A Dalit(untouchable) woman, raised amidst poverty, discrimination and physical abuse, is now a millionaire

kalpana saroj entrepreneur

She was called dirty, ugly, a little packet of poison, the offspring of donkeys. However, these days she is called something else – a millionaire. You could call her India’s real life slumdog millionaire.

The ‘rags to riches’ cliché can be overused, but it goes some way in describing the story of Kalpana Saroj, a real life story of determination, perseverance, bravery, tenacity and indomitable courage of a lone woman fighter who rose from the lowest strata of life to capture the ivory towers.

Born into a low-caste Dalit family, Kalpana Saroj was pulled out of school and married off at the age of 12 to a 22-year-old man. A child bride at 12, Saroj was ceremoniously taken to her husband’s home in one of Mumbai’s myriad slums. Trapped, tormented and tortured by her husband and his family, she returned home in less than a year.

At an age where most girls in the city were tackling books and exams, Saroj was battling judgemental villagers and their hurtful taunts. In desperation, Saroj downed three bottles of poison, but was saved by her aunt. The failed suicide attempt however, turned her life into the success story that it is today.

Realizing that education was the key, at first she decided to remedy her lack of education by getting back to studies which she had left half way in a bid to get a job. However, things didn’t work out. She then moved back to Mumbai with the intention of getting a job either by joining the Police force or government services but failed to make any headway.

Her mother encouraged Kalpana to stay with her uncle in Mumbai and learn stitching. 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. This is when Kalpana first got inclined towards entrepreneurship.

Her advent in the world of business was born out of misfortune. She married again, but in 1989, her second husband passed away leaving behind two children. She was left with a floundering steel cupboard manufacturing business. Saroj worked hard and launched a construction company, made profits, bought sugar and steel mills and determined her own path of prosperity.

Her break in real estate came when a land occupied by a gang came up for sale. It was a land that no one wanted but the owner wanted to sell it. But courageous Kalpana managed to negotiate, despite being threatened by the gang and that was the beginning of her very successful real estate business.

Her biggest challenge came in March 2006 when her firm, ‘Kalpana Saroj and Associates’ took over the ailing Kamani Tubes, a brand leader in non-ferrous tubes and turned it around to a profitable enterprise. Due to issues between the workers, union and management, Kamani Tubes went bankrupt and was facing liquidation. By 1975, it was on a down-slide after the owners abandoned it. In 1988, the Supreme Court had decided to make the workers the owners of the company. Almost a decade later, in March 2006, as per a court directive, Kalpana Saroj and Associates were given charge of the company, its 560 employees and the total debt burden.

Saroj took up the challenge. Her leadership, her organizational skills, her business acumen and firm determination paved way. Gradually, the company has limped back to normalcy with a better production and distribution network. It has paid off the workers and was able to give back the dues of the original owner, Navinbhai Kamani. Now, Kamani Tubes is a growing business, worth more than USD 100 million.

Today, she is a multi-millionaire. At the helm of a successful company, she rubs shoulders with prominent businessmen such as Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani and in 2006 won prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Award for her entrepreneurial spirit. She was recognized for her work with the Padma Shri Award in 2013 for Trade and Industry and was also appointed to the board of directors of Bhartiya Mahila Bank, a bank primarily for women, by the government of India.

Among India’s multimillionaires, Kalpana Saroj has been featured by the BBC, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times among other leading international publications.

kalpana saroj padma shri award winner

Besides running a successful company, she hasn’t forgotten her root. Apart from her keen interest in business, Kalpana Saroj has helped thousands of students by sponsoring libraries, hostels and financial help all by herself. She actively take initiatives for the betterment of the poor, Adivasis, aged people and works against racism and caste discrimination.

Giving up was never an option for her, 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.

Image credit: thehansindia


Kakoli Mahanta

A post graduate in Economics, Kakoli Partha Mahanta worked for corporate finance sector for about 7 years. Mother of a cute 2 year baby girl, Kakoli is currently located in Bangalore, India, flourishing her writing skill.

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