How A Blind Man Got Into MIT Engineering And Launched A US$16m Start-Up.
Srikanth Bolla’s parents ignored advice to smother him when he was born. He went on to become the first blind student to study engineering at MIT – and launch a US$16m start-up employing a largely disabled workforce.
To say Srikanth Bolla had a difficult start is an understatement.
Picture this – you’re born into a poor farming family in India, but you put yourself through school, get accepted to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and become the CEO of a successful biodegradables company, all while still in your 20s. Remarkable, yes?
Now add into the equation that you were born blind.
This is the true story of Srikanth Bolla, a modest young man from a rural Indian community in Andhra Pradesh. Through sheer grit he worked his way up from village to high school to MIT and, in 2012, set up Bollant Industries, a sustainable packaging company. The idea for Bollant was born out of three social challenges. First, the estimated 100 million disabled Indians who find it almost impossible to secure education or employment. Second, the Indian farmers who don’t have the means to put agricultural waste to use. Finally, the vast quantities of plastic and toxic materials causing irreversible environmental damage.
With the backing of a group of investors, including philanthropist Ratan Tata, Bollant was launched to answer these needs. It makes eco-friendly packaging solutions and biodegradable tableware using agricultural waste and leaf husks that would otherwise have been burned. “Farmers can now have a second harvest,” Bolla explains. Annual sales are now brushing US$3 million, especially remarkable given that more than half of the staff employed at Bollant — around 250 — are what Bolla calls “differently abled”.
He tells his extraordinary story.
“I was born into an agricultural family in a rural Indian community in Andhra Pradesh. My parents had little education, so I spent the first six years of my life in the fields with my father. Due to the illiteracy and ignorance in my community, villagers advised my parents to abandon me. Thankfully, my parents ignored their wishes and enrolled me in a government school away from my village so that I could get a proper education. In school, other children ignored me because they thought I could not play with them. Teachers ignored me because they thought I could not learn. I spent two years sitting in the last row without anyone acknowledging my presence.
“Through sheer determination, I succeeded in getting myself transferred to the Devnar School for the Blind in Hyderabad. However, the transition was difficult coming to the big city. I could not understand anything at first because I only knew how to speak Telegu, a rural language. After my parents brought me to the dormitory, I spent three days crying, not eating, not understanding anyone or being able to talk to them. Teachers tried to help by teaching me English and grammar, but it was difficult to learn because I could not understand them.
“But then I decided to start a new life. Perhaps the strength came out of a sense of helplessness, or perhaps it came out of anger towards my parents for keeping me in the school, but slowly I started to make a greater effort to learn English. One teacher especially helped me, and I gained confidence in my abilities. I became someone who aims high and strives for success.
“I worked very hard to be the top-scoring student through grade 10. Unfortunately, in Andhra Pradesh, the Board of Education did not permit a blind person to study science beyond the 10th grade. Despite my high mathematics and science scores, I had to start 11th grade studying humanities. I applied to many other schools to study science, but they all rejected me. However, with a focused goal, willpower and self-confidence, I convinced my school to fight the Board of Education on my behalf and, after six months of negotiation, I was finally allowed to study science. I became the first blind student to complete a science education in an Indian high school with a score of 97 percent on the Andhra Pradesh state board examinations.
“During high school, I won numerous state and national titles in chess, including the special distinction of drawing a chess match with one of India’s grand masters. I also won second place in India’s 93rd Indian Science Congress, and was on the state and national teams in India for blind cricket. During middle and high school, I won the Pratibha Excellence Award twice, which is given by the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh for academic excellence. In addition to my education, I had a great passion for community service. My interest inspired me to become involved in various awareness programmes such as water-saving campaigns, AIDS awareness, child labour awareness, and literacy campaigns. Looking at my leadership qualities my teachers suggested that I become involved with Lead India 2020.
“I learned that even if a student is not educated, he or she can have clarity of thinking and expression if encouraged properly. Thus, I learned to treat everybody with equal respect, regardless of their education level or socioeconomic status. I am learning that each day is a new experience with new challenges and opportunities for learning.
“My hard work paid off when my dream of getting in to MIT was fulfilled. When I came home, everyone wanted to have dinner with me as they felt that I had become great. They might not have realised that I have to do much more to create a better tomorrow for every Indian.
“I am reminded of Robert Frost who said: ‘The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.’”