From Untouchable woman to CEO
It’s for real – 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. 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.
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.
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.