Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata was born into a clerical Parsi family in Nausari. His father, Nusserwanji Tata, moved to Bombay and started trading. Jamsetji joined the Elphinstone College in Bombay in 1856. He was considered to be a promising enough student to have his fees remitted. Married while still a student, he passed out in 1858, and joined his father's trading firm a year later.
His first venture was to open the Hong Kong branch of his father's firm in December of the same year, in partnership with Premchand Roychand and others. This firm did extremely well during the cotton boom, and Jamsetji was soon involved in many financial deals. However, with the end of the American Civil War, and the subsequent collapse of the Bombay boom in 1864, many of these businesses went into liquidation. He and his father regained their fortunes as suppliers to the British-Indian Army during the Abyssinian War (1867-68).
His reputation as an industrialist was based on the cotton mills he started. In 1871 he began to promote the "Central India Spinning, Weaving and Manufacturing Company, Limited", and built from scratch the Empress Mills in Nagpur. Opened on New Year's day, 1877, this immensely successful cotton mill developed business practises which remained the hallmark of the Tatas for years to come. An astute judge of people, Jamsetji hired his managers with good care. The firm also did developmental work in machinery. New policies towards labour were developed, including training, guaranteed pensions and gratuities, medical care and creches for women employees. His financial genius was evident in the way he took over and turned around the pernially sick Dharamsi Mill in Kurla. He changed its name to the Swadeshi Mill when he purchased it in 1887, and produced cloth that was extensively exported to China, Korea, Japan and the Levant.
He was the first pioneer entrepreneur in the country, and recognised the implications of the industrial revolution for India. Since textile manufacturing had taken root and the country was being linked by railways and the telegraph, he believed that he should concentrate his means and efforts on three key areas-- the iron and steel industry, electrical power generation and technical education.
He was close to the Indian National Congress, and was strongly influenced by Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta and Dinshaw Wacha. However, contrary to them, he believed that political independence would be meaningless without economic self-sufficiency. To this end he set in motion plans for scientific education and the industrial development of backward regions of the country.
His goal of political and economic self-sufficiency had the effect that the British did not raise him to the rank of nobility as they did with other Parsi entrepreneurs. In fact, he faced opposition from the government for many of his projects, including the founding of the steel industry and development of housing in the present-day Northern suburbs of Bombay.
Many of his plans remained unfinished on his death in 1904. However, his vision of the Institute of Science in Bangalore, a steel plant in Jamshedpur, Bihar, and a hydroelectric company were brought to fruition by his successors.