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 it almost didn’t happen. As a teenager, Srikanth was told 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 this possible, as Arundhati Nath explains.
Every day for two years, six-year-old Srikanth Bolla walked several miles to school in rural India, guided by his brother and following his classmates.
The ride was a muddy, shrub-lined path that flooded during the monsoon. It was not a happy time.
“No one spoke to me because I was a blind child,” he says.
Born of poor and illiterate parents, he was rejected by the community.
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“My parents were told that I couldn’t even be a guardian of my own house because I couldn’t see if a street dog had entered,” he says.
“A lot of 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 that he had good news. Srikanth had secured a place in a boarding school for blind children and was moving to Hyderabad, the nearest town, 400 km away. At the time, the city was in the state of Andhra Pradesh.
Although far from his parents, Srikanth is enthusiastic and settles down 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 also begins to wonder about his future. He had always dreamed of becoming an engineer and knew he had to study science and mathematics to do so.
When the time came, he chose those crucial subjects, but his school told him “no” and informed him that it was illegal.
Indian schools are run by several bodies, each with their own rules. Some are run by state governments or central councils, others are run by private bodies.
The Srikanth school was run by the Andhra Pradesh State Board of Education and as such was not allowed to teach science and mathematics to blind pupils in their final year, as these subjects were seen as too much of a challenge with their visual elements such as diagrams and graphs. Instead, they could study arts, languages, literature, and social sciences.
It was 2007 and Srikanth was frustrated with this arbitrary law which 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 duo went to the Andhra Pradesh Secondary Education Council to plead their case but were told nothing could be done.
Undeterred, they found a lawyer and, with the support of the school management team, filed a case with the High Court of Andhra Pradesh, seeking a change in the Education Act. to enable blind students to study mathematics and science.
“The lawyer fought on our behalf,” says Srikanth, the student did not need to appear in court himself.
While the case was going on, Srikanth heard a rumour: a mainstream school in Hyderabad – Chinmaya Vidyalaya – was operating under a different educational body and offering science and mathematics to blind students. She had a place for him if he was interested.
Srikanth registered with pleasure.
He was the only blind student in his class, but he says “they welcomed me with open arms”.
“My class teacher was very friendly. She did everything possible 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 a raised line that you can feel.
After six months, the court gave news: Srikanth had won his case.
The court had ruled that blind pupils could study science and mathematics in the final year in all public schools in Andhra Pradesh.
“I felt extremely happy,” says Srikanth. “I had the first opportunity to prove to the world that I was capable of doing it and that the younger generation doesn’t have to worry about filing cases and fighting in court,” he says.
Pouring rain on a small tree
Srikanth soon returned to a public school and studied his favorite math and science, earning a 98% average in 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 go through intensive training before entrance exams, but no training school accepts Srikanth.
“The top coaching institutes told me the course load would be like pouring rain on a little tree,” he says, explaining that they assumed he wouldn’t meet academically.
“But I don’t regret anything. If IIT didn’t want me, I didn’t want IIT either,” Srikanth said, settling himself.
He enrolled in 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 first days there as a “mixed experience”.
“The extreme cold was the first shock, because I was not used to such cold weather. The smell and taste of the food was different. During the first month, I only ate French fries and fried 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 tough and dreadful. Disability Services did a great job of supporting me, accommodating me, and upgrading me.”
While studying, he also established a non-profit organization, Samanvai Center for Children with Multiple Disabilities, to train and educate young disabled people in Hyderabad. He also opened a Braille library there with the money he collected.
Life is Beautiful. After studying management science at MIT, he was offered several jobs, but he chose not to stay in the United States.
Srikanth’s school experience had left its mark, and he felt like 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 once he takes a step back, he realized there was no point in fighting for equitable education if there were no employment opportunities 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.
It employs as many people with disabilities and mentally ill people as possible. Before the pandemic, these people made up 36% of its workforce of 500 people.
Last year, at the age of 30, Srikanth was named to the World Economic Forum’s “Young Global Leaders 2021” list. He hopes that within three years, his company Bollant Industries will become a “Global IPO”, that is to say that its shares will be listed simultaneously on several international stock exchanges.
Bollywood also appealed to him. A biopic starring well-known actor Rajkummar Rao has been announced and filming will begin in July. Srikanth hopes this will stop people from underestimating him when they first 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.”