“When I lost my sight, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don't you do the same?”
― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
There are truly many roads to an MBA. Among those unconventional journeys, the following is definitely a heart-wrenching story, but not because of the odds stacked against him but the strength it takes to defy them. When asked about what his early life was like, in light of his disability, AVS Rajeev had the following to say:
I was brought up in Kurnool, and since the last decade, I have a genetic disability called Retinitis Pigmentosa. Before that, I was a pretty normal child. Suddenly, my sight started to gradually diminish and I treated it very casually, I wore spectacles and that helped me with my vision. But slowly I realised that I couldn’t see the board even with the glasses. I used to get headaches and couldn’t complete my notes and that is when it dawned on me that I had a severe problem. I was 12 or 13 years, and at that time I was a very good student, always used to be in the top 3 percentile of the class. Because of this problem, my academics suffered, starting with my inability to complete my notes and I couldn’t study as well. That’s when my teachers noticed and realised that there was something wrong and spoke to me and tried to counsel me.
It was the first time the problem got out because, until then, I hadn’t even confided in my parents and if I think back, I think that was because I myself had not understood it as a disability since, in the beginning, I didn't have any trouble walking to school. At the time, the small letters on the board alone weren’t visible. Later, when I shared it with my parents, the roaming around different hospitals began. And when we got to know about the disease, we were told that there is no treatment anywhere in the world. In the initial years of the diagnosis, we approached doctors in different hospitals in the country and the world, even in the famous London Moorfields Eye Hospital, but even they said that it was still in the research stage and they are awaiting the cure.
But, despite everything, I think it was my family, my teachers and friends who supported me through the initial difficulties whether it was my studies or normal day to day activities because the transition was neither positive nor easy. I was a normal guy till 12 to 13 years and then everything felt changed. So, in the beginning, I used to feel that it was harder for me to adopt since it was not a disability I had since birth and I struggled mentally as well, I was quite depressed.
Slowly, I came out of it and my family played a crucial role; they never treated me like a disabled child, or at least not like a patient. And I’m immensely grateful because I really, really don’t like sympathy. When people cry or react similarly, I find it useless because it doesn’t help me. I expect help from people, not sympathy, and my parents understood that early on. They let me be and if I fell, I learnt from it. And that gave me the strength to start relearning things like walking, or studying- courtesy my friends. They would read for me and I would record, listen and reproduce them in the examinations.
Q: What was your CAT journey like? What prompted you to crack it given the inhibitions you might have had? How could you cope with the gruelling IIM life?
After 10th grade, and a proud recipient of the AP Pratibha Award (issued by the Government of Andhra Pradesh), I chose Commerce for higher secondary schooling, as I had thought that an MBA was the best thing I could do by myself. Contrary to science or technology, I felt I would be able to give my 100% in this field. Also, I had pursued Chartered Accountancy alongside my under graduation i.e B.Com, up to CA Intermediate (IPCC), even though I couldn’t clear the CA Finals.
Post this, I took a three-month online coaching for CAT, because Kurnool is a tier two city and there aren’t many institutes for coaching. Apart from this, I also tried other exams like CMAT, MAT, etc. but it was always at the back of my mind that I wanted to do something big. This was because of certain experiences I had when I was in UG when I went to companies for interviews; they straight away rejected me because of this disability. So I had just one thing running in my mind: I wanted to go to an institute which gave me a strong enough backing that companies don’t reject me at the very beginning. And I’d hoped the renowned IIMs would enable me.
So I gave the CAT 2015 and I could crack it in my first attempt. However, I had a few struggle points- I wasn’t good at aptitude, and again I remember how my school friends who have taken different streams came to help me with it. Then, I gave my interview for the New IIMs and got into IIM Trichy, after converting all the new IIMs.
Q: Would you want to recount instances where you felt support from the IIM Trichy family?
When I realised that I was going to IIM Trichy, it was a proud moment for me because I know of some very capable peers who tried to get into the prestigious IIMs but they could not, and I managed it. But, just 15 days after joining IIM Trichy, I received a very big blow in my life: my fathers’ sudden demise. I still remember that day clearly. I was doing my prereads for Managing Organisations, I was sitting with my friends till 3:00 AM when I went to bed, and in two hours I got a call from home regarding my father’s demise. It was a return of a dark phase for me, I had just seen exhilarating heights after getting into IIM-T, and then a devastating low trailed it.
But, after all this, I must say that IIM Trichy was instrumental in bringing me back with all the encouragement I received. There are no words to express the support they provided me; the IIM T family did everything in their means to help. While they were a solid wall of moral support, I felt like they had taken my father’s place in my life. I say this from the bottom of my heart that there is nothing more I or anyone in my place can possibly expect from their university. I had missed class for 15 days, and the phenomenal support I got, right from the PGP Chairperson to all my subject teachers who taught me personally in their cabins all that they had already taught in class during the 15 days that I was absent and brought me back on track. It was extremely touching and something I will always cherish.
Life at IIM T then was like any other b-school student, there were ups where I was appreciated and downs where I was depressed due to not getting a few things I wanted. Some of the highlights of this journey were the meritorious scholarship award I received from Societe Generale and I also got my internship in Societe Generale as a consultant. It felt amazing to know that after my internship, Societe Generale published an article of appreciation on the work I did. To add to my happiness, a lot of professors messaged me personally to congratulate me.
Another memorable event was my participation in a panel discussion organised by JP Morgan Chase on corporate inclusion. The panel consisted of executives of considerable experience from companies like Coca-Cola, Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled etc. needless to say, it was a once in a lifetime experience. At the same time, I also fell prey to people’s judgements; despite having faced it since my childhood, people’s opinions on character and the stereotypes that follow can get to you at your weak moments, but I eventually learned to take things lightly and let it go.
And now I got placed in Royal Bank of Scotland in a role I wanted, so I am very happy with the journey I had and of course I miss it.
To speak of the academic support that IIM T gave me, I have to mention that I cannot read paperback books or even cases. I need them in a PDF form or a recording. And the staff provided me all that while still treating me like a normal student. Another gift that IIM Trichy gave me was the feeling of a university environment that I so craved during UG. Music has been my guide and calms me when I’m not in a great mood, and since I’ve continued pursuing Carnatic Music and IIM T has given me various opportunities to sing on stage for many functions and occasions, and I also immensely enjoyed being the runner-up in the IIM T Idol which was conducted by the Arts Club.
Q: Any words for people facing similar hurdles?
My suggestion to students facing similar disabilities would be to first have the motivation to not limit themselves to easier alternatives and put their foot down for what they want. Winning the race is not as important as running it.
Q: Could you describe your goals after MBA?
Post my MBA, I have a two-fold goal. Firstly, I am immensely grateful for the fact that I got a finance role in RBS since that was my area of interest. I hope to become a CFO one day and break the scruples that follow disabled persons all their lives about the glass ceiling they have. Secondly, I want to be an employer for disabled people. Pavithra YS, the CEO & Founder of Vindhya Infomedia has made a similar decision, she has employed around 1500 disabled people in her company and Mr. Srikanth Bolla who is also visually challenged but went to MIT (USA) and set up his company Bollant Industries. These two people are my role models and I aspire to reach their heights. I also want to do something in the music industry, maybe an album in Carnatic music. I believe in destiny so I’m waiting for things to fall into place in good time.