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posted by Nishtha Gupta on May 23, 2013 at 01:09 pm

Chanda Zaveri’s extraordinary story would have been just another dream dashed had she stepped out of her Kankurgachhi home in a trousseau back in 1984 rather than sneak out to a life of challenges.This Calcutta girl who fled marriage at 17 is back home three decades later as a millionaire American entrepreneur with a master’s in molecular biology and a Nobel laureate as mentor on her CV.

So determined was Chanda, now 49, not to end up like “most Marwari girls of my age” that she chose to trust a tourist couple whom she had met on Park Street instead of family members who thought marriage was best for her.

A teenaged Chanda soon landed in the US with the American couple’s support, worked as a maid, impressed her employer enough to get a study sponsorship and then walked into a lab at Caltech one day to tell two-time Nobel winner Linus Pauling that she would work under him! In town this winter, like she is every year, Chanda narrates to Metro her believe-it-or-not journey from Calcutta to California and how a penniless girl founded the skincare products company Activor Corp (now Actiogen) and devised a formula that is also used in one of Calcutta-based Emami’s bestselling creams.


I come from a conservative joint Marwari family living in Kankurgachhi. I did my schooling at Balika Shiksha Sadan on Vivekananda Road and I was very young when I completed school, only 14. Then I went to City College, where I majored in biology. Marwaris then wanted their girls to get married soon and not go to college. But I was very influenced by the culture of education in Bengal; so I wanted to study.

My parents arranged my wedding and I ran away! I had no money, just a pair of diamond earrings. I sold it, got myself tickets on British Airways and landed in Boston.

I used to frequent the American Library on Park Street and hang around at YMCA. One day, an American woman fell unconscious on the road from heat stroke and I helped take her to the doctor. We became good friends. So two years later in 1984, when my parents tried to get me married off, I called Karen and David who were back in Boston by then. In those days, there was no email or fax but just a noisy telephone line. I called David’s office and he, after 10 minutes of struggling to figure out who I was, agreed to send me a sponsor letter.

When I went to the American consulate for my visa, the visa officer looked at me and said: “You look so young, you cannot go the US.” I was upset and told him: “Do you think America is heaven? That anybody who goes there will never come back?” He looked at me and said: “Okay, I am giving you a five-year multiple entry visa, I was just kidding!”

Landing penniless

I remember crying all the way to Boston. I was happy that I had got my freedom but I was also so attached to Calcutta. The airport had taken away all my Indian money, so I didn’t have a penny to even make a phone call. But my friends David and Karen turned up to receive me. In Indian clothes!

Thus began my journey. I didn’t have a work visa, so I looked up the newspaper and found an old lady looking for a help. The very day after I joined her, she passed away. I called her son living in Hawaii who asked me to call the mortuary. I wondered what a mortuary was! I had never heard of that word! I was scared to death.

Coming from a well-off Marwari family, you have your servants doing everything and I had never worked. But to go to school, I had to do it. After a few days, I found another lady, Mrs Leslie, 98 years old, who took me in as her help. One day, she asked me to make lamb chops for lunch! I am a vegetarian, I had never even had an egg in my life and here she was asking me to make lamb chops, that too “medium”. I didn’t even know what that meant! And I burnt the entire thing. When she realised I didn’t know how to cook, she asked me to look up the yellow pages for a restaurant. I didn’t know what yellow pages meant! It was one culture shock after another, every day. But she started enjoying teaching me their way of life. She was lonesome, without a child and I became her daughter who she started raising instead of me helping her. She gave me $30,000 one day and said: “I want you to go to Harvard.”

Soon after I had completed the two units that I needed to pursue my masters in the US, David introduced me to his father-in-law, who adopted me as his daughter and brought me to California. My American parents once came and stayed with my biological parents for six weeks. They explained to them that America doesn’t mean MTV or Saturday nights and that I had gone there to study. They accepted and it was no longer a big deal.

I joined the California Institute of Technology, where I did my research in biochemistry under Linus Pauling, who was a visiting professor there. That’s how I learnt how to make peptide. (Pauling won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1954 and for peace in 1962, the only person to win the Nobel twice without sharing the prize with anyone.)

Cleaning petri dishes

I worked for four years with Pauling till he died in 1994. It’s a funny story how I met him. He was 90 years old then, sitting in the laboratory with a cap on, when I went up to him and said: “Sir, I have a 4.0 GPA with straight ‘A’s. What does it take for a student to work in your lab?”

He looked up and said: “Well, one has to have dark skin, dark hair and marry me!” So I asked him: “When?” He started laughing. He told me that he didn’t have much work there but needed someone to clean the petri dishes. So I told him: “I will clean the petri dishes. I would just be happy to be around you.”

I would go in the evenings after the students had left and clean the petri dishes and write down what I could see. When he found me keenly observing and writing, he told me: “I want you to be learning about peptides because I am not going to be in this world for too long.” He really gave me hands-on lessons on how to make peptides and a lot of formulations we did together. If you ask me about my goal, when I was young, it was to win the Nobel! But when I saw elderly people, their wounds and bed sores, how they don’t heal, I thought I could try and do something to heal wounds.

The first peptide that I made is the B2 Actigen, which improves collagen in the skin. While studying and dealing with radioactive particles, I got very sick. I was 22, my skin got dragged out and I was looking very bad. So I thought, “What if I can create that collagen and put it in a cream.” That got a huge reaction and it started selling.

When at Caltech, we had done some work on rust inhibitor and I had helped with the patent that the university got. My professor gave me $70,000 and since I was the inventor, they gave me a green card. I had enough money to start my own company, which I called Activor and I was the first one to start using peptide in cosmetics. Emami’s Fair & Handsome has my peptide in it too. I have independently formulated skin lightening, anti-ageing and sunscreen products for Estee Lauder and Revlon.

Eyeing $100 million

Now my company is called Actiogen, based in Los Angeles. We create scientific peptide-based skincare products on anti-ageing, acne, cleansers, toners, day and night creams, sunscreens and stretch-mark removers. They are functional cosmetics, which aren’t just feel-good and smell-good. We sell online and through info-commercials. In fact, I have just got the FDA approval for an acne patch that we are launching soon. We are hoping for a $100 million turnover with this new product. I also want to bring these acne patches to India.

There are things you do for survival but I am on a path. Like, today, we find DNA and gene sequencing. My goal is to one day sequence all the proteins so we would know exactly where one gets sick because of a protein disorder at a very basic level.

I love Calcutta, keep coming back every year and I built my own house in Salt Lake. I am happy to see more Marwari girls pursuing higher studies, but the priority of finding a good groom still remains. Having gone through that and having worked as a maid, I hope for a day in India when people, irrespective of their status and gender, will treat each other as equal. I think I had a destiny that I asked for. I believe in the law of attraction. If you want something and you don’t have ifs or buts, you will get it. No matter what.

Source: The Telegraph, January 26 2013

58769 Views | 67 Likes    Career Dream Work Destiny Luck

posted by Dagny Sol on April 25, 2013 at 01:34 pm

Ravi hitched up his backpack and left.

He had come to visit them ten days ago. They lived in a village fifty kilometers away from Nagpur.

Dawn was just breaking in the east. The sky was flushed with promise. For no reason at all, Ravi felt braced. Today is the first day of the rest of my life, he murmured to himself. He walked faster, taller. He felt one with the dawn.

Once he reached the main road, he sat down on the curve of an ancient neem tree which served as a bus- stop.

It was early summer and the tree had shed its foliage. Its nearly naked branches sported masses of delicate white flowers. The nests birds had built in the nooks of its branches were exposed. The birds twittered on, regardless.

He had no idea when the bus would come. The service was hopelessly erratic. One just sat and hoped for the best. Ravi felt the stirrings of an old peeve rise in his throat. He quelled the tide determinedly. In one year, he promised himself solemnly, I’ll buy a car and will never sit like a country bumpkin wasting my time like this.

Ravi had decided to get a job as soon as he finished his graduation. Like most of his peers, he was clueless about his own abilities or interests. When someone asked him what his career plan was, he could never go beyond ‘a good job’. What that good job would be, which talents of his could be of interest to a prospective employer, he had no idea. All he knew was that he wanted a good job. Any job was a good job if it gave him a hefty salary. Period. The job was just a vehicle that would get him to his destination of a lavish lifestyle. He didn’t bother himself with any other thought. He was rather proud of his lack of fastidiousness.

He didn’t know the market place or its requirements. He didn’t know enough to ask himself what abilities he possessed that a company would pay him a ‘hefty’ salary. Certainly, it had never occurred to him that the the employer’s requirements needed to be aligned with his capabilities before anything resembling a salary could happen. His mental state was that of unset jelly syrup. He was ready to be poured into any container and would take on its shape uncomplainingly. And not too firmly, that, either. He had no idea that he had set the stage for disaster by letting the random vagary of chance take the reigns of his future.

In that spirit of ignorance, he prepared himself for campus placement interviews. He would have preferred attending all of them, but that was not possible. He could appear only for six interviews, his placement coordinator told him. Unfettered by any ignoble bias or preference, he randomly selected six companies. He congratulated himself on his pragmatism, very pleased with himself.

Of the six interviews he appeared for, Ankit- the HR at a prestigious private bank, had hinted at the ‘heftiest’ compensation package. Ravi had frozen on to Ankit with all the droll genius of a limpet. In subsequent daydreams of his life ahead, he saw Ankit falling upon his neck, weeping in relief, the moment he walked into the bank’s head office. He was scheduled to reach Pune and present himself at the bank at ten am on the next day. The journey would take almost twelve hours and he was getting late. He knew he wouldn’t be able to reach Pune even by late evening. A secret anxiety gnawed at him surreptitiously but he managed to shoo it away. It crept away and bid its time.

Five hours later, Ravi still waited. He was tired and fed up. Three buses had passed by. One was going to Jaipur and the other two were going to Pune but did not stop when he waved his hands frantically. When the second bus bound for Pune whooshed past him, leaving him covered in dust, he picked up a stone and threw it after it in impotent rage.

The memory of his graduation day rose in his eyes. His secret anxiety reared its poisonous head and jeered at him. ‘What use is your brilliant academic record now? Will it help you get to Pune? Even if you do get to Pune, what of it? What makes you think Ankit will deliver on his promise? Boys like you are so much societal debris- unlovely and dispensable. You are destined to be ground into the tar roads of success as life rolls over you with its giant wheels. You might gleam for a short while, if you are lucky. Then you will sink into obscurity forever. And you plan to buy a car in one year! ‘

The voice of his anxiety cackled on and on. Ravi couldn’t take it anymore. He had to silence that voice anyhow..! His desperation ran rampant. He made up his mind to board the next bus if he had to lie down on the road to stop it.

He began pacing furiously. His feet pounded the road hard enough to send a jar shooting into his head. He had a raging headache.

When he heard the vroom of another bus he ran towards it, staying in middle of the road. His teeth set on edge, he was determined to board it come what may. The bus screeched to a stop. While the driver and conductor heaped invective upon him, he plunged into the haven. Only when the bus moved off again did he permit himself to acknowledge that the bus was packed to double its capacity. The undulating mass of humanity stank. He stubbornly focused his mind on his relief and ignored the rest.

An hour later, he felt calmer. The bus had emptied somewhat and he had found a place to sit. The breeze smoothened the headache out of his crumpled brow. He ate the food his grandmother had given him and slept.

When he woke up, it was nearly eleven. The bus was moving sluggishly.

“Why haven’t we reached Pune yet?” he asked the rustic sitting next to him.

“Where!?” the rustic asked in disbelief.

“Pune, where else?” Ravi snapped at the rustic in annoyance.

“Babu (Sir), this bus is going to Jaipur, not Pune. What’s wrong with you?”

Open mouthed, Ravi stared at the man.

“Jaipur!!” His somnolent anxiety tore into him with devastating malevolence. He sat stunned into immobility. Jaipur..!!!

Hardly aware of his actions, he rushed over to the driver.

“Bhaiya (brother), I want to go to Pune, not Jaipur. Can you not turn the bus around? I’ll lose my job if I don’t reach Pune latest by ten tomorrow morning. There is still time. Please…” Ravi was hysterical and out of control.

“Have you gone mad? What kind of an idiot gets on to a bus without finding out where it is going? Aren’t you the maniac who forced me to stop by running in the middle of the road?”

“Bhaiya please, I will lose my job. I am begging you.”

“We are about to reach Jaipur in a couple of hours. You can go to Pune from there.”

“By then the interviews will be over bhaiya, please help me.”

“You should have planned better. You can’t just board a bus without knowing where it will take you and then argue with the driver to take you where you want to go! What nonsense is this? Go now and sit down. I don’t want to argue with a fool like you.”

Like a dazed man, Ravi walked back to his seat and broke into racking sobs. What had gone wrong? How had this terrible thing happened to him? What about his dreams… his car? Oh God… he was better off dead!

When the worst of his tempest had abated, he saw a glass of water being pressed upon him by a gnarled hand.

“Babu, what were you thinking? You cannot take decisions about your life so thoughtlessly! Life is difficult enough when you plan for it with prudent care. Even with all the planning in the world there will be times when random chance will throw a spanner into the works. But to hand the center stage of your life to it on a platter!!

“How will you ever get ahead if you select any random vehicle that happens to come alone and trust it to take you to your destination? This way you will reach a place where you never wanted to go, like now. Don’t feel bad now. What has been done cannot be undone. Life has a way of teaching us lessons. Sometimes she is not gentle but she can be effective- provided you heed her. In future, make sure the path you choose will take you to the destination you wish to reach. 

Make sure you select the right vehicle to board. Don’t ever throw yourself to the mercy of random chance again. Ravi nodded mutely. The night had taught him something vitally important and he was grateful.

A new dawn will break again soon, as resplendent with promise as ever.

About the writer:
Dagny is a leadership trainer rolled into a writer and blogger. Her stories try to find solutions to issues that prove to be stumbling blocks to people and cause them to lose their bearings. She blogs at Serenely Rapt and can be contacted through e-mail at

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