‘I was considered high risk by anyone who wanted to fund me’

Pankaj Mishra January 25, 2019

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is a multi-faceted person. She is the prime mover at drugs company Biocon, an active citizen on civic issues, a social media maven, and a businessperson who is quick to cheer and support fellow women at the workplace. In this Outliers conversation from December 2017, Mazumdar-Shaw talks about her learnings as a woman entrepreneur and a pharmaceuticals innovator, her approach to risk-taking, her persona on Twitter, her exasperation at beliefs-based arguments, and how she keeps herself energised.

The transcript of the conversation, lightly edited, below holds a timeless set of lessons for entrepreneurs and provokes thoughts on the times we live in. Before you read on, a quick nod to Kanika Berry, who has been transcribing our Outliers conversations for us.

Pankaj: So, welcome to Outliers. This is a Podcast with Outliers, like I keep saying. And I am very excited to sit with an Outlier… I consider this person the most visible Outlier I have ever met and you will discover why we consider her an Outlier. I am sitting down with Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, founder of Biocon and someone very, very visible on social platforms, in public forums… In fact, when I started my career in 2000, I was in Bangalore and I used to hear and read a lot that Kiran would talk on different topics. It took few years for me to realise that she was the person behind Biocon, you know I was a rookie reporter, that’s how I first discovered Kiran. So, Kiran, welcome to this podcast.

Kiran: Thank you.

Pankaj: One of the things I have always noticed in the way you share your opinions on Twitter and elsewhere. There’s a lot of critique that happens at times when you share your opinion. How do you manage criticism? How do you manage critics overall in everything that you do? What are some of the lessons in your experience and from your career as an entrepreneur?

Kiran: So, let me put it this way, I have always, you know, had to face criticism right from the time that I started my company because there was a lot of scepticism about women entrepreneurs, about the fact that I was a young startup trying to set up a very strange business in a sector that nobody understood. I was considered high risk by anyone who wanted to even consider financing me or fund me. So, I have actually borne the brunt of a lot of scepticism and criticism and throughout my entrepreneurial journey, I have borne a lot of criticism, you know; even in recent times, I had a very fierce criticism about my business model. A lot of retail shareholders felt that I was pursuing a wrong business strategy, so much so, that I had a very fierce criticism saying that, you know, ‘Maybe you should hand over the reins to another person in your company to manage business strategy.’

All that has been vindicated when we got our first biosimilar approval by USFDA (US Food and Drug Administration) as the first Indian company, and now, of course, all my sceptics have become my greatest supporters. So, I know that if you are true to what you are saying if you are true to what you believe in, you know, expect criticism because people don’t always agree with what you believe in. But at the end of the day, you must focus on your beliefs and I think you will be vindicated in some way. So, for me, that’s been the way, I have sort of coped with criticism throughout my life’s journey and, therefore, I am not afraid to basically express my views because I believe that I have very carefully considered what I want to say about any subject. And, yes, I accept that everybody won’t agree with me, I accept that my views will be very different but I do sort of give considered opinions based on what I believe in and at any point in time, if I think that I am wrong in what I believe in, I also don’t mind apologising and retracting what I’ve said. So I think, if you are honest about your intentions, if you are honest about your beliefs, then you will be able to take criticism.

Pankaj: Well said. But you know, some critiques can really get nasty. It can dent your confidence if you are starting up or even if you are a seasoned entrepreneur, sometimes it can get personal… how do you manage such instances?

Kiran: I will give you an example. I mean very recently, even less than a year ago, people told me that I am wasting shareholders’ money, investing in a very, very expensive and risky program. I was told, why can’t I be like the rest of the pharma companies and take, you know, sort of better, calculated risks, lower risks? Why are you taking such big risks? Why are you investing so much money and you are really not doing a great job? And some of them are very, very fierce critics, even being very personal about my gender, it was that bad and you can imagine how angry I was. And I would try to counter it on social media. This I am talking about social media but I have also had this in person, you know when investor meetings have told me that, I am being too much of a risk taker, they would like me to slightly subdue my risk-taking in terms of the business. But I think, even on social media I kept sort of fighting back, saying, ‘Look, I am an entrepreneur who bets big. I am an entrepreneur who wants to take risks and I personally believe I am taking a judgmental risk which I am confident of taking and overcoming.’ And I have also sort of tried to reason with people, ‘Look, failure is inherent to our businesses and I said, ‘For those of who don’t want to take these kinds of risks which you are perceiving, please don’t invest in our company.’

I have gone so far as to say that, on social media. I said, ‘Those of you who don’t believe in my business strategy, those of you who don’t believe in taking the kind of risks along with me, I suggest this company’s investment opportunities are not for you. I want people who believe in making a difference, I want people who want to risk big and dream big with me because I know we can make a big impact.’ You know, in recent times I have been vindicated; I have been called the Iron Lady of the pharmaceutical industry. Now, suddenly, all my sort of critics have suddenly started saying that you know, ‘I have vindicated everyone who did not believe in me’ and I can tell you many of those people who have said that were the ones who are my fiercest critics.

Pankaj: What is the source of this conviction in everything that you do because it looks like that’s what drives you?

Kiran: When I got into this business, as you know, as an entrepreneur I always believed that you must differentiate yourself as an entrepreneur. You must do something which is out of the ordinary, don’t just be a clone of the others. If you want to stand out, you have to take a risk and a differentiated risk that others are not taking and, to me, that is what an entrepreneurial journey should be all about. So, if you want to really make a big impact then you will have to take a judgmental risk which you think you can achieve but which nobody else is taking and to me that judgmental risk for me was to start pursuing biologics as a business strategy, biosimilars as a business strategy and whilst all Indian companies were only willing to invest in developing biosimilars for India and at best for a few India-like markets, I took a big bet.

I said, ‘No, if we want to make a big impact, we have to be a global player’ and we invested big time in developing biosimilars for global markets, especially for the US and Europe which I felt were going to be the biggest beneficiaries of biosimilars because of providing affordable access to these very, very unaffordable drugs, even in those markets. It takes deep pockets, it takes a lot of courage to do that but I think I believed in my scientists, I believed a lot in our scientific capabilities and the fact that I wanted to prove that being a company based in India, we could make global impact in this particular, very, very difficult sector and I can tell you of course, the critics were not just on social media, I had a lot of multinational companies pooh-poohing Indian companies saying, ‘Indian companies will never be able to deliver quality drugs’ in terms of biopharmaceuticals because it’s so complex, it’s so difficult and so I had to even bear those kinds of criticisms.

And, today, I think we have built an image of credibility which I think is very important for India. So, this approval that we got recently from USFDA for our biosimilar trastuzumab application was not just for Biocon, it was for India because for the first time, we could actually hold our heads up high and say that, ‘Indian scientists are capable of, you know, delivering world-class complex drugs to global markets.’ That’s what I wanted to basically prove and I think that’s what I believed in. I think I really believed that our scientists were second to none and I really give a lot of that credit not to myself but to my scientists. The only credit I give myself is that I believed in them.

Pankaj: Big risks also mean big failures, colossal failures.

Kiran: Absolutely.

Pankaj: So have you had those and how have you coped with them? What did you do with them?

Kiran: So, obviously, as I mentioned earlier on, you are absolutely right, big risks do have big, inherent failures also associated with them and I think, you know, whilst I built my this business over the decades, we have had big failures as well but I think you learn to kind of look at those failures, some of them are pretty final failures, you can’t really sort of do much with that and I have had a couple of those kinds of failures as well but some of them are failures which you learn from and you overcome them and you move on.

And, I think that’s what my philosophy in life is, that there are failures that you must come to terms with and there are failures that you must learn and move on with and I very often have found in my case, a number of my failures have been stepping stones to success. So whilst I have failed in the earlier phases of that program, by overcoming those failures I have actually succeeded. Let’s take for example, during my enzyme days, we certainly had a number of failures but those failures were overcome and then we finally got into very successful enzyme technologies which I was able to basically you know, divest at huge valuation. Similarly, even in our biologics programs, I think, for instance, my oral insulin program which has been a very long program, I have had a number of hiccups along the way, I am now hoping that the next phase will not be a failure and you know, I think that’s the final shot I am going to give.

But, you know, these are the kind of things that I have done over time. There have been some programs in our R&D pipeline which I have had to basically put an end to. I have also had some failures in terms of making judgment calls which were not correct, for instance, we acquired a German company thinking that that would be a very good inroad into the European market, that it would help us to leapfrog into some of our marketing aspirations but then very soon I found that I had made the wrong judgment call because that was not ideally suited for what we were trying to do and before I got into a sort of a deeper investment into that company, I decided to divest it back into the promoters. So I have made such calls, it’s not that it’s been a smooth success story all along – in fact, far from that. I have had many, many failures along the way.

Pankaj: As a leader or as a person, how do you know something is failing or when you decide, ‘Ok, let’s move on’ because if you are an owner of an idea sometimes you can get too, you know, closely associated or passionate about it? How can you suddenly move on…

Kiran: No, it’s a very good question. I think I often say to people, ‘Look, failure is something that you must not personally attribute to a personal failure.’ If you can do that, then you can be very unemotional about accepting failure and moving on. If you take too much of ownership of that program then you are likely to keep being in denial and therefore I say how do you come to that unemotional point? Because I think that unemotional point comes when you try a few times and it doesn’t succeed and then finally you basically analyse that failure, saying, ‘Why am I failing?’ I think that analyses is very important and that you must do very unemotionally.

Pankaj: Difficult.

Kiran: If you can do that unemotionally, you will move on and you will accept that failure, like I did in the case of that German company that I talked about. That was a personal judgment call that I made, I said, ‘No, it’s got to work, it’s got to work.’ We tried to make it work for a year or two but then there came a point when I said, ‘Look, let’s understand why is this not working’ and at that point, we made a very unemotional call, we said, ‘No, this is why it’s not working, it doesn’t fit in with what we are trying to do in the first place’ and that’s when we were able to then divest it back to the promoters.

Secondly, even when it came to some of our R&D programs… yes, you know scientists get very attached to that idea, you know, people are pushing that idea a lot, I get very attached to that idea and then you move along that path when it starts costing you a lot, I think that becomes then an important trigger for you to look at it unemotionally. How much more am I willing to invest to overcome this failure? And how much do I believe that this failure can be overcome? So that’s the point in time when you basically look at that, analyse that situation and say, ‘Okay, I am willing to give it a final shot at this kind of investment level and if it doesn’t work, I am going to unplug.’

That’s the kind of decisions I take, that yes I am willing to give it a good shot, I am willing to invest in something over and over again but then there does come a point in time when I feel, ‘Okay, we have invested so much so far, how much more am I willing to invest till I pull the plug?’ or if that investment shows me that I don’t need to pull the plug, I will move on. So you need to do that analyses.

Pankaj: It’s amazing, Kiran, you make this point because some of the most successful people I have met and have had conversations with and passionate entrepreneurs, they make this point about being detached and passionate at the same time when it comes to analysing. So, it’s fascinating how you are passionate about the overall mission but when it comes to taking these calls, you become detached, right?

Kiran: Yes I mean, I become detached in a very clinical way, in the sense that, like I said to you, oral insulin. I am very passionate about that program because I have seen so many positive aspects of that project, you know, so much data I have seen which is so compelling but then there comes a point where you say, ‘Ok, you know, we have seen very compelling data and we have seen some data where you need to really get some more proof of concept.’ How much more am I willing to invest where I actually say, ‘Okay, this is the point where I either pull the plug or invest more’, that’s the point I am at.

Pankaj: That’s the tipping point… Just to shift the gears, you are also someone who, from the outside at least, you know, seems to maintain so many personas. You seem to have so many passions in life and relate to work as well. Sometimes you come across as an ambassador for this city called Bangalore, another instance you are this business icon who is talking about India as a destination and then sometimes as a critic of a certain policy… of course, your interest in social and, you know, other areas are very visible. How do you follow so many passions at the same time and my follow up question is going to be about multitasking but let’s first understand you as a person and understand how and why you maintain these different passions and how do you pull it off?

Kiran: So, I think I am a person who has varied interests but I also know how to prioritise my time. I do believe that there are certain interests, you know, when you are in a position of influence and when you do have interests and I think every one of these interests is a vested interest because ultimately it’s compelling self-interest in many ways. I want this country to be a better country for all, I want my city to be a good city for people who live in this city, I want India to portray a certain image and, of course, I do realise that there are a lot of inequities in society, in the country that we live in, in the world we live in… and I feel, as a voice of influence, I need to do something so that I can actually speak up and I feel that if I can make a difference, if I can bring about change, well, that would be something that I could possibly do for the benefit of others. I do prioritise my time, although I am very active on social media, let me confess right now that the only reason I am so active on social media is because of Bangalore traffic. You know, you spend so much time in the car that I can afford to spend half an hour tweeting about some subject and then you will suddenly find me going silent because now I have gone across that traffic jam and now I have got other things to do. So you know, I spend a lot of that kind of time trying to be active on social media but then the moment I am at work, I am off social media. So that’s my confession.

Having said that, there are issues that I like to sort of be vocal about and you know, therefore, you tend to see me sort of talk about certain subjects. Some of them can be very controversial in the eyes of the public, like, for instance, I think the Padmavati issue has been a very polarising issue and I have spoken up saying that, ‘This is not the right thing and not the right way for the country to get polarised on.’ I have also been critical about the importance of GST but the fact that I found it very complex and I realised that the government is tweaking it but you know I have criticised it in the past and I am glad that the government is tweaking it. But I am just saying that generally speaking, I speak up on either policy matters or I speak up on issues which I feel are unnecessarily polarising our society or our country.

Pankaj: Just final one or two questions, Kiran. The other related question to this is, in a society where everything is so polarised from opinions to everything, how do you maintain balance because it looks like that the age of balance sucks completely. How do you live in this polarized environment?

Kiran: You know it’s very difficult to answer that question because I think people don’t rely on data or evidence which is what I like to rely on. I think that the only balance that you can strike is if you can reason with data, if you reason with evidence, you can reason with clear not anecdotal but substantiated data. That’s not happening today. It’s opinionated discussions that we have, it’s not evidence-based data, I mean discussions. It’s very difficult to do that. I have to basically try to remain balanced and not become too angry about dissenting opinions because I realise that social media has suddenly given a voice to everyone and everyone has an opinion, everyone has a view of the world and I think you have to respect everyone’s view of the world but at the same time I only respect those views which I feel are evidence-based views.

It’s not that they necessarily have to agree with my viewpoint but I would like to have a discussion, specially you have seen me debate on biotechnology itself where people have dissenting views on biotechnology and it is natural because you know, the fear of the unknown, you don’t understand science so you debate in a different way. I actually get very concerned about scientific debates where they don’t base their debates on science and to me that is dangerous, when you don’t base your debates on science but it’s based on opinions or hearsay, it’s very dangerous and I think that’s the kind of society, it becomes very difficult to have a balanced debate and I quickly have to withdraw from such debates where people have absolutely no scientific bases but they keep on debating, ‘Oh, do you know this happened, do you know that happened?!’ And I am saying, ‘Give me the data, give me the evidence, then I can debate with you but if you are just going to give me some anecdotal, fictitious kind of data then I can’t have a sensible discussion or a debate.’

I just feel that today social media has become both a boon and a bane. It’s a boon because you hear so many different viewpoints and sometimes I am able to discuss and debate with people and somehow give them some data or evidence which they suddenly then agree with me on. But more often than not, I think it’s become like a vicious ecosystem or a vicious space where you just can’t make sense of anything. That is dangerous because, you know, you can immediately sort of veer thinking or a thought process into a different direction which can become very dangerous.

Pankaj: Very well said, Kiran. Final question. I mean looking at your energy levels, infectious, of course, and your passion, I don’t know, this is quite anti-thesis question I have. Do you ever get fatigued or depressed, both as an entrepreneur and as a person? If you do, how do you deal with fatigue or how do you deal with depression, if at all? Or what do you advise people who get fatigued after doing something over a long period of time…

Kiran: So, to answer your question, I don’t think I have felt fatigued and so far I have not felt depressed but there are ups and downs. I have my highs and lows. ups and downs. I mean, there are days when I feel very, very energised and there are days when I don’t feel so energised. So, I would say, that’s the difference or that’s the way to answer your question.

About my energy levels, I guess that’s the way to really be honest about answering your question. I feel very energised and inspired when I see certain things happening. For instance, last Saturday I was judging a life-tech innovations forum where we were awarding prizes to the best startups and I was very energised because I saw the kind of startups that are coming up in the life-tech area and I said, ‘Wow, this is really, really energising and inspiring to see that, look at the kind of innovative thought processes in our own country.’ There were wonderful companies with great ideas and a lot of proof of concepts and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really, really inspiring.’ So that really energised me a lot.

You know, there could be days where things can go wrong and you feel low energy but I think every day comes with its energy points and there are days when I feel very energised, there are days when I don’t feel so energised but I think life is all about that.

Pankaj: Well said. Final, final question. If anyone wants to become an entrepreneur and is listening to this podcast, what would you say, one reason for them to become an entrepreneur and maybe one reason why they should not try entrepreneurship?

Kiran: Yes, so the first thing is, every entrepreneur must be very, very passionate about what they are doing. You know you have to be interested in what you are trying to pursue. Yesterday, I went for the inauguration of the Padukone-Dravid Centre of Sports Excellence and the young entrepreneur Vivek Rao who started this enterprise, he is so passionate about sports that I am sure that he’ll go a long way. You got to believe, you have got to enjoy what you are doing. If you are just doing it for the sake of starting a company or if you are starting a company just for the sake of exiting that company, I am not so sure that you are a true entrepreneur. I think a true entrepreneur has to enjoy and be very passionate about why they are starting that journey and more importantly you got to endure that journey for some distance and you got to enjoy that distance and it’s going to be full of challenges.

So you got to have that spirit of challenge and really that deep sense of purpose as to why you are starting that business. I really would tell every entrepreneur, whatever that idea, you really have some compelling self-interest to pursue that idea. The young entrepreneurs I saw in that startup competition, every one of them was so passionate about that idea that I really, really got inspired.

Pankaj: Thank you, Kiran. I mean, it’s really exciting talking to you and Godspeed with everything you do.

Kiran: Thank you so much.

Pankaj: Take care.

(Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over eight years.)


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