Winner, Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2016
“Overcoming substantial barriers has given me the strength and motivation to go beyond profits in my social venture and encompass the triple bottom line, thereby impacting society at large”
What makes an entrepreneur become the “Social Entrepreneur of the Year”?
Could it be the fact that his business offers 100% sustainable and environmentally sensitive products? Or the fact that 60% of the employees are differently-abled people? Or that the entrepreneur himself is living with a disability and managed to overcome all the challenges to start his business?
In Srikanth’s case, these are all true and have contributed to him being awarded the “Social Entrepreneur of the Year” title in YBI’s Young Entrepreneur Awards 2016. His successful business, Aasadeep is a social enterprise manufacturing multiple lines of eco-friendly products and wholeheartedly committed to employing disabled people. The business offers a range of products such as tableware made from agricultural waste, containers for packaging from recycled paper, and adhesives and inks from organic inputs.
To understand the whole purpose of the company, we would have to get to know the person behind it first: Srikanth Bolla. Srikanth was born to a poor family in coastal Andhra Pradesh, in the South of India. Throughout his childhood, his family struggled to stay above poverty; Srikanth faced the added challenge of having to learn how to live as a blind person.
Coming from a small town, the options for people with disabilities were very few, so Srikanth had to adapt. He attended a school with no special facilities for disabled children. At school, Srikanth was socially ostracized and getting around campus was challenging. Yet, Srikanth had a passion for learning. Despite everything, he found comfort in his studies and graduated among the top of his class.
Despite his impressive grades, his dream college in India refused his application. Discouraged but not deterred, Srikanth received encouragement from his community of supporters to look elsewhere for education options. It is at this point that he was accepted (with a full scholarship!) to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.
By the time Srikanth graduated and returned to India, everybody wanted to hire him. But Srikanth wanted something bigger. He wanted to do more than just combine his passions for technology and environmental sustainability: He wanted to create job opportunities for hundreds of underprivileged, unskilled and physically challenged young people.
“Even while studying in MIT, I had a vision for myself – I wanted to create a social enterprise that addressed three primary areas of concern to me: increasing pollution through indiscriminate usage of plastics and harmful chemicals; lack of employment opportunities for India’s eighty million disabled people; and improving the livelihoods of Indian farmers.”
With these goals in mind, Srikanth started his research. He quickly realized that creating products from recycled agricultural materials was not only sustainable, but it could also be a viable business.
One of the first materials he started utilising was the Areca nut (also known as betel nut). The nut is typically harvested by farmers in the Southern states of India as a commercial crop. But the farmers do not use the entire nut: the leaf sheaths they discarded is the very ingredient Srikanth was looking for. He used the leaf sheaths to create an eco-friendly alternative to plastic tableware. And that is how his business started.
As soon he secured seed funding for his business, Srikanth approached Youth Business International’s member in India, Bharatiya Yuva Shakti Trust (BYST), for training, coaching and mentoring. For him, the role BYST played was invaluable because it helped him refine the business model into what it is today.
Since Aasadeep’s launch, the company has first developed the eco-friendly tableware and next a line of containers from recycled paper. Srikanth was pleased with the progress, but not wanting to continue using chemicals in his production, he created for Aasadeep its own line of alternative inputs to chemicals typically used in manufacturing.
In only two years, Aasadeep achieved a turnover of USD 330,000. In less than 3 years, it is expected to grow from the micro-enterprise of today into a medium sized USD 13M company. This would also positively affect the social bottom line in India. Thus far, 60% of Aasadeep employees are people with disabilities and 56% of those employees are women. Further growth could only expand the opportunities for more disabled people in India.
For employees, the experience of working with Srikanth is a positive one. Srikanth made sure to customise all the manufacturing machines so that people of different disabilities could use them. Srikanth’s innate compassion and consideration for his fellow differently-abled colleagues is clear: One of his employees explains that,
“…with Srikanth, our relationship is more than that of employee-employer; he treats all of us like family.” Aasadeep employee
Aasadeep is also creating positive experiences for others in the supply chain. To date, the business has contributed to 800 jobs indirectly. Areca nut farmers are among those who can benefit from an additional source of stable income. Plus, by creating sustainable alternatives to plastic, Aasadeep has replaced roughly 700 tonnes of plastic waste in the market within three years.
As for Srikanth himself, he gets by managing the company just fine.
“I use technology to overcome my own visual disability. For example, I use cell phone and laptops that use speech to text software for communication and other office operations. In addition, there are few of my old and trusted confidants are supporting me in the business.”
Srikanth sought to reduce the use of harmful chemicals and plastics in manufacturing, create job possibilities for India’s eighty million disabled people, and improve the livelihoods of Indian farmers:
“The success of my business is not just an example of a good social venture but also a demonstration of how physically challenged people can dream big and then make that dream into a reality.”
Srikanth’s achievements were celebrated in April 2016 at the YBI Young Entrepreneur Awards ceremony, supported by Barclays, held in the Kampala, Uganda, as part of the larger event The Promise of Youth.