Rising Above Discrimination

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Stand-up India scheme this April, he mentioned, in particular, the Dalit Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) and its founding chairman and industrialist, Milind Kamble. To jog your memory, the Stand up scheme is an effort by the Central government to encourage and support entrepreneurship among those from scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities and women, by facilitating bank loans for setting up a greenfield enterprise. “Dalits have nothing to lose,” he says, adding, “And everything to gain. Others have scaled the Everest. Where else will they go except come down? The dalits’ journey up the big mountain has just commenced!”

You might think Kamble’s optimism springs only from Stand up India, but you would be wrong. The Chairman and Managing Director of Pune-based Fortune Construction Company has always looked at the brighter side of things -- even when he was discriminated against since childhood.

As a student in school, Kamble was never encouraged by his teachers to aim big, and was often ignored when it came to career guidance. By non-dalits around him, he was considered incompetent, nonmeritorious, reservation consumer, and so on. “Although my father was a government school teacher and the family was relatively well-off, I was more certainly looked down upon,” he remembers. He made these stumbling blocks into stepping stones, however. “What kept me going at such times was the desire to succeed. The more I would be sidelined socially, the more I wanted to prove myself,” he says. With time, Kamble began developing an insatiable drive to succeed, to prove all the doubters and naysayers
wrong, and lead a better life than them. “I would dream of riding a bike, and revving it up as I whizzed through the streets,” he remembers. Just to prove a point, he refused to take up a government job on reservation quota and, instead, decided to be an entrepreneur.

“I dreamed of launching my own construction company, even though I had no idea about the kind of market it was, I had no capital, and no experience either,” laughs Kamble. To tick at least one prerequisite off the list, he worked in construction companies for a while to gain experience. The turning point camewhen he overheard his manager refusing a contract for making the boundary wall for Pune’s well-known Ferguson Engineering College. “My eyes lit up. I quit the company, bagged the wall-raising contract, borrowed money from friends, and the journey began,” says Kamble, wistfully. Today Kamble, a civil engineer by qualification, heads a Rs 100-plus crore company, and is helping innumerable dalits with the help of DCCI. The industry body’s members’ operations vary from petty trading to manufacturing and offshore drilling. In 2012, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) gave clearance to setting up a DICCI SME Fund, which is aimed at providing dalit entrepreneurs with capital and managerial skills. There is a lot more than what can be done to help the equality-in-industry cause, Kamble feels. “The biggest need today is access to the market. Look how supplier diversity has helped the Blacks in the US to march ahead!” he says, citing his own experience of the boundary wall contract; because he had the contract, money followed. “Suppose I have supply orders from Indian Railways for 50,000 plastic spoons a day. My own family members, relatives, friends and even banks will be willing to fund me because I have supply orders. But, what if I had funds, plant and machinery, but no market?” he questions?

This article first appeared in the Indian edition of Entrepreneur magazine (June 2016 Issue).