamani became the first company where the Supreme Court passed the ownership from the legal heirs to the Workers Union. But if there are going to be three thousand owners, who is going to do the actual work?
Soon tussles and the inevitable ego clashes broke out. The union leaders had no vested interest in the company, they were just out to make a quick buck. Since this was the first time the rights of the workers had been, supposedly, upheld people assumed that Kamani industries was at the forefront of a revolution.
Banks poured in with loans, extensions and credits. The government provided them with various funds and benefits. They had huge capital and no expertise with which to utilise it. From 1987 to 1997 the company kept limping along. Shutting it down was not an option. Since the servants were the masters, who was supposed to do the shutting down? Once the investors realized what was actually going on, they came down heavily. The Electricity and water supply was cut. Once IDBI surveyed the situation and realized that the workers had become defaulters, the court mandated that a new promoter be brought in.
140 litigation cases had been filed against the company. A debt of 116 crores had been incurred. Two unions were battling it out for supremacy. Of the three Kamani firms, two had already gone into liquidation. The third seemed set to go down the same way. That is when the workers came to me, entreating me to save their company and, thus, their livelihood. My flourishing NGO and my business acumen had earned me a decent reputation among certain circles. My knowledge was nil, but the thought of 566 starving families gave me pause. I have nothing to lose, I thought.
In my first order of business I formed a core team of ten, each an expert in their respective fields. Then we hired some consultants and created a proposal on how to go about fixing the damage. When I took my proposal to the board (which comprised of several IDBI and bank representatives), they said they would give me the go ahead if I agreed to sit on the board and took charge of all liabilities. I agreed. They appointed me president. This was in 2000.
From 2000 to 2006, we were just running in and out of courts. I realized that penalty taxes and interest were the main contributing factors of the 116 crore amount. I approached the then finance minister and pleaded with him to forgive the penalty and interest. “If the company goes into liquidation, then no one will benefit,” I told him. “This way at least the lenders can get their money back.”
He held extensive talk with the banks. I feel proud to report what happened next. Not only were the penalty and interest amounts forgiven, they deducted 25 per cent from the principle amount as well. Now that the debt had been reduced to less than half the original sum, life got much easier.
In 2006 I was appointed chairman of the company. The court transferred ownership of Kamani tubes to me. We were told to pay off the bank loans within seven years. We did it within one. We were instructed to clear the workers back wages within three years. We did it within three months. We gave out five crores and ninety lakhs, instead of the requisite five crores only.
While we were paying off debts and clearing liability, it was imperative to focus on restarting manufacturing and getting the firm back on its feet. We started by replacing all the machinery which either had been stolen or fallen to disrepair. The union had also sold the land in Kurla, on which the factory operated, long before I came on board. In 2009 I shifted the factory to Wada, where I had bought a plot of seven acres.
Ramji Bhai Kamani had started Kamani industries with a vision for what the newly minted nation of India would look like and the radical role companies like his would play in the nation’s growth. I share those dreams and will take this company forward in the way he envisioned it- on principles of justice, fair play and equality.
I am in the process of acquiring the other two branches of the Kamani firm that had gone into liquidation- soon I will have reunited the empire that once was.
Hard work is not overrated. It is fail proof. What you want- whatever it is- you shall get if you apply yourself wholeheartedly and work towards it with a single minded vision.