W Power 2024

Srikanth Bolla: First overseas blind student at MIT, entrepreneur who employs the disabled, and subject of a new bollywood film

The founder and CEO of Bollant Industries wrote his own destiny after his parents were advised to get rid of him because he was visually impaired at birth. The Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 alumnus gives rare insights into his journey of fighting economic and sociological barriers, and his biopic, Srikanth, starring actor Rajkummar Rao

Kunal Purandare
Published: Apr 29, 2024 11:41:35 AM IST
Updated: Apr 29, 2024 01:04:44 PM IST

Srikanth Bolla, Founder, Chairman and CEO, Bollant Industries
Image: Mexy XavierSrikanth Bolla, Founder, Chairman and CEO, Bollant Industries Image: Mexy Xavier
 
When Srikanth Bolla was born in July 1991, his farmer parents, who barely earned Rs20,000 annually, thought they had won a million-dollar lottery. “I looked like gold, I looked pretty,” he says. It was only when they bathed him for the first time and held him under a kerosene lantern at their modest home in Seetharamapuram village in Machilipatnam, Andhra Pradesh, did they realise that his eyes were shut. When they noticed that their first child wasn’t opening them at all, their worst fears came true. “They thought I wouldn’t be able to see and that’s what it turned out to be. Their entire world shattered in front of them,” explains Bolla.

The neighbourhood went mad and bombarded the couple with negative barbs. “This is a big sin… you must have done something wrong in life to give birth to a child with both eyes closed. You must get rid of him,” they insisted, adding that the young mother could bear more children. Though uneducated, Bolla’s parents, who are first cousins, refused to entertain such thoughts. They decided to accept him, and give him all the love and care. “They thought I’d sit at home and hear the street dogs entering our house, and protect it,” Bolla tells Forbes India in an exclusive interview. “It shows that every creature that comes into this world has some meaningful purpose,” he adds wistfully.

Bolla chose to write his own destiny though. Today he is founder, chairman and CEO of Bollant Industries, an eco-friendly recycling company headquartered in Hyderabad that offers packaging solutions and employs differently-abled people. The 32-year-old who worked closely with former President, the late APJ Abdul Kalam, as a teenager has numerous achievements to his name, including being featured in Forbes Asia’s 30 Under 30 in 2017. His remarkable journey is now the subject of a movie—Srikanth, starring Rajkummar Rao in the lead role. “I was already super inspired just by listening to his story. But after meeting him, I was really moved,” the actor says. “I learnt a lot by spending time with him. He has a positive and never-give-up attitude towards life… no matter how many hardships one encounters, if you are persistent, you can come out as a winner.”

Also read: When The Blind Lead The Blind, To Success

Taking Challenges Head-On

The circumstances in which Bolla grew up were daunting—there was no electricity, education was a luxury, and his family income was way less than what they needed to survive. He credits his parents for never giving up on him despite the troubles and treating him with utmost compassion. As a child, he was active and naughty. He would go to the fields where his father cultivated crops, sit with his grandmother while she milked buffalos, climbed trees to pluck coconuts—even breaking his ankle once after a fall. “I used to do everything under the sun. I never felt I was disabled or blind,” he says.

His mental fortitude was one thing, but there were physical and sociological barriers that he had to battle at every step. When he enrolled into a local school that was about five kilometres away, he had to endure muddy, potholed and uneven roads while walking the distance, making the daily commute difficult. And once at the institute thereafter, he was ostracised because he was visually impaired. For instance, he was relegated to the back bench in the classroom and excluded from physical activities, including games. “I realised loneliness is poverty… I felt extremely poor not because I didn’t have my lunchbox but because of the loneliness that surrounded me,” Bolla says of those days. “I lost valuable days of enjoying with my friends and classmates,” he rues.

That’s when the schoolboy vowed to create happy communities and make everything inclusive. One of his uncles, who lived in Hyderabad, suggested that he move there and study in a school for special children. Bolla saw this as an opportunity to get out of the web that he had found himself in in his home state. At the Devnar School For the Blind in Hyderabad, Bolla came into his own—he evolved as a person and found a new confidence in himself. He topped the class almost every year, became the fastest Braille reader and writer, participated in inter-school competitions and learnt to play chess as well.

Moving away from home came with its trials and tribulations. Bolla describes the initial month in a new state as one hell of a period—living in a hostel without his parents, washing clothes, adjusting to the new method of teaching, not knowing Telugu, the local language, and having to survive on limited food options. “I don’t eat brinjal much now… I have lived on brinjal and potato with sambar for 10 years,” he jokes.  

There came a moment when he tried running away from school. The warden subsequently slapped him and locked him in a room for a couple of hours as punishment. Bolla says his life splashed in his mind between those four walls, and he decided not to look back from there. “I decided to make my career… it was July 1998, and from that day to now, I have never rested,” he says.

After matriculation, he wanted to pursue science, but he was refused admission because of his disability. He was told to opt for arts, languages and social sciences instead. The youngster took the education board to court with the help of his teachers and mentors, and won the case after six months. He scored 98 percent in the first year of his intermediate studies and a little less in the second. Taking on challenges, Bolla emphasises, doesn’t necessarily happen with age or experience. “It’s your internal DNA,” he says. “Even today, I keep challenging the world in various ways. And I'm not afraid of the legal systems. I'm not afraid of anything.” In Hyderabad too, where he was head boy for two years, he fought with the school management for students’ rights—of good bedding, clean washrooms and a conducive environment to live and study.

Ravi Mantha, co-founder and director, Bollant IndustriesRavi Mantha, co-founder and director, Bollant Industries

After class 12, Bolla joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US for an undergraduate course in business administration, becoming its first overseas blind student. He was denied admission at coaching institutes for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) earlier, with a professor commenting: “The course load would be like pouring rain on a small sapling.” Bolla had applied at BITS Pilani, too, but was not issued a hall ticket.

Bolla has fond memories of taking his first plane for MIT and moving to a first-world country even though it took time to get used to things like the shower systems and Western bathrooms there. The exposure to a competitive atmosphere abroad only drove him to chase his dream and make an impact. While he was at MIT, he set up Bollant Industries in 2012 in a small residential house in Hyderabad, with co-founder Ravi Mantha.

Also read: I have only one goal—to defend my gold medal at the 2024 Paralympics: Pramod Bhagat

Aggression Meets Compassion

A common friend at MIT had introduced Mantha to Bolla, describing the latter as an ‘aspiring entrepreneur’. They first met for lunch at a hotel in Hyderabad and the conversation lasted for hours. “Srikanth is an aggressive and accomplished entrepreneur. He is technically skilled. As a leader, he is compassionate and caring. I have seen him work on the factory floor... all the processes are in place, and he makes sure that the differently-abled people employed there do not face any difficulties. He is paternal in his approach,” says Mantha, who initially invested $100,000 in Bollant.

The company began with five employees and Ratan Tata invested an undisclosed sum in Bollant in 2016. Today it has five manufacturing units and employs people in hundreds, including those who work part-time. Bollant had a decent run with revenues touching Rs130 crore before Covid put the brakes on the business. “Losing around Rs9 crore during that period was not a small thing for a company like ours. We were squeezed like a pet flower. And then we bloomed back… now everything is stable,” says Bolla, without disclosing the current numbers.

Mantha subsequently invested more in Bollant, especially during Covid, when it had to down shutters for close to a year. But for the pandemic, Bolla says the company would have gone for an initial public offering by now. “I want to list Bollant as soon as possible, and want to grow the company into a conglomerate,” he says.

Bolla, who considers Apple co-founder, the late Steve Jobs, as his business inspiration, describes himself as an aggressive leader, someone who is deadline-driven and detail-oriented. He’s a hands-on entrepreneur and particularly controls the ‘purchase’ department because that’s where the profit margins and numbers game are. “I'm passionate about my work… work comes first, everything next. At the same time, I'm emotional and human, generous towards problems faced by people,” says Bolla, who has a younger brother, who is into business too. “Compassion makes you rich, not all the wealth in this world… that actually makes you vulnerable.”


Celluloid Star

From the beginning, Bolla prefers not to accept awards and prizes because he feels he hasn’t done anything worthwhile so far. “I am always aiming for better things every day,” he says. That’s probably why it was hard to convince him to come on board for a biopic.

Director Tushar Hiranandani’s wife Nidhi Parmar, who’s also the producer of the film, read an article on Bolla while researching for something else and shared it with her husband. “When she told me about his story, it refused to leave my mind. I found myself thinking about it and reading more about Srikanth almost obsessively,” says Hiranandani, adding that the entrepreneur’s ‘compelling and powerful’ response in an interview to his rejection from IIT was the defining moment for them. “We knew we will bring his story to celluloid,” he says.

It was difficult to get hold of Bolla though. “He would respond to one out of hundreds of our texts,” reveals Hiranandani, who posed as a journalist, a documentary maker and what not, to no avail. “I couldn’t believe I was worthy of a movie,” says Bolla in his defence. It was when the filmmaker got in touch with Mantha that things began falling into place.


Bhushan Kumar, producer of the film and managing director of T-SeriesBhushan Kumar, producer of the film and managing director of T-Series

Parmar clarifies that she had no agenda when she shared the article with Hiranandani. But when she saw her husband get consumed by it, it made her change her lens. “As we researched more, it became crystal clear that this boy’s journey will inspire many and needs to be told. For me, it was Srikanth’s spirit, his ability to see beyond the eye which clinched it,” she tells Forbes India. “The biggest reward will be if we are able to get people to see differently-abled people with the lens that we are presenting.”

As a student, Bolla would prepare for his exams by recording his lessons on T-Series cassettes. Life has come full circle for him now with T-Series producing a film on his life. Bhushan Kumar, producer of the film and managing director of T-Series, says: “T-Series backing a film like Srikanth goes beyond commercial implications. Srikanth is not just a film; it's a journey of resilience, determination and triumph over adversity. We wanted to bring this story to the forefront because we believe it carries a message of hope and perseverance that can touch hearts and make a difference.”

Having a biopic so early is a challenge, concedes Bolla, who feels he needs to uphold the legacy for another 35 to 40 years. But people around him believe it’s important to tell such stories as they have the ability to empower others, especially the marginalised, disadvantaged and disabled. “The battles Srikanth has fought already have changed the way differently-abled people are seen. This movie will raise awareness and integrate them into the mainstream,” says Mantha.  

Agrees Kumar. “We believe in telling stories that resonate with people on a deeper level, stories that inspire and uplift. It is deeply satisfying to see how our efforts have played a key role in shaping Srikanth's journey and bringing his story to a wider audience.”

Finding Love

Now that the movie is ready to hit screens, Bolla wants to pursue his ambition of becoming the first visually impaired president of the country. And no adversity can dampen his spirit. “I'm not worried about challenges, or people slashing me to the ground, because I know how to get up and walk back again,” he says. He reiterates that he is a workaholic and does not like surprises. “I am a work animal. I don’t like to sit idle. I don’t like to chill much.”

Outside work, though, he listens to national and international news with interest. He likes watching movies—he’s enjoyed Mahanati, Dhoni and Soorarai Pottru, among others. He played cricket as a left-handed batsman at the national level and loved the period when Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly opened the batting for India. He even played baseball when he was at MIT. A chess enthusiast, Bolla admires Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand and plays the game of 64 squares with a computer as a hobby. He puts up a parallel board and sets the computer skill. “I play both the moves.”

Mantha says Bolla uses the text-to-audio feature and can surprise people with how fast he can read. “He can finish a book faster than many others,” he says. Rao stresses that Bolla is full of life and confidence. “He is extremely witty too which makes him stand out from everyone else around him,” says the actor.

Mantha, who has known him for over a decade, is most pleased to see Bolla’s personal side in recent years. The entrepreneur got married to Veera Swathi in April 2022. Bolla says they met via Facebook after she saw a picture of him playing baseball on the social networking site. She chased him for a long time before he relented, but he confesses love was in the air immediately after they met. “God has been very kind. And he has given me more than what I expected,” says Bolla about his journey.

The couple recently became parents to a girl. Both had strongly wanted a daughter and had even purchased clothes for a girl child before she was born. Interestingly, prior to her birth, they had even finalised her name—Naina. “My wife wanted my daughter to be my eyes,” says Bolla.