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Hi, my name is George Abraham and welcome to Eyeway conversations. My guest today is Vishal Kumar Jain from Bangalore. He is an HR consultant, a mountaineer and a musician. Hi Vishal, welcome.
George, hi, how are you?
Good, good! So which I believe you have been working with Shell now for about four years, what's your journey been like?
It's interesting. Shell is one of the most inclusive company I've worked so far. I've worked with Tata Motors earlier. And even that was a very inclusive organization. And I'm involved in multiple projects as a global HR consultant.
You've now been working with two top companies, TATA Motors as well as Shell, what have been your professional role meaning what did you start with and what has been your journey?
I started as a manager in Tata Motors, through my campus placements in IIM Lucknow. It was project managing in the space of learning, talent acquisition, employee engagement, talent management. Then I moved on to being a project lead, where I was deploying HR analytics, it was a completely new area for the organization and from setting up the roadmap to setting up systems working with technology and HR across. It was an interesting space with the technology evolving. Then Shell brought me back home to Bangalore. And I started with being an HR consultant for one of the largest units in India. And as a HR consultant, you get projects from any aspect of HR, right. So that's the nature of the work. And more recently, I moved to a larger role which is global HR consulting space. And I get assigned projects, which are pertaining to research technology, and multiple other spaces where there is good global presence.
Vishal, you lost your eyesight, or your eye problem began when you were in school. And I also know that you had a break in your education. So tell me, our listeners would love to know, how did you and your family respond to the loss of sight when you were in school and you actually turn things around? So what's the story there?
I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, and I could see more than 90% at one point, gradually it started deteriorating. That was the situation even with my brother and sister. So three out of four siblings have this condition. And after a point, we didn't know what to do when we couldn't read books anymore. And we dropped out of school. I had discontinued for three years, my brother for seven years, sister for 12 years. But one thing my parents did, they never lowered expectations from us. We were expected to do whatever any other child was expected to do. Wherever things you had to figure out other ways of dealing with it. They used to help us think and so on. But expectations were there and that's very critical for anybody to grow. Chance brought us to Bangalore, I moved to Bangalore in search of opportunities. I got connected with a few volunteers, NGOs and got to know how to become independent and get back to school. And one by one everybody got it back.
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Today, there are a number of blind and visually impaired people who have gone into the Indian Institute of Management across the country to do their MBA. years and so on, but you are among the early blind persons who actually made it to an IIM.
Well, till BCom second year, I had not heard of IIM, we were discussing amongst friends what to do next. And that's when I started thinking and I thought, okay, MBA is something I relate to, I took an old CAT paper, CAT is a common entrance test exam, which you need to clear to get into the best B schools in India. can you imagine how much is scored in that mock exam? Minus 10. *laughs*
Minus 10. Okay.
Yeah and that's what made me realize where I stand, then I decide anyways, I have decided to do MBA and from one of the best b schools in India so might as well start with where I am today. So I started with third standard math book. And that's what is critical to get admission into B school or any good college, be it a job or promotion or growth. Being self aware is very very critical. Once your're self aware, work towards bridging the gap. And that's what I did. And that took me to I am Lucknow, once you get into it. It's a very rigorous course. Not everything was accessible when I started. But professors were open to listening. And they made things inclusive over a period of time- got me books, readers over a period of time, and I could cope with it. Initially, it was extremely challenging because the pace of the course is very, very quick and fast. And I didn't get the accessible material on the first day like then others did. So that was definitely a challenging aspect of it. But you are with some of the best minds in the country, and even from other abroad. So you learn a lot from your peers as well. So that was something that opened up my mind with a lot of things, not just academics, but culturally and thinking beyond education and employment.
What is the process for you to get your placements done? You being a person with disability, was there anything special that was arranged for you?
Largely, the campus process was similar to whatever was there for everybody else. Two things I did. One is a lot of people who come to interview, they may not be sensitized on disability inclusion and how we work. So what I did was since we don't interact with them directly, and it's the placement team, who does it. I sensitize the placement team, how I work so that they can be my voice. The other thing I used to do was along with my CV, I used to add a FAQ page, which talks about my visual impairment, how I work with assistive aids. And because of my visual impairment, what are some of the things I've developed over a period of time, so that would break the ice and during the conversation, they also get a little comfortable to express and that's how it started.
Vishal, you were also kind of telling me your interest in adventure, mountaineering, skydiving and so on.
When I joined TATA Motors as part of onboarding program, we were sent for leadership and team building training. It was in Uttarkashi TATA Steel Adventure Foundation and organized it. It's headed by Bachendri Pal. First few days, I used to fall 20- 25 times a day because I can't see whether the next step has a rolling stone, slippery mud, what height or angle the next step is going to be. So I just like a child learned to walk and learned to climb. First, you learn to maintain center of gravity, irrespective of the terrain and step that you take. And slowly it becomes part of you and you start enjoying the nature. I enjoyed it so much that I went back and did a mountaineering course, full fledged, 30 days mountaineering course from Nehru Institute of mountaineering. It's one of the most grueling place I've ever experienced, because most of the trainers and even students are from Indian army. So the standards are completely different, very high. So in this course, I learned how to climb up and down on rock, mountain, ice, snow. Maybe I'll a share a couple of experience how it feels. The guide and I trained ourselves on how we will communicate and manage while climbing. But we encountered things which we had not imagined and thought of. Example, we reached a point when we were climbing and there was a stream, 20 feet wide stream, imagine 60 degree angle of water is flowing at extreme high speed. You can't even hear what each of what we were talking even if you shout it on here. So verbal communication has gone for us. And we need to cross that stream. The bridge was made out of just one single tree trunk to walk on that and cross. My guide said Vishal, we'll cross this. But if you lose your balance, or if you start to lose your balance, leave my hand. Why is he saying that, he is supposed to take care of me! *laughs* Anyway he explained, see if you fall and not continue to hold me. I will also fall with you and there is nobody to save us. So if you fall, and you leave me I will come back and save you. And that's when I understood what it meant. We started moving inch by inch. And once we reached the middle of the stream, it started swinging and round in shape hardly one and half feet wide. That was scary. Somehow crossed. After we crossed, we remembered God, 15 minutes we didn't utter a word.
And did you have to come back the same way?
That day, the same day I crossed another 10 streams. It's about that first experience. Anything we experienced for the first time is always extremely difficult. But you train and you learn how to deal with it. So there were many such occasions. Similarly, we climbed up at 12,000 feet. I was coming back from a glacier walk in extreme weather. Oxygen level is 50% which means even if you walk for 10 steps, you go breathless. We had to cross a landslide prone area. And the weather condition changed. And there was high risk of landslides occurring while we were going back. So the instruction given to us was we had to run. And imagine you're running not just on a flat surface. It's up and down the mountain. With that oxygen level, within five minutes, I couldn't breathe. So I told my guide, sir can we allow me to take five minutes break, you know what he said, and that's something I cannot forget my life. He said, if you're alive, you can do that after that. I didn't utter a word after that. And it's possible. So it's about facing that fear of moving through. And that's when I realized I don't even utilize 10% of my capacity. Mountain helps us really discover that. When the body gives up, the mind takes over and mind really takes over if you allow it to take over. I enjoyed that so much that I went to Nepal, and climbed Mount Everest base camp at 18,200 feet above sea level. And the experience was extremely memorable. The kind of terrain I've never experienced something like that. Took us 10 days to climb. Every day, we used to climb for 10-12 hours a day. And all these mountains, you need to carry your gears, 15-20 kgs on. Yeah, something memorable.
You also did some skydiving. So tell us a bit about that.
That was interesting too. So when I visited Netherlands for work, I added some personal travel and went to Vienna, Austria. I approached one of the companies who organized a skydiving and they were open to explore. The way it works is the guide, it's a tandem jump, you jump with another person tied to each other. He gives the instruction and men manages the parachute. So you put your safety gears on, climb onto a aircraft and we reached 13,000 feet above sea level and the door of the aircraft opens.
You slide towards the door, you stick your legs out. And that's when you realize where you are. Because the noise and the speed of the wind hits you and before it hits you, and you realize you are out of the plane, you jump. And I had asked my guide, since I don't see, I had asked him to ensure I have a full feel of it and experience it. And he got very excited. And once we jumped through, he did a somersault. I was rolling with it and at the speed, I mean I was falling at freefall. It said 220 kilometers per hour. I couldn't breathe, I opened my mouth to breathe, and couldn't breathe that speed of wind coming in, and I couldn't even close my mouth. And once the parachute opens, it feels really good. You're flying literally. And that's the point you can also speak. I could describe how the when I looked down below and it's beautiful.
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You mentioned at a certain point when you lost your vision, your two of your siblings also lost their vision. Would you like to tell me a little bit about the journeys of your two siblings? What are they doing today and how did they deal with their situation?
Absolutely, my elder brother Amit, he dropped out of school when he was in 7th, Hindi medium. He had a gap and then he directly did his 10th then 12th. And he did his BCom from IGNOU. And he has an excellent growth through extreme focus and hard work. He's very focused on anything he picks up. He is a musician. He had performed in three countries. He currently works with SBI as a Deputy Manager. My sister Rekha also started with Hindi medium, dropped out after 7th. She was among the topper in school. But since we didn't know how to deal with the situation, she dropped out of school where she couldn't study and didn't directly attend and continued her studies. And beyond the point she felt she wanted to focus on doing things and learning things that she loved, rather than a formal education. So she took up courses informally, where whatever she felt like learning right from gardening to reading spiritual material. And now she in fact, teaches Jainism to students online. She has students from across India, US, Australia, and so on. All of us are doing what we enjoy, and thanks to all the support system we got. So unless we have got the support system from family, from volunteers, at that crucial point, we couldn't have thought of doing this and we are really gratefulfor that.
You mentioned that your brother is into music and you also have some interest in music. What's the kind of music you play, meaning how do you spend your time with music?
I'm a percussionist. I play around six musical instruments- tabla, dholak, congo, octopad, bongo,drums. I kept switching from one instrument to the other. And now I'm focusing on octopad and tabla. Ahmet is more focused with keyboard.
Do you jam?
Oh, yeah, we do. We had the band we performed in India, US earlier when we were in college. Now, it's more of freelancing whenever we have time and when we get shows perform.
What's the kind of music you play?
Semi classical, light music, Bollywood, mostly for hours around us.
Is there anything else that you do to actually self discover yourself or reinvent yourself or to find peace for yourself?
I am in to Vipassana meditation that really helps me observe and understand myself, and stay neutral to all that we encounter. And I used to meditate for quite a few years, but when I went for the personal meditation is when I realized what meditation is. It's a journey, it's a discovery of our own self, right. So unless we are with ourselves, with all the distraction of the day, we can't understand who we are. For example, I went for this Vipassana first time, 10 days course. You're cut off from the world, no phone, no entertainment, no music, it's only you and your self. And you don't want to talk to people around. just completely what we call as mumb. We don't speak, even non verbally. That's very helpful to get into yourself and understand yourself. When we get away from distraction is when we, our mind gets clearer. And it helps in improving our focus levels, productivity. And for me, vipassana it's not about that, it's not even about health, it's a spiritual path. Not pertaining to any religion as such. But it's about for self discovery. And for me, it has helped a lot. It's one thing that I would recommend anyone to do, it would be vipassana because it really helps you discover yourself.
One last question, you know, you've lived in Mumbai, you've lived in Bangalore, you lived in Noida, you've traveled across the world. And you've been blind, how do you include yourself in the environment, both in terms of people and nature, as you go along?
Some interesting one. Including ourselves requires us to express who we are, and be ourselves because you are expert of who you are. We can't expect others to understand us all the time. So if we encounter any accessibility challenge, be it in public space or at work. It's about expressing and letting others know that this is how you you work, you are different from others. It's not a disability, it's just that you are different. And you have a different way of working, they need to understand that. And when we highlight that, this is what you need and these are your requirements also helps them understand how it can be addressed. Because they are not experts a lot of times. For example, we discover an app that is not accessible. Instead of talking amongst ourselves, it's simpler to write to the customer credit team, that this particular screen is not accessible, I can click on this button, using my screen reader or right on app store or Playstore of that app. It gets more attention. So it's all about highlighting with some aspect of solution. Yes, a lot of people are not aware, but they are willing to include. And there are aspects where people are not very open to improve. And that's the time when we need to collaborate with more people. And when more voices reach them, they are more open to look into it. It should not appear as only one person is looking for solution. Because I've worked with a lot of organizations and startups to make their products accessible, to make their solutions accessible. And one thing that I hear commonly is nobody reached out with this issue of me. So I'm not sure whether it's really an issue. And that gets difficult when people approach for solutioning of accessibility challenges, for example. So it's always good to highlight and don't wait for others to do it. More voices are always stronger.
Great. So Vishal, thank you very much for spending the time today and talking to me and talking to Eyeway Conversations. Wish you the very best as you move on in life.
Pleasure talking to you George, thanks a lot for having me.
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