The best gift that any parent can give their child is the gift of self-confidence. The belief that there is nothing you can’t do; that you can hit every curveball that life throws at you out of the park. It is a gift that my parents gave me and for that I will always be grateful. My father, in particular, always used to tell me, “Listen, don’t think that just because you are a girl, you should only do certain things and you can’t do other things. I want you to have a career and do something sensible with your life.” He always challenged me to defy the odds. So, all through my life I have been doing that. And I am not done yet.
I had a very charmed childhood. I grew up in Bangalore. My father, who was India’s first brewmaster was with United Breweries. I went to Bishop Cotton Girls School. It was a wonderful school with outstanding teachers who taught us with a lot of illustrations and analogies. We didn’t have to spew everything from the textbooks. There were projects and experiments galore. So you went to school looking forward to the next class wondering what’s in store. My English teacher Anne Warrier was the one who made me realise that your creative strength makes you stand apart. From enacting characters by Shakespeare and The Jungle Book to writing and reciting poems based on abstract paint patterns, she did everything to bring out our creativity. You realise that when learning is through association, you never really forget anything. So curiosity-driven learning was a very important part of my education in school and that actually carried itself through college. I did my BSc in Zoology from Central College, Bangalore. We would go to the library and access information to make up for the deficiency of the lecturers. It made you independent and wanting to imbibe more knowledge.
My father was the most honest, astute man that I’ve ever met and I hope I have a lot of that in me. He always used to tell me to be forthright and speak my mind, that’s why I am also so bloody outspoken. He would always tell me, “You always have to believe in your principles and take the route that is fair, even if it is tougher.” That is one thing that has stayed in my mind. I wanted to get into medical college. I tried to get into St John’s Medical College at Vellore and JJM Medical College in Davangere. I couldn’t. So I asked my dad, “Why don’t you get me into the medical college in Davangere? All you have to do is pay Rs.10,000. I’ve got all the details.” But he told me, “My dear girl, I will do anything but buy a seat for you, because money is not about buying your way into life. Money is something which you must learn the value of.” I remember I cried and threw a fit saying, “You are refusing to do it because I am a girl. I bet if it were for my brother Ravi, you would have paid that Rs.10,000.” My dad said, “I will not do it for any of my children. You really think you will respect yourself if you go and buy a seat in Davangere Medical College? I tell you, you will regret it for the rest of your life. So, don’t make me do that and I won’t do it anyway.” So that was that.
After my graduation, I wanted to do a PhD in applied science. Meanwhile, most of my classmates would only talk about getting married and settle down. It only earned my father’s disdain. He would tell me, “I hope you are not thinking like them because we are not.” He was the one who encouraged me to pursue brewing. I told him, “Are you nuts? I am a girl in India and people will look down upon me if I take up brewing.” He asked me to stop bothering about what people will think. “Why are you constantly trying to pander to convention? Brewing is a fascinating science and has a lot of opportunities to evolve. You can do so much,” he said.
After hearing my dad constantly talk about brewing, I decided to give it a try. It sounded like a wild unconventional thing to do. So, I went to Australia to pursue a course in brewing at Ballarat Clarendon College. It was the first time I was leaving the country. There were 12 of us from different parts of the world: Philippines, Kenya, Australia, Tanzania and two more students from India. I was the only girl in the class and the only one with no experience either. The rest came with some brewing experience.
I didn’t let that intimidate me. I had a wonderful time in Australia. I made a lot of friends. I used to stay in the hostel and my friends would fight over who would take me to their home for the weekend. I discovered myself in Australia. It really was a transformative time in my life. I was the only girl, so I had to fend for myself and network. This instilled a sort of self-assurance in me. When I graduated in ‘75, I was really proud of the fact that I topped the class despite having no prior experience.
So, when I came to India, I came back very confident. I thought I would get a job very easily. But India was not ready for a woman brewer. I realised that it was going to be tough. Dad, of course, was very sympathetic, after all he was the one who pushed me into brewing. He had taken on a brewing project to commission a brewery in Kolkata, so he decided to get me involved even as my job search continued. I learned a hell of a lot while commissioning that brewery. It was a year-long project. And yet, I still couldn’t get a job at the brewery, despite commissioning it! According to the owners, they couldn’t take the risk of hiring a woman brewer in an all-male company. And it wasn’t just them. Almost all my prospective employers felt that the labour unions would not be comfortable dealing with me. They felt it would be too risky to entrust me with that responsibility. After trying really hard to get a job here, I finally gave up and applied for a job overseas.
That’s when Les Auchincloss came looking for me. He was an Irish entrepreneur, whose company Biocon Biochemicals was sourcing raw materials from India. He was looking for potential partners to set up a base in India. He had heard about me from one of my Australian connections, Colin Dowzer. He was the brewmaster at one of the breweries that I worked at there. Colin, who had quit his job to set up Biocon in Australia, was impressed with my work and suggested my name to Auchincloss. He had sent me a telegram saying he is coming to meet me in Baroda where I was helping Dad wind up a company that he took over from a relative. He called me the morning he landed in Baroda. Later that day, I was to leave for Delhi to intern at Barmalt, a malting company in Gurgaon, for a few weeks and then leave for Scotland where I was offered a brewing job. I told him, “I wish you had come just two months ago because I might have gladly accepted this great opportunity.”When he asked if we could continue the conversation in Delhi, since he was headed there as well, I agreed. I was disillusioned. I couldn’t even get a job as a professional brewer, how would I run a business here. So, my plan was to introduce him to Puran Chand who owned Barmalt and was a very successful entrepreneur. He had the funds to invest and I thought he would make a great partner. In my mind, it was the perfect arrangement.
But Auchincloss was persistent. He did meet Puran Chand, yet he told me, “I think you are the one who really has the understanding and the spunk to do something very unusual. So why don’t you do it?” I told him that I didn’t have business experience; I was broke and on top of that, a woman, in this country. But he said, “Why are you undermining yourself? I see so much potential in you that you cannot see.” He was the one who believed in me. He asked me to give it a shot and if I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, he promised to find me a brewing job anywhere in the world.
With that kind of assurance, I decided to give it a go. I went to Ireland instead of Scotland. I spent the next six months learning all about enzymes and the technology. In fact, while I was in Australia, I had developed some technologies to extract papain, an enzyme from papaya and isinglass, a form of gelatin extracted from fish. So, we developed some of these technologies, with Auchincloss’ scientists, to bring back to India. I also visited a lot of their subsidiaries in Europe to understand how to market these enzymes. It was kind of a crash course in business management. It was very exciting for me.
This is part one of a two-part series. You can read part two here.