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Calcutta girl who fled home & marriage at 17 returns as millionaire US innovator

A 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.

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.

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.

Chanda Zaveri shows a picture of her with foster father G. Foglesong on her cell phone

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.

What is your message for Chanda? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com