Her story is right out of the blockbuster movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. In a society that still treats its daughters much less than its sons, Kalpana Saroj’s story stands out as a triumph of courage and determination. Married at the age of 12, destined to spend the rest of her life in a slum in Mumbai with her husband’s family, Kalpana belonged to the caste of the untouchables - a Dalit.
Life, work ventures
Her husband and his family caused her tremendous physical abuse; unable to bear her burden anymore, the child bride was finally rescued by her father and taken back to their village.
Kalpana had to face the prejudice of the villagers as a bride who returned from her marital home and attempted suicide; at 16, she was sent to Mumbai to live with relatives.
Kalpana started working for a garment factory but she wanted more. Using loans given by the Indian government to the untouchables, she was able to start a successful tailoring business. Not stopping at that, she next started a venture in furniture.
Her break in real estate came when a land occupied by gangs came up for sale – it was a land no one wanted but the owner wanted to sell it. The courageous woman she was, Kalpana managed to negotiate – despite being threatened by the gang – and that was the beginning of her very successful real estate business.
Ever the entrepreneur, without any MBAs from prestigious business school except what life had taught her, armed with nothing but determination to succeed, this woman from the backwaters of India next rescued a business from bankruptcy as it was forced to go into liquidation. The workers of Kamani Tubes, a metal engineering company, were about to be laid off but Kalpana stepped in. Within months, she brought the loss-making venture into profitability, thinning out the debts.
Rags to riches
Today, this former Dalit child bride is worth US $ 112 million – and was the recent recipient of Padma Shri award for Trade and Industry, one of India’s highest honours.
Kalpana’s children beam with pride beside their mother who is actively participating in charity work in her village today. Among the things that broke her heart was watching her sister die of an illness that could easily have been treated.
Kalpana puts in 16 hours a day and can be frequently found doing business rounds. What lessons can we learn from her story of rags to riches – what insights can we obtain from what she has had to endure to touch the sky?
One lesson is that there is no limit to what we can achieve at any age, if we set our hearts and minds to it. Hugh Hefner, the Playboy founder said that age is but a number – provided you are healthy. Harry Bernstein achieved literary success at 93 – having over 40 of his novels written from the age of 24 onwards, rejected over a period of time. Nola Ochs graduated from university at 95, entering the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest college graduate.
Age is indeed but a number – one is never too old or too young to taste success. What matters is a goal worth achieving, a dream worth clinging on to. Entrepreneurship is hard work but the dream must be there to capture your heart.
No cursing darkness
Giving up was never an option for Kalpana. She didn’t throw her hands in the air and complain. She didn’t curse the darkness of poverty and illiterate upbringing. Instead, she chose to light a lamp, a lamp that lit her life and that of others around her. She chose to trust her instincts in making courageous business decisions.
She worked hard – hard work is today anathema to some who only pursue get rich quick schemes. She turned Kamani Tubes around, reducing its debt and increasing its profitability without having a degree in accounting. She used the skills and talent she was born with just a little harder and continues to do so as she watches her empire grow.
Kalpana and thousands of other would-be entrepreneurs like her are disciplined when it comes to managing money. They may be accused of being thrifty at times but they know the value of money – they have experienced the lack of it so intensely that having it does not really change them except perhaps to buy more comforts and security. Kalpana’s story reads like a Bollywood script but it is much more than that. There are hundreds of Kalpanas among Sri Lankan women too, women whose only assets are their talent, their steel determination and their commitment to making a success of whatever their chosen path is. Not only for the sake of their families but also for their own sakes, salute women who make tough choices in choosing their destinies.
(Nayomini Weerasooriya, a senior journalist, writer and a PR professional, can be contacted at email@example.com