Titled as the ‘original slumdog millionaire’, Kalpana Saroj is at the helm of a $112 million empire that is growing continually. Born and raised in poverty subjected to abuse, she is a living example for those looking to overcome impossible odds to become one of the most sought-after female entrepreneurs in the country.
From her journey, one can draw a major lesson, and that is ivy league degrees and fancy business education are not what makes one an entrepreneur. Dedication, hard work and grit do. Let’s dive into her story.
Kalpana was born in Vidarbha, a region in Maharashtra, to a constable father living in police quarters assigned to them. She had three sisters and two brothers. Kalpana was among the bright minds and loved going to school. The adults residing at the quarters expressed discomfort when Kalpana played with their children and forbade them playing with her and accepting any food she offered.
The attitude of those parents was hurtful but very unsurprising. The behaviour of the faculty where she studied shocked her as they tried to separate her from sitting with other students and prevented her from participating in any extracurricular activities. However, this came to an end when she was in the seventh standard as she dropped off the school and was married.
Her father, though a policeman, was not very educated. He anticipated in his views and wanted Kalpana to continue her education. But in Dalit community where Kalapana was brought up, child marriage was normal. Her father was powerless against the united front of the extended family and Kalpana was married. Kalpana understood that her life would not be a bed of roses after marriage and was mentally prepared for all that was to come.
She was the mother of twelve kid responsible for all the households including cooking, cleaning and more for a household of about ten people. For the slightest excuse, she was hit, kicked and punched. Her family starved her and heaped emotional abuses. When her father comes to see her, he was horrified as he saw a walking corpse.
Her father brought her back. In her community, girls were considered burdens to be thrown off at marriages. When she was back, not a single eye was realizing what Kalapana has been through. Everyone considered the ‘shame’ she was bringing upon her family. Kalapana, at this point, determined not to be a burden for his family.
She applied fat a women’s constable recruitment camp, nursing school and even the army. But lack of education and small age got her rejected everywhere. However, she was finally picked up for some tailoring skills and started sewing blouses at 10 rupees per piece. Her father suggested her to continue her educations and go back to school.
But the thoughts of humiliation and vitriol coming her way held her back. Every one kept whispering that only if she killed herself would the disrespect and humiliation end. So she obliged. “Living is hard, but dying is easy”. These were her last thoughts as she drank a bottle of poison. Fortunately, Kalpana’s aunt caught her and rushed her to hospital. Doctors informed her parents that her condition was critical and if she didn’t regain consciousness within 24 hours then she could die.
Kalpana says, “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.”
She convinced her parents and moved to Mumbai, where she lived with an uncle and committed to pursuing her tailoring gig full time at scale. Within a few months, her father lost the job and she was left the only earning member of the family. She put down all her savings as deposit and rented a small room and called her family to live with her. The space was very small and money was not enough, but the family was together and this is what mattered to her.
Amidst the shortage of money, her youngest sister fell ill. Kalpana cannot afford her treatment. She kept crying, ‘Didi save me, I don’t want to die’. But she was helpless. Her words keep haunting Kalpana. She realized that a life without money is dishonoured and useless and she has to earn tons of it. She started working sixteen hours a day.
She scraped through various government schemes and applied for a loan under Mahatma Jyotibhai Phule scheme. With the small capital she received, she started a small furniture business where she sold the cheap version of high finish products from Ulasnagar. She continued to work on her tailoring gig too. The circumstances began to improve gradually.
During her experience she learnt everything from the ground up including sourcing raw materials, negotiating, identifying market trends and more. She started a small NGO where knowledge as was aggregated and distributed about various government schemes. She didn’t want a single boy or girl to go through what happened to her.
In two years, she finally paid off her initial loan. While looking for opportunities, she met a man who wanted to sell his litigated land for pennies as he needed money urgently. She begged, borrowed and stole the funds to grab the opportunity and threw herself into the legal torture that was unfolded.
After two years of running in and out of the courts, trying to set her property cleared, she was successful. She wanted to develop the land into something useful but due to lack of resources, she went on to look for a partner. She found one who agreed to invest for a sixty-five per cent profit share. Soon a building came upon the land. She was extremely happy with all that she earned. But the best was yet to come.
Ramjibhai Kamani, a disciple of Nehru and Gandhi, and a pioneering businessperson, came to Kurla after independence and started three companies Kamani Tubes, Kamani Engineering and Kamani Metal. He was a farm worker rights activists and believed in their welfare. After his death in 1987, a dispute broke among his sons.
The Union went to court to demand that the ownership should be transferred to the workers. The Supreme Court passed the ownership from the legal heirs to the Workers Union. But if there are thousands of owners, who will do the actual work? Ego clashes and tussles broke out. Union leaders tried to make quick bucks. People assumed that Kamani industries were at the forefront of a revolution.
The government provided various fund and benefit to the company as the banks poured in with loans, extensions and credits. Kamani industries had huge capital but no expertise. From 1987 to 1997 the company kept dragging itself. Shutting it down would mean the loss of employment and since the employees were the masters, who were supposed to shut it down?
When the company suffered a debt of 116 crores, 140 litigation cases were filed against the company. Out of the three companies under Kamani industries, two had already been liquidated. This was the time when the workers reached Kalpana as the court ordered to look for a new promoter. Her NGO and business acumen had earned her quite a respect and reputation.
When she joined in, she formed a core team of ten each having expertise in their respective fields. They hired some consultants and created a proposal on how to fix the damage. When Kalpana submitted her proposal before the board, they agreed to give her a go if she was willing to sit on the board and took charges of all liabilities. In 2000, she was appointed the president.
For six years from 2000 to 2006, the company has been running in and out of courts. Kalapana realized that the interest and penalty were the main factors for the 116 crore debt. She approached the then finance minister and requested him to forgive the same. The finance ministers, after an extensive talk with the banks, not only forgave the penalty and interest but deducted 25 per cent from the principal amount as well.
With all this work, she was appointed as the chairman of the company. The court transferred the ownership of Kamani tubes to Kalpana. She was given a period of seven years to pay off the loans but she did it in one. She was instructed to provide the workers with due wages within three years which the company did in three months under her leadership. The company gave out five crores and ninety lakhs, instead of the requisite five crores only.
She started replacing all the machinery as it was imperative to focus on restarting the manufacturing and getting the firm fly high again. The union sold the land in Kurla, long before she joined in. So in 2009, she shifted the factory to Wada, where she had bought a plot of seven acres.
She says,” 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 fails proof. What you want- whatever it is- you shall get if you apply yourself wholeheartedly and work towards it with a single-minded vision.