Last month, Durga Das’s sustainable technology company Teerthaa was in the news for tying up with IIT Madras to develop a device called NERO that can generate potable water from atmospheric air. Durga was introduced as the former dynamic captain of the USA Women’s team, an avid golfer, sailor and an angel investor who has developed and sold over half a dozen tech startups.
What few people know, though, is that Durga’s business acumen was a product of necessity: the hard knocks of fate did not deter her, but rather pushed her to the limits of achievement.
Durga Das was 11 years old when her father, an acclaimed advertising honcho, had a debilitating accident. Unable to work, his flourishing company fell apart, and his wife and four kids soon found themselves in precarious circumstances.
At 14, Durga decided to take matters into her own hands. A budding cricketer in Chennai, she began selling sports goods. With a little help from her coach and her father’s old acquaintances, she managed to set up a shop and ran her business after school. She also dabbled in ice cream and packets of tea leaves bought in wholesale from tea estates.
By the time she was 17, she set up her own advertising agency – all the while going to school, playing cricket and golf, and training by cycling 100 km per day and running across railway platforms.
When Durga was 20, her father died of a brain hemorrhage. The young girl began having acute headaches, which she ignored. Two months later she herself was diagnosed with a tumour in the brain. Doctor said it was benign but it could lead to blindness or hemorrhage. At the same time, her friend embezzled her business and ran away. “I was shell-shocked,” says Durga, who is now 50. Disillusioned with life, she shut shop and set off to wander the world.
She landed up in the US, where she worked as a housemaid, a forklift operator and waitress. “I slept on park benches. Not thinking, just being,” she narrates. A year later, she found herself, and returned home to Chennai.
She took the first job she got – earning Rs 5000 a month in Indigo Technologies, a company that helped automate stock exchanges around the world. She quickly grew, and took her department along, doubling their revenues. By the time the company was acquired by NASDAQ, she was director of their US and Europe business.
And so started her journey of launching phenomenally successful technology startups across the US. She began doing meditation, and went back to her sports. She was the captain of the USA Women’s cricket team in 2010 when it won the ICC Americas Cup, and was a player on the 2011 US national team in the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup Qualifier in Bangladesh. She acquired property for her family.
Eight years later, her tumour had disappeared.
In 2012, Durga returned to India to fund startups here. She launched Das Star, a vehicle to generate a new model of investing in India. They launched Wassup, a pioneer in the laundry space; an enterprise video platform called Chehara; and Supra, a Bengaluru-based LED lighting company. Of late, Durga has been completely focused on water-solutions company Teerthaa.
Happily single, Durga has mothered her siblings, nieces and nephews. On weekends, she rides her Harley Fat Bob and goes on “long rides with her brotherhood to clear her mind”. She continues playing cricket, and even participated in the recent Paul Harris Cricket Carnival in Chennai. “There were 239 men and me,” she quips. Her team was runner-up.
She’s now training to participate in the J/80 World Championship 2019 in Spain this July, in which over 75 boats and more than 500 sailors from all over the world are expected to compete for the title on the challenging conditions of the Cantabrian Sea. The goddess has many avatars.
First published in eShe’s April 2019 issue