Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw argues that philanthropy too often tries to apply temporary fixes to intractable problems. She follows a different model for giving, which combines a social worker's empathy with a chief executive's mindset. She calls her approach, "compassionate capitalism": using proven business strategies to build a durable foundation for sustainable social development. "When innovation and commerce are used to drive social progress," says Kiran, "the implementation is a lot cheaper, many more people benefit, and the effect is longer lasting."
Kiran graduated from Federation University Australia in 1976, becoming India's first female brewmaster. She worked as a technical consultant at breweries in India and Australia and was later offered the position of head master brewer at a brewery in Scotland. Instead of moving to the UK, she took up a more challenging opportunity—to launch the Indian subsidiary of Biocon Biochemicals Limited, which produced enzymes for food and textile makers around the world.
In 1978, in a makeshift office in a garage in Bangalore, Kiran founded Biocon India, a joint venture in which she had 70 percent ownership. She organized her startup around a purpose: to offer green technologies to industry and establish biotechnology as a sector in India. Within a year, Biocon India was manufacturing and exporting enzymes to the United States and Europe, the first Indian company to do so. It soon grew into India's largest enzymes company.
In the late 1990s, Biocon moved up the value chain to become a biopharmaceutical company that went beyond profit: to help ensure that all people, regardless of their income or social status, have affordable access to high-quality healthcare. Under Kiran's leadership, it has since become India's largest biopharmaceutical company and Asia's largest producer of insulins. "As an entrepreneur from the developing world, I have challenged the Western pharmaceutical model of creating monopolistic markets that deliver high margins at low volumes," she says. "I have always believed that blockbuster drugs are not about a billion dollars, but a billion patients."
The second Indian to sign the Giving Pledge, Kiran is motivated by personal experience: the illnesses of her husband, mother, and best friend led to a focus on cancer research and treatment. The state-of-the-art, Mazumdar-Shaw Cancer Center in Bangalore, one of the largest hospitals of its kind in India, was founded on an affordable healthcare model that allows low-income patients to access treatment that is subsidized by those who can pay the full cost of their therapy.
Kiran is particularly concerned about the financial burden that debilitating diseases like cancer impose on patients in poor countries. She is conscious of the fact that two thirds of the world's population have little or no access to quality healthcare. And when they do, the financial burden often pushes them into poverty.
Through the Biocon Foundation, Kiran has adopted a large number of Primary Health Centres (PHCs) in rural India and worked to transform them into telemedicine- and technology-enabled centres with links to doctors who are based in major cities. The hope is that with major government support, the model can be scaled—and that it will leapfrog the present PHC system, which has struggled to consistently provide quality care.
Kiran has also used her philanthropy to create the 1,400-bed Mazumdar-Shaw Cancer Centre in partnership with Dr. Devi Shetty, whose commitment to compassionate capitalism is legendary. She also supports scientists and research-driven clinicians at the Mazumdar-Shaw Centre for Translational Research and the Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Taken together, her philanthropic efforts are driven by compassionate capitalism's ethos, which is to generate positive returns for all stakeholders, not just investors.
"A profitable organization has a responsibility to give back to the community," says Kiran. "The success of an organization and the community it operates in is always interconnected."
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