Kalpana Saroj heads Kamani Tubes, a company worth more than $100m
An Indian Dalit (formerly untouchable) woman, who once attempted suicide to escape discrimination, poverty and physical abuse, becomes the CEO of a multi-million dollar company. The BBC’s Rajini Vaidyanathan in Mumbai captures Kalpana Saroj’s journey – a symbol of the Dalit struggle to mark their arrival at the top.
Her life reads like the plot of a Bollywood film, with a narrative which has defied so many obstacles, to conclude with a happy ending.
The “rags to riches” cliche can be overused, but it goes some way in describing the story of Kalpana Saroj, a woman who struggled on so many occasions on her way to the top.
Born into a low-caste Dalit family, she was bullied at school, forced into marriage at the age of 12, fought social pressures to leave her husband, before she tried to take her own life.
Today, she is a multi-millionaire. At the helm of a successful company, she rubs shoulders with prominent businessmen and has won awards for her professionalism.
“The first time I came to Mumbai, I did not even know where to go. I was from such a small village. Today my company has two roads named after it in the city,” she says, summing up the extent to which her life has transformed.
India’s caste system is an ancient social hierarchy, which places people into different categories by birth. Those born into the lower castes have historically faced discrimination.
“Some of my friends’ parents would not let me in their homes, and I was not even allowed to participate in some school activities because I was a Dalit,” says the 52-year-old.
“I used to get angry. I felt really nervous because I thought even I am a human being,” she adds.
Even though her father allowed her to get an education, wider family pressures saw Kalpana become a bride at the age of 12.
She moved to Mumbai to be with her husband who was 10 years older, but was shocked to find herself living in a slum.
But that was not the only hardship she had to endure.
“I was treated badly by my husband’s elder brother and his wife. They would pull my hair and beat me, sometimes over little things. I felt broken with all the physical and verbal abuse,” she says.
Leaving a husband is widely frowned upon in Indian culture, but Kalpana was able to escape the violent relationship, thanks to her supportive father.
When he visited her in Mumbai, he was shocked to see his daughter emaciated and wearing torn clothes and took her back home.
Many villagers were suspicious of her return, viewing Kalpana as a failure.
She tried to ignore the judgemental comments thrown at her, focusing instead on getting a job. She learnt tailoring as a way to make money.
But, even with some degree of financial independence, the pressure became too much.
“One day, I decided to end my life. I drank three bottles of insecticide, termite poison,” she says, recalling her lowest moment.
Kalpana was saved after her aunt walked into the room and found her frothing at the mouth and shaking uncontrollably.
The big change
It marked a watershed for her. “I decided to live my life, and do something big, and then die,” she says.
So, at the age of 16, she moved back to Mumbai to stay with an uncle and work as a tailor.
She began by earning less than a dollar a month, but tirelessly learnt how to operate industrial sewing machines, and as a result saw her income rise.
But the money she earned was not enough to pay for her sister’s treatment which could have saved her life, a moment which defined Kalpana’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“I was highly disappointed and realised that money did matter in life, and that I needed to make more.”
She took a government loan to open a furniture business and expand her tailoring work.
She worked 16 hours a day, a routine she has not managed to shake off to this day.
In the following years, she remarried, this time to a fellow furniture businessman, and had two children.
Her reputation led to her being asked to take over the running of a metal engineering company, Kamani Tubes, which was in massive debt.
By restructuring the company, she turned things around.
“I wanted to give justice to the people who were working there. I had to save the company. I could relate to the staff who needed to put food on the table for their family,” she says of her motivations at the time.
Now, Kamani Tubes is a growing business, worth more than $100m.
Kalpana employs hundreds of people, from all backgrounds and castes. She has met prominent businessmen such as Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani, and in 2006 won a prestigious award for her entrepreneurial spirit.
Kalpana regularly visits her home village and does charity work to help those in her community.
As a Dalit and a woman, her story is all the more remarkable in a country where so few CEOs are from such a background.
“If you give your heart and soul to your job and never give up, things can happen for you,” she says.
It is a mantra that has helped Kalpana through the worst of times and still rings true for her.