Nonprofit Business Advisor, Strategies to Survive and Grow in Tough Times

Leading with a Social Conscience

By Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw Summer 2013

As entrepreneurs embark on a venture, they face a moral choice—should they lead the way or follow in the path laid out by another? Being a follower has many advantages. Building on a tested and proven idea reduces risk and can lead to success much quicker. Leading, on the other hand, entails hunting for new horizons and is fraught with the danger of failure.


So which road ought an entrepreneur to take? Follow the well-trodden road or lead the way in an unexplored direction? Having pioneered the biotechnology revolution in India, I have learned that leading is infinitely more rewarding —to the entrepreneur–leader, the organization, and society.


As an entrepreneur, I have always found challenges inviting. Challenge, I believe, contains the seed of opportunity, which in turn sprouts innovation and blossoms into progress. When one is driven by the spirit of leadership, such challenges become milestones on the path to success.


In this article, I take you through some of the challenges that India is battling and the solutions that we are working on. I am sure this will find resonance with many other countries across the globe. The fundamental ethos of leadership remains the same. Every nation faces its unique challenges and it is for the leadership of that country to find solutions that address those challenges.


India confronts a host of daunting crises such as poverty, lack of universal health care, crumbling infrastructure, a deficient education system, decrepit waste management, and an economic slowdown. However, each of these issues contains an enormous opportunity for value creation and growth. Any challenge we face at the individual and the societal level can be overcome with innovation, human ingenuity, and above all effective leadership.


I believe real leaders are those who, where others see challenges, have the vision to spot opportunities. They are committed to creating value from these opportunities, not just for their own organizations, but also for society at large. With commitment to humanity and a passion to make a difference, true leadership comes with a social conscience.


Transforming Society Through Affordable Innovation


Leaders who have made the difference and steered their organizations to new horizons have rarely been conformists. Spurred by the courage of conviction, they have the zeal to confront all odds. They are the entrepreneurial risk takers and innovators. It is this spirit that enables them to stand apart.


Indian business has several examples of entrepreneurial leaders who have profitably delivered social good through innovation. Enterprise is a wonderful canvas to give free rein to one’s innovative and creative instincts. Entrepreneurs can develop business models that add value and generate benefits for the organization and society through collaboration and cooperation. The most satisfying way to achieve this is to deliver products and services that benefit society.


When I started Biocon, I was driven by the spirit to create a business that would leverage science for the benefit of society through affordable innovation. That has always been Biocon’s reason for being. We harnessed India’s low-cost talent and innovation base and forged our way through the market through strategic research and marketing partnerships that helped us reach affordable therapies to the masses. Our innovation-led business strategy has enabled us to emerge leaders in several segments, leveraging our intellectual property for market differentiation. Thus, we built Biocon based on a strategy of differentiation and challenging the status quo. The growth of Biocon from an enzyme manufacturer to an insulin producer to a leader in differentiated biopharmaceuticals is based on its paradigm of driving innovation and affordability.


We carved out our own path, keeping in view India’s health-care challenges and realizing that, without affordability, medicines would not reach patients. Our products developed on this philosophy—from statins and insulin to antibody drugs to novel molecules—have changed the lives of hundreds of thousands. Take, for example, Biocon’s leadership in insulin. We developed insulin because we realized that India has a huge population suffering from diabetes and the insulin supplied by multinationals came with a heavy price tag. Biocon’s insulin products have helped lower costs drastically; diabetics get their medication for about a quarter of what they paid a decade ago.


Today, 34 years down the road, Biocon is a global biopharmaceutical powerhouse. But to me, that is merely symbolic of our leadership. My vision is for our research programs, such as oral insulin or antibodies for cancer and autoimmune disorders to transform the approach to killer diseases. Affordable blockbuster drugs with the potential to change the lives of millions of patients around the world will truly bear witness to our leadership. As a first-generation entrepreneur, I am intensely conscious of the fact that I must do my bit for society, creating opportunities for others to grow. Making a difference in health care and education has always been my calling. My efforts are geared toward changing lives for the better by ensuring affordability and access through Biocon’s biotherapies.


Today, our corporate culture is anchored in dedication to excellence and a strong social conscience. Our activities in the social space are reinforced by the Biocon Foundation. Hosting a range of programs that cater to health care, education, and health insurance in a sustainable manner, the foundation provides community-specific solutions with the goal of enabling self-sufficiency and independence. From oral cancer screening to running a micro health insurance scheme, the Biocon Foundation focuses on integrated healthcare programs spanning preventive, primary, secondary, and tertiary health care. 


Additionally, the Mazumdar-Shaw Cancer Center is another philanthropic initiative we have undertaken in partnership with renowned heart surgeon Dr. Devi Shetty. Our joint vision is to deliver affordable world-class cancer care services to patients irrespective of socioeconomic status and class. We have created a sustainable model that leverages advanced technologies, state-of-the-art diagnostic tools, and best-in-class talent to transform cancer care challenges into opportunities. The affordable health care model allows the poor to access treatment, at costs subsidized by those who can afford to pay for their health care.


India Needs the Leader in All of Us


We can contribute to society only if we channel the innate leadership instinct that all of us possess into a passion to make a difference in our own lives as well the lives of others. This will not only result in self-empowerment but also help society prosper through all-round economic growth. Take, for example, the women of SEWA (the Self Employed Women’s Association) who have led by example. Not only have they been able to lift themselves out of poverty and dependence, but they have also helped their families and the community they live in.


Leadership comes from within. Any individual with knowledge, vision, and courage of conviction can aspire to become a leader. Today, as India faces enormous challenges, we require the leader in all of us to wake up and act. As indiscipline, corruption, neglect, and cynical apathy hamper individual and national development, all of us need to take a stance and lead by example.


India has already made a start in the right direction with seemingly ordinary but daring people, driven by the passion to make a difference, taking extraordinary steps in changing things for the better. And although there are many more like them emerging, we can’t have enough of such individuals.


I have been inspired by several leaders at different stages of my entrepreneurial journey. Impressed as I am with pioneering efforts, differentiation, excellence, and values, I have been privileged to have known some individuals who have dedicated these strengths to providing their organizations and the community with strong stewardship. A leader’s inspirational power focuses energies toward a common goal by helping others see the larger purpose and higher values. True leaders help create value and transform society; with uplifting vision they use challenges as keys to open doors to success.


My own leadership icons include Ratan Tata and, of course, J.R.D. Tata, for building a respected, diversified organization with a stamp of excellence; Narayana Murthy, for not merely pioneering the software sector in India, but establishing a gold-standard brand based on a high personal code of ethics and governance; and Sunil Mittal for his drive to change the scale of India’s telecommunications industry—empowering the common man and connecting rural India to the mainstream through mobile telephony. In politics, I admire Mahatma Gandhi for his deep sense of purpose and his unique approach to addressing challenges. In social enterprise, I admire Muhammad Yunus for his pioneering and missionary Grameen bank revolution based on microfinance: and Dr. Devi Shetty for building a world-leading health care model on the platform of affordability.


Addressing the Health Care Challenge Through Leadership


The challenges India confronts can be overcome through effective leadership. Take the issue of ensuring affordable and accessible health care, a mission that is close to my heart. India’s health care challenge begins with the urgent need to create a national health-care system that provides high-quality health care for its population by ensuring access and affordability. The challenge is formidable. India has an enormous disease burden. It is at the epicenter of both communicable and noncommunicable diseases from diabetes and cancer to heart disease, TB, and HIV. Moreover, there exists a huge deficit in resources across the value chain of health delivery.


Although the challenges seem insurmountable, a leader can recognize that there are several enabling factors that can help India effectively address its health care needs. India is a world leader in generic drugs and vaccine production: it has a large network of medical and nursing colleges creating human capital for the sector, and a countrywide infrastructure of hospitals, nursing homes, and clinics delivering both basic and advanced health care.


However, these resources have burgeoned in an ad hoc manner and high-quality health care is tied to affluence, not need. For though we have efficiency and scale in vaccine production, many sections of our society are deprived of immunization owing to ineffective administration. Our health care sector has a shortfall in leadership and efficiency, and as a result, we have been unable to meet the healthcare needs of the poor and middle classes. It will take leadership to integrate resources through a comprehensive vision to ensure the right to health care for everyone.


One way forward is through public–private-partnerships (PPP) with lucrative benefits that can incentivize health care for private players and generate widespread benefits for rural and financially challenged communities. The government must take on the role of an insurance provider, reimbursing the private sector for providing universal health care. Micro health insurance schemes such as the Aarogyasri Health Care Trust in Andhra Pradesh and Yeshaswini in Karnataka have successfully demonstrated this model.


Such a PPP model can work well only if it is transparent. This can be achieved using advanced information technology (IT) systems such as smart card-based platforms to capture and analyze patient information and the treatment provided. This can be audited through an independent watchdog. At the same time, telemedicine can be a powerful way to connect primary and secondary care centers with a multispecialty tertiary care hospital. We are using mobile handsets at the Biocon Foundation for our oral cancer screening program, where suspected lesions are photographed and the images sent to doctors for preliminary diagnosis. Such innovative solutions can help bridge the health care gap in India.


Following the exemplary health care model established by the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the Indian government is moving in the right direction to provide free essential medicines to all. To achieve this, however, we will need committed leadership to find and implement innovative solutions to address India’s health care challenge.


Viewing Challenges Differently to Make a Difference


Today, in a highly competitive globalized landscape, the world is recognizing leaders who move beyond mere management and control and focus on inspiring people to succeed. As a nation, India has been creating its share of leaders who are driving economic prosperity. However, such financial growth will continue to yield benefits only for a few unless it involves social growth. With the emergence of leaders who envision inclusive development, India can generate value for millions.


Most challenges can be addressed through concerted efforts and smart strategies. What is required is leadership that views challenges innovatively and adds value to society by making a difference. Take the waste-management challenge in India’s software and biotech capital, Bangalore. It is packed with opportunities that can unleash enormous enterprise value such as generating biofuels and recycling metals, plastics, and paper through effective waste segregation. This can generate wealth all the way down to the ragpicker. A leader with vision would be able to see this and realize that vision. Not only would the waste-management issue be resolved, but it would financially empower even those at the end of the value chain.


True leaders can come from any walk of life—they are visionary individuals with purpose, perseverance, and a plan for change. They know that leadership is not about control but about being able to inspire people with values and vision. They know that leadership is all about making a difference to society.


Ms. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is chairman and managing director of India’s leading biotechnology enterprise, Biocon Limited. She has been named among TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, and recently, Economic Times placed her among India Inc.’s top 10 most powerful women CEOs for the year 2012. Her pioneering efforts in biotechnology have drawn global recognition both for Indian industry and Biocon.

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