Paving the Way: Atypical Advantage – Vineet Saraiwala, PGP 2015

Born with a rare eye disorder, Retinitis Pigmentosa, things were never easy for Vineet Saraiwala. The struggle was real and acceptance a long tedious journey ahead. But as the saying goes, where’s there’s a will…Vineet has turned the disabilities around him into super abilities. He is out empowering many with physical challenges to come out of their shells and giving them a medium to exhibit their strengths.

Vineet is the Founder & Volunteer at Atypical Advantage – India’s first talent platform for people with disabilities. Through Atypical one can hire diverse talent, shop for products made by people with disabilities, browse through exquisitely curated art.

In this interview, Vineet shares his journey and experiences. A small-town boy with goodness that can be highly contagious.

Please tell us something about yourself.

Life has been continuously evolving for me. I started experiencing difficulties in reading very early. Everyone thought it was typical eyesight trouble that could be solved by wearing spectacles. But it only worsened with time. It was much later that we knew that I suffered from this condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment sometimes leading to complete blindness.

An eye surgery changed my life forever, I lost all my vision in the left eye and I ended up with a prominent change on my face. The feeling of ‘normal looking’ was lost forever. I went into complete isolation cutting myself from all social life. As a teenager, I did not want to face awkward questions from people. It took me a long time to recover and accept the harsh reality.

Another setback that jolted us as a family was when my younger brother was diagnosed with the same condition. But with time, acceptance and advancement in tech, like the screen reading software things became easier. These tools have made me more efficient and I am what I am because of them.

From Jamshedpur to IIM Bangalore, what was it like?

I always had a keen interest in academics and strong grasp of concepts. I wanted to pursue engineering but realized that working on scientific projects and labs would be challenge difficult to overcome. Hence I dropped the idea. That was a setback, I confess.

But life had bigger plans for me and my brother both. We practiced for CAT entrance with 3 professors from Bangalore, who would train people with similar disabilities over skype. Both I and my brother Anuj cracked the exams on the first go and got calls from IIM, Bangalore, Calcutta, Lucknow, Shillong, Kozhikode.

With our prevailing conditions, going to the same institute was the non-negotiable condition set by our parents. We also hoped to get into IIMB considering the facilities/ curriculum and were ecstatic when both of us secured admission. It was one of the best things that happened to us.

How was your experience at the institute? Any learnings that you would like to share.

In my opinion, IIMB is possibly one of the finest institutes in the country. Our initial six months in the institute were tricky. We worked really hard to pull down biases and stereotypes and prove our weight. Some of our professors went out of their way to provide us with soft copies of their presentations for the class, before the session, so that we could be at par with other students and had the same understanding. Some FPM tutored us and all this really helped. In terms of campus and facilities, IIMB is one of the most disabled-friendly institutions.

One is practically on their toes for all the two years at the institute. It is challenging, stressful and demanding. But it is this very experience that helps you in preparing for the real world scenario. IIMB instills the values of confidence, self reliability, continuous adaptation and problem solving for the ever-changing dynamics of the world.

I could not have asked for better batchmates. The faith they have shown in me and how they backed me while studying and even now is overwhelming. Out of the 400 batch strength, around 50-60 of them have helped me with Atypical Advantage in terms of resources, network, knowledge, contacts, etc.

Please tell us about Atypical Advantage. Why did you decide to do this?

I strongly feel that any individual with a privilege like – financial, network or institutional has the moral duty to give back to society in terms of making lives better for people. Being a person who has lived with a disability, and the challenges it brings forth, I wanted to provide PwD’s with means to empower themselves.

While training for a marathon at 13,000 feet, Pangong Lake, every breath was precious. In the silence of that one breath, I realized that if I was breathing I had much to be thankful for. The meaning of gratitude became much clearer and since then I have decided to give life meaning by using my knowledge and skills to become an enabler in others lives. Also as an individual, my ability to do is only so much, but as a business, a variety of options open up increasing its reach by many folds.

Since the inception of Atypical Advantage in Dec 2020, 400 plus people have signed up with us across 22 categories. Our reach is purely organic, and we intend to keep it that way. We believe that staying organic has higher sustainability in comparison to growing too rapidly.

What are the more popular categories on Atypical?

There are various segments – You can hire talent like artists, photographers, chefs and bakers. Certified physiotherapists, massage therapists, voice-over artists, etc. You can only buy art, products or even commission a painting based on customization.

As Inclusion Lead at Big Bazaar, you ran a program ‘Sabke Liye’. Can you tell us more about it?

As per the Census of 2011, out of the 121 crore population, 2.68 crore people in the country are disabled, which is about 2.21% of the total population. When numbers are so huge, it becomes imperative for us as a society to accommodate this segment of people and provide them with equal opportunities and make simple things like shopping accessible. Under the program ‘Sabke Liye’ Big Bazaar became the first retailer in the country with the most accessible stores with amenities. In addition ‘Quiet Hour’ was introduced which is a sensory-friendly shopping experience with reduced light, sound, trolley movement & a calm background for people on the Autism spectrum.

Tell us about your family.

My father is a cloth merchant and my mother is a homemaker based in Jamshedpur. My younger brother is an investment banker. He is extremely hard working and a workaholic. We live in a joint family.

What hobbies or interests do you engage in your time?

My maternal uncle introduced me to running. The found it very liberating. Since then I have constantly engaged in running, trekking and tandem cycling. I have trekked throughout Maharashtra, ran multiple marathons and tandem cycling in mountains. I strive to better my timing, endurance with every activity.

People who have had a big influence in your life.

There are 3 people who have a great of influence in my life.

Firstly, my brother. I admire his drive to achieve and excel. He is an example that there’s no shortcut to success and that hard work always pays off.

Second would be Venkat Krishnan, Founder of Give India Foundation. It helps raise funds and contributions from individuals across India and the world and then disburses these donations to credible Indian NGOs. I had the opportunity of meeting him and sharing my idea for the Atypical platform.

Third is Nipun Mehta, Founder of ServiceSpace, an incubator of gift economy projects that inspires people to be the change they wish to see.

Is there any ask of alums?

I would urge alums to consider doing three things:

  • Consider being inclusive in your company or organization and provide opportunities to PwD’s as equals, not out of pity or sympathy. You can choose Atypical for hiring purposes and the good news is that paying Atypical for isn’t necessary.
  • Buy art from PwD’s artists if you see the merit. They have been one the worst hit during the covid times and we would really appreciate if you can support them. You can use the Atypical platform to browse through all the incredible art curation.
  • We at Atypical invite alums to volunteer and provide their insights to making this platform a success.

Click here to visit Atypical Advantage for more details..