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In conversation with Ms. Kalpana Saroj

November 28, 2018

(Before the interview, Watch Out had the opportunity to meet up with Aayush Gupta, the secretary of E-Cell IIT Roorkee. A brief about the initiative taken by E-Cell is as follows)

The Entrepreneur Lecture Series is a joint endeavour by TIDES Business Incubator and E-Cell IIT Roorkee to motivate students to pursue their dreams, take risks and explore the opportunities the world has to offer via candid talks from the selected lot of seasoned experts pioneering the core qualities of risk-taking, persistence and a never ending passion to reach their ambitions.

The Entrepreneur Series aims at organising talks by various eminent entrepreneurs and distinguished alumni from IITR. The vision behind this series, as stated by the director, is to “stir the minds of the student citizenry of IIT Roorkee and come up with miraculous innovations in varied technical domains. Therefore, in an attempt to upgrade the scope, scalability and innovation of their ideas, I have conceptualised this series to equip the students with the knowledge, industry expertise and experiential inferences of pioneers in the field of entrepreneurship, leadership and other related domains.”

The inaugural speaker of this series was Ms. Kalpana Saroj. Christened the “Original Slumdog Millionaire”, she was born in a destitute locality in Maharashtra and now is the Chairperson of Kamani Tubes in Mumbai, India. Commanding a fortune in excess of 120 millions U.S.D, she is a parable of relentless perseverance overcoming all odds.

Having been appointed as the Board Member of IIM Bangalore recently, she also met with the Director IIT Roorkee Dr. Ajit K. Chaturvedi in the Director’s office. The following are some excerpts from our illuminating interaction with her.


On campus, students get a plethora of opportunities in a variety of fields that they are free to explore. However, this choice often creates problems where students feel disheartened and confused, and quit when their efforts don’t yield results as soon as they hoped they would. How can students learn to be more patient and perseverant in their endeavours?

I have seen this problem prevalent among the youth of the country. But they need to understand that constant hard-work, patience and self belief is the only way to make your dreams come true. Life will always have problems to face and issues to be resolved. Some obstacles require incessant toil over long periods of time to overcome and understand. Giving up is a guaranteed road to failure while putting time into something, with or without quick results, creates chances for success. There will come times where your hopes become bleak and you see nothing but the darkness of failure shroud your life but standing strong and having faith in yourself will lead you towards the right direction.

You have traversed multiple hurdles and problems in your life that we can’t begin to fathom the severity of. Could you tell us more about the struggles you had to face in reaching your current stature?

I was born in Roparkheda (a village in Maharashtra) to an impoverished family of 3 sisters and 2 brothers, of whom I was the eldest. Under the then existing societal norms, I was married off at the tender age of 12.As a result, I was vindicated of my right to get educated and had to drop out of school in the 7th standard. I was recognised as a bright student and this violent uprooting from school was a harrowing experience. I moved to a slum in Mumbai with my in-laws but suffered abuse and neglect there. Eventually, my father became aware of this trauma and rescued me from those inhumane conditions. I was ostracized by the society for my unsuccessful marriage and even attempted suicide but fortunately, I was rescued.

Determined to work and earn a living for myself, I relocated to Mumbai at the age of 16. The wide streets of a metropolitan cement jungle like Mumbai was daunting for a young, inexperienced girl like me. Rambling in a state of complete helplessness my only aim was to secure a government job but due to my lack of a formal education, inexperience and age I couldn’t make it and had to sustain myself by working as a tailor. This was the first time when I started thinking of a business model. Sewing and working with clothes gave me an avenue where I could earn and bring food to my family’s table.

You mentioned the roadblocks that the lack of education created in your life. In Spite of this massive disadvantage, you were able to develop a refined arsenal of business acumen and entrepreneurial skills . What enabled you to keep learning?

तूच आहेस तुझ्या जीवनाचा शिल्पकार

(You are the architect of your life)

Life is full of events and situations which an act as sources of infinite wisdom. Having to find ways out of the multitude of adversities I had to face taught me invaluable lessons on the importance of will power and hard work. I utilised this knowledge in my business dealings and life decisions which eventually lead to good results.

The problems you faced are enough to deter even the most inspired of people in the pursuit of their dreams. However you faced them with your head held high and were awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 2013. What was the journey from earning a bare sustenance a day to earning one of the most prestigious awards that a citizen can be bestowed with?

After sewing blouses as a job, I utilized governmental schemes that benefited the marginalized to take a loan of Rs. 50,000 and start my own business. I used to put in 16-17 hours of work everyday, working through each day only on a cup of tea and a single roti. I had lost my sister to a curable disease because my family couldn’t afford the treatment. This taught me the importance of money and also made me empathetic to people who were undergoing similar ordeals. When I gained relative financial stability, I felt deeply moved by the deplorable conditions of those who were unemployed and suffered due to shortage of funds. I took it upon myself to create an organisation - Sushikshit Berozgar Yuvak Sanghatana, that would cater to the needs of these unemployed people. I brought together collectors, bank managers and officials associated with welfare schemes under an umbrella who educated the youth about these schemes via the channel of this organisation; they were educated on how to solicit as well as how to repay loans. As this organization’s influence increased, I was approached by a group of workers from Kamani Tubes who wanted assistance to prevent the business from a total collapse.The government had transferred the ownership of the company to these workers but due to a lack of managerial experience, they were struggling. Many voices told me that it was suicide to put money in such a failing enterprise After all, many industrialists and big firms had capital but no one was willing to invest. After assuming a leadership role in the company, I brought it out of a debt of Rs. 116 crore as well as over 140 litigations at a fraction of the time predicted. The workers who were on the brink of getting their livelihood stolen were given back their money with the company becoming a booming success. As a symbol of gratitude they entitled me with the tag of “Maa Bhawani”.

The government took cognizance of my efforts and toil by honouring me with a Padma Shri, for Trade and Industry in 2013. I became the first member of my community to reach this pinnacle. It was at that moment when I could feel my shackles break and wanted to spread my wings to fly free above the clouds.

Even after your life was riddled with hardships and problems, you still took definitive steps to improve the condition of the people who are often neglected by society. How do you think society can become more selfless and collectivistic? Also, what are some future plans you have in mind?

Everyone indulging in business activities works on the incentive of profit. This is how businesses have always worked and will always work. However, my approach to business has an added dimension of philanthropy and humanism. I try look out for ways of how I can improve the world around not only for me, but for everyone else as well. I have undertaken some projects with the same philosophy in mind.

One of my initiatives is to build a well equipped aviation school in the country.On observing the issues that my son faced during his training as a pilot, I decided to work towards addressing this problem. India severely lacks in the equipment and technology that realises the training of aviation students forcing them to enter overseas flight schools. This costs heavy expenditure and leads to the draining of our country’s economy. Our vision is to ensure that every student gets quality education in India itself. We are working with the government and various airlines firms to systemize the resources and strategies.I have also been involved in creating shelters(Nandini apartments) for women that are shunned and ostracized by society into a dark corner, with the aim of providing them a means to rebuild their lives. We provide community housing to these suffering women where they live without rent, provisions of food and healthcare and an environment to bring them out of the trauma and helplessness they faced.

In my new capacity as the Board Member of IIM Bangalore, I look forward to facilitate fruitful collaboration between various industries.

Given the intensive nature of your undertakings, how do you unwind after a hard day at work?

When you have to work throughout the day and at times, even through the night, you rarely have time for leisure. I find pleasure in my work and am always on the prowl to get more documents ratified, more meetings concluded etc. I do like to listen to music and when I feel dejected and upset, uplifting melodies remind me to keep moving forward.

When I was in school as a child, my classroom walls bore quotes and aphorisms that catalysed optimism and motivation in me. I still recall them fondly.

On a closing note, Is there any advice you would like to give to the students of IIT Roorkee?

All students of the IIT must realise that they are at the cusp of doing brilliant and impactful things. They should realise that they belong to a progressed era, they have access to the best resources and the society encourages them to learn and do wonders. I faced a time when the society was always pushing us down, parents didn’t want to educate us and poverty wrapped its arm around me tightly. Now, the internet is full of information for anyone to grow and blossom new talents and ideas. If a person who has faced hardships like me can create a positive impact on society, any person with a firm resolve and intention of making a change can do so. What one needs, is the will to change, the will to do something and the guts to walk on the chosen path despite the obstacles.

The only thing that holds us back are our apprehensions of what might go wrong and the fear of failure. This apprehension is what prevents us from putting ourselves wholly into the task at hand. I used to detest nightfall as it meant the day had ended and I couldn’t get more work done.This is the kind of unflinching devotion that culminates in the fulfilment of a dream

This is the kind of fire you need to kindle within yourself.

**The interview was conducted in Hindi. The above is a translated dialogue.