Born in an impoverished village, at 16 he goes off to Aden to learn business. He returns 10 years later and starts a small company. By canny trading around the textile bazaars of Bombay, he corners the market in imported polyester, starts his own factory, outwits sclerotic bureaucrats in New Delhi who are trying to run the economy by regulation, and ultimately ignites the moribund Indian stock market with his vision of turning Reliance into a petrochemical and oil refining empire—a dream he realized not long before he died.
Mohandas Gandhi and Dhirubhai Ambani were the two most famous scions of the Modh Bania, a Hindu commercial caste based in the arid Saurashtra peninsula of India's western Gujarat state.
Each changed India. Ambani's public wore his textiles as durable suits and glittery saris. Indians invested by the millions in his Bombay-listed Reliance Industries, a sprawling conglomerate with $12.3 billion in annual sales that recently became India's first privately owned entrant to the Fortune 500. When Ambani died on July 6 at age 69 after nearly two weeks in a stroke-induced coma, the country's media recounted his rags-to-riches life as an Indian morality play.
Ambani's his great achievement was that he showed Indians what was possible. With no Oxford or Yale degree and no family capital, he achieved what the Elite "brown sahibs" of New Delhi could not: he built an ultramodern, profitable, global enterprise in India itself. What's more, he enlisted four million Indians, a generation weaned on nanny-state socialism, in an adventure in can-do capitalism, convincing them to load up on Reliance stock.
Still, Ambani seems destined to be remembered as a folk hero—an example of what a man from one of India's poor villages can accomplish with non-shrink ambition.
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