Srikanth Bolla is set to be the subject of a Bollywood movie about his life. This young CEO built a company worth over $60 million, but that almost didn’t happen. As a teenager, Srikanth was told that it was illegal for him to study math and science at a graduate school because he is blind. So he sued an Indian state to make that possible, as Arundhati Nath explains.
Every day for two years, six-year-old Srikanth Bolla walked several kilometers to school in rural India, guided by his brother and following his classmates.
The promenade was a muddy, wooded path that flooded during the monsoon. It was not a happy moment.
“No one spoke to me because I was a blind child,” he says.
Born to poor and illiterate parents, he was rejected by the community.
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“My parents were told I couldn’t even be the guardian of my own house because I couldn’t see if a stray dog had come in,” he says.
“Many people came to my parents and asked them to kill me with a pillow,” said the 31-year-old.
Unaware of all this, his parents were very supportive and when he was eight years old, Srikanth’s father told him he had good news. Srikanth had secured a place at a boarding school for blind children and was moving to Hyderabad, the nearest city, 400 km away. At the time, the city was in the state of Andhra Pradesh.
Although away from his parents, Srikanth is enthusiastic and settles in quickly. He learned to swim, play chess and play cricket with a ball that made clicking sounds so he could locate it. “It’s about the hand and the ear,” he reveals.
Srikanth enjoys his hobbies, but he also starts to wonder about his future. He always dreamed of becoming an engineer and knew he had to study science and math for that.
When the time came, he chose these crucial subjects, but his school told him “no” and informed him that it was illegal.
Indian schools are run by various bodies, each with its own rules. Some are administered by state governments or central councils, others are administered by private bodies.
Srikanth school was run by the Andhra Pradesh State Board of Education and as such was not allowed to teach science and math to blind students in their final year as these subjects were seen as too much of a challenge with their visual elements such as diagrams. . and graphics. Instead, they could study arts, languages, literature and the social sciences.
It was 2007 and Srikanth was frustrated with this arbitrary law that was not the same for all schools. One of his teachers, Swarnalatha Takkilapati, was also frustrated and encouraged his young student to take action.
The pair went to the Andhra Pradesh Board of Secondary Education to plead their case, but were told nothing could be done.
Undeterred, they found a lawyer and, with the support of the school’s management team, filed a lawsuit in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh, seeking a change to the Education Act to allow blind students to study math and science.
“The lawyer fought for us,” says Srikanth, the student did not have to appear in court.
While the case was happening, Srikanth heard a rumor: a regular school in Hyderabad – Chinmaya Vidyalaya – was operating under a different educational body and offering science and math to blind students. She had a place for him if he was interested.
Srikanth registered with pleasure.
He was the only blind student in the class, but he says “they welcomed me with open arms”.
“My class teacher was really nice. She did her best to help me. She learned to draw tactile diagrams,” he says.
Tactile diagrams can, for example, be created using thin film on a rubber mat. When you draw on it with a pen or pencil, it creates an embossed line that you can feel.
After six months, the court broke the news: Srikanth won his case.
The court ruled that blind students could study science and math in their final year at all public schools in Andhra Pradesh.
“I felt extremely happy,” says Srikanth. “I had the first opportunity to prove to the world that I could do this and that the younger generation doesn’t have to worry about filing lawsuits and fighting justice,” he says.
Pouring rain on a small tree
Srikanth soon returned to a public school and studied his favorite math and science, averaging 98% on his exams.
He intended to enroll in the prestigious Indian engineering schools known as IIT (Indian Institutes of Technology).
Competition is fierce and students often undergo intensive training before entrance exams, but no training school accepts Srikanth.
“The best coaching institutes told me that the course load would be like raining on a small tree,” he says, explaining that they assumed he would not meet academically.
“But I don’t regret anything. If the IIT didn’t want me, I didn’t want the IIT either,” Srikanth said, settling down.
He enrolled at American universities and received five offers. He chose MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he became the first international blind student. He arrived in 2009 and describes his early days as a “mixed experience”.
“The extreme cold was the first shock, because I wasn’t used to being so cold. The food smelled and tasted different. For the first month, I only had French fries and chicken fingers.”
But Srikanth soon began to adapt.
“My time at MIT was the most enjoyable time of my life.
“In terms of academic rigor, it was difficult and terrible. Services for the Disabled did a great job of supporting, accommodating and updating me.”
While studying, he also established a non-profit organization, the Samanvai Center for Children with Multiple Disabilities, to train and educate disabled youth in Hyderabad. He also opened a Braille library there with the money he raised.
Life is Beautiful. After studying management science at MIT, he was offered several jobs but chose not to stay in the United States.
Srikanth’s school experience left its mark, and he felt as if he had unfinished business in his homeland.
“I had to fight for everything in life, when not everyone can fight like me or have mentors like me”, he says, adding that, when he took a step back, he realized that there was no point in fighting for an egalitarian education if there were no opportunities to employment for people with disabilities afterwards.
He said to himself, “Why not start my own business and employ people with disabilities?”
Srikanth returned to Hyderabad in 2012 and founded Bollant Industries. This packaging company makes eco-friendly products such as corrugated packaging from fallen areca palm leaves and is valued at over $60 million.
Employ as many people as possible with disabilities and the mentally ill. Before the pandemic, these people made up 36% of its workforce of 500 people.
Last year, at age 30, Srikanth was named to the World Economic Forum’s “Young Global Leaders 2021” list. He expects that within three years, his company Bollant Industries will become a “Global IPO”, that is, its shares will be listed simultaneously on several international exchanges.
Bollywood also attracted him. A biopic starring well-known actor Rajkummar Rao has been announced and filming will begin in July. Srikanth hopes this will keep people from underestimating him when they meet him.
“People initially thought ‘oh he’s blind… how sad’, but as soon as I start explaining who I am and what I do, everything changes.”