A wood-panelled office in the executive suite of a 20-acre campus in Bangalore’s Electronics City is a reviewer’s delight. This is the personal workspace of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairman and managing director of biopharma company Biocon Ltd. Unlike others, her office is packed with memorabilia, which showcase her several avatars.

First, Mazumdar-Shaw as business achiever; there are photographs of her with political leaders and dignitaries such as US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Second, as industry pioneer; there are framed certificates of her honorary doctorate degrees in science, for recognizing her contribution to biotechnology, from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, and from her alma mater, University of Ballarat, Australia, where she first qualified as a master brewer.

Personal touch: A red fabric-bound book with a compilation of photographs and press stories on Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, rests on a shelf behind her desk. Photo: Anirudh Chowdhury/Mint

Long-standing personal relationships are clearly important to Mazumdar-Shaw; she has kept letters and greeting cards from legendary scientist and Nobel Prize winner James Watson, whom she says she “knows very well". Family photographs, including those of her late father, are prominently placed both behind the desk and under the glass on the desk. She has also preserved a childhood drawing from her nephew, who wrote, “If I found a pot of gold I would give it to my aunt for her company to make new medicines for very bad diseases".

Her office serves as a gallery for her art collection. Photo: Anirudh Chowdhury/Mint

Mazumdar-Shaw says she designed the office herself, with comfort as the key criteria. “Because I spend so much time here, I feel I should enjoy my workplace, and I tend to make it as homely as possible." The widespread presence of personal artefacts certainly lends warmth and a “living-room" feel to the space.

Forward-thinking builder

Photo: Anirudh Chowdhury/Mint

First, on managing the inherent tension between risk and opportunity, associated with any sort of innovation. How can one ensure that experimental investments pay off, without jeopardizing the company? Mazumdar-Shaw professes that “more than being a risk-taker, I manage risk very well, I take calculated risks, I don’t make wild bets" but equally, “I think ahead, I’m futuristic, I have a lot of hope and confidence".

Memory central: Photographs of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw with various dignitaries. Photo: Anirudh Chowdhury/Mint

This calibrated approach to risk and opportunity is evident in Mazumdar-Shaw’s decision to invest in a 20-acre campus as early as 1983. I was surprised to learn how quickly Mazumdar-Shaw’s scaled her office space—starting out in a garage in 1978, she moved into a rented, two-bedroom home in 1980, after which she directly expanded to a 20-acre campus in 1983. “I needed space. I said I will not be in my garage for the rest of my life. I knew I needed manufacturing, I didn’t want 20 acres, but this came as a distress sale," she recalls. It is a classic example of an optimistic, yet measured, investment. Since then, the company has expanded manufacturing operations, which now include a larger, 90-acre campus in Bangalore.

A framed certificate. Photo: Anirudh Chowdhury/Mint

The next transformational moment entailed “leveraging all that we’ve learnt in enzymes and applying it to pharmaceuticals", she describes, by which she was “able to enter the pharmaceutical market in a differentiated way". Subsequent market success allowed her to both broaden and deepen the company’s research capabilities and pursue more ambitious projects.

Adaptability appears to be at the heart of this innovation model, which entails building on one’s strengths, whilst constantly looking for opportunities to transform oneself and add new competencies—in effect, being simultaneously rooted and restless.

A note from her nephew. Photo: Anirudh Chowdhury/Mint

Innovation is currently a much-contested subject in corporate India. Mazumdar-Shaw has publicly argued that Biocon is “undervalued", and that the company’s innovation capabilities are not fully appreciated. Biocon’s consolidated revenue has nearly quadrupled since its initial public offering in 2004, but its market capitalization has not yet doubled in the same period: The company clearly still has many critics to convince.

In its own way, Mazumdar-Shaw’s physical space captures her outlook towards business innovation: balance risk, extract opportunities and harness one’s strengths, at all times.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.

Write to Aparna at businessoflife@livemint.com

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