Inspiring Stories
A collection of personal Interviews with celebrated leaders, entrepreneurs, corporate honchos or any success stories.


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Inspiring Story of Mrs Kalpana Saroj: The Slumdog Millionaire Who Became a Corporate Legend

Mrs. Kalpana Saroj, the Chief Executive Officer of Kamani Tubes, is often hailed as the original "Slumdog Millionaire" for her extraordinary journey from abject poverty to becoming a successful business magnate. Her life has been a roller-coaster, marked by an abusive marriage and a subsequent remarkable turnaround of a company on the brink of liquidation.

Her story is a testament to sheer hard work, self-belief, and the courage to defy societal norms. Recognized with India’s highest civilian award, the Padma Shri, in 2012, Mrs. Saroj also serves on the board of directors of Bhartiya Mahila Bank and the Board of Governors of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIM-B). Here is an insightful interview for "YOU CEO 2", authored by Dr. Nitin Parab, highlighting her incredible journey and leadership.

A Challenging Beginning:

Mrs. Saroj's life is a profound testament to the power of resilience and determination. Born into a society with rigid traditions, she was denied an education because of social pressures that dictated her life's trajectory. Following the norms, she was married off at a young age without much say in the matter. This early marriage turned out to be far from a happy union. She faced abuse and humiliation from her in-laws, which left deep emotional scars.

Her father, a man of strong moral principles, could not bear to see his daughter suffer and brought her back home. He encouraged her to restart her life and even wanted her to resume her education. However, the trauma she had endured made it difficult for her to focus on her studies.

The psychological impact of the abusive marriage weighed heavily on her, and she could not escape the judgmental gaze of society and her close relatives, who saw her as a girl who had abandoned her marital home.

Battling Societal Norms:

Leaving her in-laws' house was just the beginning of Mrs. Saroj's struggles. She faced relentless societal judgment and criticism, a common plight in a society that often stigmatizes women who defy traditional roles. She narrates how the initial days were extremely challenging.

"Our society has an inherent flaw - for all its virtues, the Indian society is awfully judgmental and critical", she recalls. This constant scrutiny and deprecatory remarks about her and her family pushed her to the edge. Desperate and overwhelmed, she attempted suicide by consuming poison, feeling crushed by the immense pressure to conform to societal norms.

Finding Strength in Introspection:

During her recovery from the suicide attempt, Mrs. Saroj had ample time to reflect on her life. She realized a crucial truth: people are rarely sympathetic when one is in trouble, regardless of whether the issues stem from others or oneself. She asked herself, "Why should I care about what they think or say?" This epiphany led her to a bold decision – to build her own life from scratch.

She rejoined school to complete her education and began learning stitching and sewing on the side. This was during a time when the common Indian was not very fashion-conscious, and the market for clothes was simple and limited. Finding jobs that matched her new skills was challenging, and this only added to her determination to succeed.

A New Beginning in Mumbai:

Seeking better opportunities, Mrs. Saroj moved to Mumbai to live with her uncle in a slum. This move was a significant cultural shock for her. She had been accustomed to living in decent police quarters, and adjusting to the unclean, communal living conditions of the Mumbai slums took considerable effort.

Her father, understanding that the slum atmosphere was not suitable for a single woman, requested a friend to take her in. This family friend not only provided her with a place to stay but also helped her secure a job at a hosiery plant in Lower Parel. This marked the beginning of a new chapter in her life.

Family Struggles and New Responsibilities:

Around the same time, her father lost his job and succumbed to alcoholism, further complicating their family situation. The loss of his job meant losing their house, which was tied to his employment benefits. In a bid to stabilize the family’s situation, Mrs. Saroj moved her entire family to Mumbai. She rented a small flat in Kalyan for Rs. forty per month. Despite these hardships, the family managed to find some semblance of contentment in their new life.

However, tragedy struck when one of Mrs. Saroj’s sisters fell ill and eventually passed away. Holding her sister as she cried out for help was a pivotal moment for Mrs. Saroj. She realized the dire consequences of their financial struggles and the urgent need to secure a better future for her family.

Entrepreneurial Beginnings:

Motivated by the need to improve her family's financial situation, Mrs. Saroj began looking for ways to make more money. She discovered a government scheme that provided loans to educated but unemployed individuals to start their own businesses.

Seizing this opportunity, she started a furniture business in Ulhasnagar and opened a boutique at home. Her entrepreneurial spirit did not stop there; she also founded a sanghatna, an organization that helped others connect with job and business opportunities. This marked the beginning of her journey as an entrepreneur and social worker.

Expanding Her Influence:

As time went on, Mrs. Saroj’s sanghatna expanded its reach. By the mid to late 80s, the economy was unstable, and jobs were scarce. Recognizing this, the sanghatna began connecting unemployed youth with business owners and bankers, providing them with opportunities to build their lives and careers.

Her efforts went beyond mere employment connections; she started assisting people with social, personal, legal, and financial matters. In her neighborhood, she became affectionately known as "Jagat Tai" (Universal Sister). "I attribute my success to those who I helped, because they blessed me in return and prayed for my success", she reflects, acknowledging the goodwill she built during these days.

The Revival of Kamani Tubes:



One of Mrs. Saroj’s most significant achievements was the revival of Kamani Tubes. Around the turn of the century, Kamani Tubes, a company that manufactured copper and copper alloy products, was in turmoil. The workers were struggling to keep their jobs, and the company had been served a liquidation notice in 2001.

Initially run by a cooperative of workers due to mismanagement and non-payment of dues, the company faced severe challenges. The loyal workers of Kamani Tubes approached Mrs. Saroj for help, believing in her ability to turn things around.

Despite having no prior experience in the industry, Mrs. Saroj decided to take on the challenge. Her motivation was driven by empathy for the suffering workers, reminiscent of the loss of her sister due to a lack of resources. With her own businesses running successfully, she was determined to help the workers. She assembled a diverse team, including an engineer, marketer, and finance expert, who were willing to invest in the company based on her word.

Multifaceted Leadership:

Taking on the revival of Kamani Tubes required Mrs. Saroj to wear many hats. She needed to be a lawyer, accountant, and CEO all rolled into one. Despite her lack of technical knowledge, she relied on her keen ability to judge people's character to select the right individuals for crucial roles. This knack for understanding people became a valuable asset in her leadership.

Negotiating a Loan Waiver:

Amidst the day-to-day operations, court hearings, and negotiations, Mrs. Saroj studied the company's debt and realized that the burden was more due to interest and penalties than the principal loan amount. She approached the central finance minister and successfully negotiated an interest waiver.

The banks agreed to waive off the interest and 25% of the principal amount, provided Kamani Tubes repaid the remaining amount within a year. This crucial deal allowed the company to resume full operations in 2009, and by 2011, Kamani Tubes had cleared all its debt and showed a profit of Rs. 4 crores.

Inspirations and Leadership:

Throughout her journey, Mrs. Saroj drew inspiration from leaders like Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She admired Dr. Ambedkar for his empathy and efforts to empower the oppressed.

When Dr. Ambedkar's residence in London was up for auction, she successfully campaigned to preserve it as a piece of history, involving Prime Minister Modi and convincing the central and state governments to pool Rs. 40 crores for its purchase.

Empowering Women:

Mrs. Saroj believes that today’s women should be confident and seize opportunities rather than wait for them. She emphasizes the importance of self-belief and bravery in overcoming obstacles and building one’s destiny.

She points out that numerous avenues, such as government schemes, bank loans, and financers, are now available for women to explore. The biggest obstacle, she notes, is fear. Women must raise their self-esteem, believe in themselves, and be prepared to work hard for their goals.

A Legacy of Goodwill:

A devoted Buddhist, Mrs. Saroj firmly believes in the adage that when you put good work into the world, good things come back to you. She has been recognized for her social work and contributions to Buddhism, receiving awards in Thailand and blessings from the Dalai Lama. Her life story is a powerful reminder that with determination, empathy, and a commitment to helping others, one can overcome even the most daunting challenges.

Summary

Mrs. Saroj’s journey from a troubled past to becoming a successful entrepreneur and social worker is a remarkable narrative of resilience, leadership, and compassion. Her life serves as an inspiring example that no matter the circumstances, it is possible to rebuild and achieve greatness.

Get your hands on a copy of YOU CEO 2 to delve deeper into these essential concepts!Grab your copy here: YOU CEO 2: Success Lessons From Leading CEOs

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Any facts, figures or references stated here are made by the author & don't reflect the endorsement of iU at all times unless otherwise drafted by official staff at iU. This article was first published here on 14th June 2024.

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