A catalyst for change

Srikanth Bolla   -  THE HINDU

Born blind, entrepreneur Srikanth Bolla has opened the world’s eyes by triumphing against all the odds

Srikanth Bolla’s entire life is testimony to the manner in which he has defied considerable odds and driven change — in his own life and in those of others. He was born blind into a family of agriculturists in Seetharamapuram in Machilipatnam, Andhra Pradesh. That alone would have crushed a weaker spirit, but Bolla persisted — and has triumphed against adversity, fighting every step of the way, from getting an education to venturing into an entrepreneurial career. Today, he runs Bollant Industries Limited as its CEO, with five factories, employing over 650 people, nearly half of whom are differently abled men and women.

“My parents, Damodar Rao and Venkatamma (who were cousins), were devastated that their baby was born blind,” he says. The blindness was the genetic effect of a consanguineous marriage, and his parents received a lot of unsolicited — and wholly unwelcome — advice. Snuff out the blind boy, some members of the rural community said: he is utterly useless, and you’ll struggle to bring him up.

It’s a good thing that Damodar Rao and Venkatamma were deaf, so to speak, to such heartless suggestions. They resolved to bring their son up as best as they could.

“But at every stage, from the time they initiated me into a school in a rural area, they had to fight the ‘system’,” Bolla recalls. Since Bolla was facing discrimination at the Machilipatnam school, his father shifted him to Hyderabad's Devnar School for the Blind, where he was guided and mentored by his special needs teacher Swarna Latha.

The beginning

“That was just the beginning of my fight against the system,” he says. “And that has continued over the years. But each hurdle I faced made me stronger as I had to challenge the system and find a space for myself.”

Having completed his schooling with distinction, he had a tough time securing admission to the Intermediate course. “I wanted to pursue science, but was told that I could only take up arts because of my disability. However, we filed a case and won and I went on to pass intermediate with distinction,” Bolla says.

Guided by teacher Swarna Latha, he went on to secure 90 per cent in the high school examination. But again, he was rejected in junior college, and had to go to court to get admissions to higher learning institutions and even to write exams.

Bolla wanted to graduate, but he was repeatedly rejected by top Indian institutions, including the IITs, owing to his disability. But was his spirit crushed? On the contrary, Bolla turned adversity into a challenge — and went on to graduate in business management from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. It was the time he spent at MIT, where the learning environment made a big difference to shaping his worldview, that he sowed the seeds that would lead to his trying out something radically different.

“Having faced challenges at every stage during my education, I always had the urge to do something differently,” he recalls.

An entrepreneur is born

Rejecting a couple of job offers from multinational corporations in the US, Bolla decided to become an entrepreneur so that he could be a job-provider rather than be a job-seeker. “I chose this option as it gave me a chance to do something for people who had similar problems as I did,” he says.

In 2014, pooling together a few lakh rupees, Bolla embarked on his entrepreneurial journey and set up Bollant Industries Ltd to fashion eco-friendly disposable products and packaging solutions, made entirely out of natural leaf and recycled paper. The product portfolio includes areca leaf plates, dinnerware, food trays, cups and eco-friendly products, including disposable plates, paper cups and biodegradable products made from betel leaves.

“Having seen the importance of paper-based plates and products in the US, where a couple of companies have turnovers of millions of dollars, I decided to enter this segment, which was unorganised and fragmented but had a huge potential in India,” he says.

But more uniquely, Bollant’s larger mission was to generate employment opportunities for millions of differently abled people, who are mostly uneducated and unskilled.

From a small facility in Hyderabad, Bollant has today grown to several manufacturing units through a combination of organic and inorganic growth.

Recently, Bollant acquired an ailing packaging unit near Hyderabad and turned it around, where more than 200 women workers are employed.

Today, Bollant has manufacturing units at Nacharam near Hyderabad, and at Nizamabad and Hubli. “We are also in the process of acquiring another sick unit with a plan to turn it around. This has meant that the proposed plan to set up a large unit in Sri City will take a back seat for the time being,” he explains.

The company is on course to achieving a turnover of about ₹60 crore this fiscal, up from ₹35 crore last year. “As the scale goes up, we expect the turnover to shoot up,” he says, reeling off balance sheet data without a hitch.

Taking pride in the way his business has shaped up over the years, Bolla says, with a lilt in his voice, “Bollant was recently valued at over ₹400 crore by an independent third-party consultancy firm, Anandam & Co.”

Limitless ambition

Not content with what he and his company have achieved over the past five years, Bolla is planning to further ramp up production and significantly increase the turnover.

The entrepreneurial path thus far has not been easy. Narrating some of the challenges he faced on this journey, he says, “When I approached Andhra Bank for a ₹15-crore loan, they rejected my application, stating that we need to provide collateral. But as we are now seeing from the huge scams in the corporate world, not everyone was subjected to such rigorous due diligence,” he says wryly.

Through one of the MIT connections, Bolla’s venture first brought in investments from Ravi Mantha, who was part of The Indus Entrepreneurs, followed by investments from serial entrepreneur SP Reddy.

Thereafter several marquee investors pitched in. The spark in Bolla and his tenacity to fight against all odds encouraged a number of investors, including Ratan Tata, in his personal capacity during 2016; that was Tata’s first non-tech investment.

Srini Raju of Peepul Capital and ILabs, Satish Reddy of Dr Reddy's Labs, Kiran Grandhi of GMR Group, Arun Alagappan of TI Cycles, Anil Chalamalasetty of Greenko are among other investors in Bolla’s venture. Ravi Mantha and SP Reddy continue to be associated with Bolla and his company.

Armed with a strong balance-sheet and charting a clear growth path, Bollant is looking at the next round of funding to expand its business. “It won't be long before you hear from us about this,” Bolla says.

Changemaker’s creed

Summing up his change-making philosophy, Bolla says, “I chose management studies even though I had an aptitude for computer science. I wanted to become someone who leads rather than someone who works under others.” Rather than be content with work to make a living, Bolla says he decided to become an entrepreneur so as to make a difference.

And despite his considerable success, Bolla continues to innovate and personally supervises the plant floor to ensure top quality.

Not only does the manufacture of paper products as an alternative to plastic directly contribute to environmental protection, the products are made from leaves and agricultural waste, which would usually have been burnt.

Strikingly, no one who is differently abled has been injured in the factory operations. “However, I cannot say the same about ‘others’ in the factory. Does this mean people become careless if they have all their faculties intact?” he wonders.

One of Bollant’s early initiatives was to co-found Samanvai, a centre for children with multiple disabilities, helping them get over their many challenges. “Isolation of differently abled persons starts from childhood and continues all through life,” says Bolla, perhaps remembering his own experiences.

“At school, you are condemned to the back benches and kept out of group events. My dream is to see all differently abled people gainfully employed,” he says.

To whom does a man like Bolla turn to for inspiration? “I have had very engaging conversations with the late President APJ Abdul Kalam, who was a great inspiration and encouragement to me,” he says.

Over the past three-four years, Bolla's work has begun to be recognised; he has won a string of awards. Among them are the Emerging Leadership Award, given by ECLIF Malaysia, and the Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year 2016 award, given by CII.

Bollant's mission, as represented in its tagline, is: “Where everyone counts.” On Bolla’s entrepreneurial journey, he has impacted hundreds of people, including many who are able-bodied, with his change-making example on how to work hard and achieve goals.

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Q & A with Srikanth Bolla

‘Passion, ethics make the difference’

How difficult is it to bring about change?

Change looks difficult. It has to be brought about through a lot of pain and passion. If anyone can overcome that pain by pursuing a unique path, it would be possible to bring about change.

What are the attributes a changemaker should have to become successful?

Mind and body have to be put towards that goal with pride that we are doing good to others. We have to work in a humble, honest way and hold up against all odds. How you manage values by teaming up with people and lead with passion and ethics makes a difference.

Does India, as a society, encourage changemakers?

No. Changemakers are seen as idiots. When someone pitches an idea, it is discussed and dismissed.

What is the biggest change you wish to see?

I want to see every person with disabilities get employment.

 

 

Published on March 16, 2018

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