Fifteen years ago, when she was all of 21, Ameera Shah decided to build her father’s pathology laboratory in Mumbai into a chain of labs.
She encountered a great deal of scepticism.
It was a huge challenge for her, being a young woman in the healthcare industry, where experience is highly valued, and also because she did not have a medical background.
“I had people who didn’t take me very seriously initially,” says Ms Shah, now 36. “Most people thought this was a hobby – Indian girl coming to the office and soon she’ll get married, sort of thing.”
Even her father, Sushil, at first found it hard to accept his daughter’s suggestions.
“But I corrected that pretty soon,” she says. “In six months, he knew he had to take it seriously and I earned the respect.”
And she went on to prove herself. The company has grown from one lab to 140 pathology testing labs and 1,000 collection centres, with 6.5 billion Indian rupees (Dh356.8 million) of annual revenue today under her company, Metropolis Healthcare, of which she is the managing director and chief executive. The company employs 3,500 in India. It offers more than 4,500 types of tests, from routine blood screening to complex genetic tests. Along with its 115 labs in India, Metropolis is spread across five other countries, with 15 labs in Sri Lanka, seven in Kenya, while the rest are in Mauritius, Ghana, and Zambia.
The company had a partnership in the UAE, which fell through. While Ms Shah declines to comment on the details of that, Metropolis is looking for opportunities in the country and she says a lot of business comes from the UAE and wider Gulf region, with samples for specialised tests being sent to India.
Ms Shah was last year listed as one of Forbes magazine’s 12 “power businesswomen” in Asia to watch.
The journey began after Ms Shah completed a four-year degree in finance at the University of Texas in Austin. She was eager to return home, to Mumbai, explaining that this was largely driven by “patriotic” sentiments.
“I felt like if all the people who have been a little bit privileged and grown up in families which are educated make their way outside the country, then that leaves a huge brain drain here,” she says.
When she returned to India she noticed that her father’s pathology lab in south Mumbai was doing well and he had built up a solid reputation. His lab was turning over about 70 million rupees in revenue a year.
“He always had this vision of making into a chain of labs but he didn’t have a business background and he had tried it a few times but it had not worked for him because he did not really know how to take it from one to make it a chain.”
She saw a gap in the market for a chain of standardised “path” labs.
“At the time, path labs were very ‘mom and pop’ and there was dirty cotton on the ground, people didn’t wear gloves and you didn’t know if you got accurate results. Living in the US, I had seen a different side of health care, where it was institutionalised and globalised and best-quality practices.”
Ms Shah grew up in a family of doctors, with her grandfather, parents and her sister all practising medicine.
“I was always very clear that I didn’t want to be a doctor because it wasn’t my skill set and interest.”
Father and daughter worked closely together. Dr Shah brought his scientific background to the venture and Ms Shah used her business training to build the basics of the business, such as setting up human resources and information technology systems. They started expanding across India.
“It’s been a very challenging journey because in our industry there was really no model to follow, so it’s not like somebody had done it and we copied the way. Like when we did an acquisition, we had to think of how to figure out what’s the right value to pay.”
Another issue in India is the fact that the industry is “completely unregulated and therefore there are no quality standards in place”.
She says it is common practise in India for samples to go to some path labs in India and the patient will receive a report – but the test had never been conducted.
“Also, there’s not much talent in the industry, whether it’s medical talent or business talent,” Ms Shah says.
“It’s a business which is dealing with life and death. If I give you a wrong report, you may get the wrong surgery and something tragic can happen.”
She explains that over the years she has found ways to manage the challenge of being a woman in the business world of India. “I think along the way you learn how to deal with it and how to set the perceptions right and make them less generalised.”
Ms Shah’s advice to aspiring women entrepreneurs, particularly in patriarchal societies, is to focus on building confidence “and removing all the cobwebs from the brain of what she’s been told by society and her family about her limitations and what she cannot do”.
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