Eyeway Conversation with Ekinath Khedekar
6:32AM Apr 9, 2021
This podcast is brought to you by BarrierBreak Solutions Pvt. Ltd. and Score Foundation.
Hi, my name is George Abraham and welcome to this edition of Eyeway Conversation. My guest today is Ekinath Khedekar. He's been in the corporate world for over 10 years. He's also a person involved with Lawn Tennis for the blind. Welcome, Ekinath, good to have you on the show!
Same here, thank you very much George.
Yep. So, Ekinath, this Lawn Tennis for the blind, how did you get involved with it? And what is it all about? How do blind people play tennis?
I got introduced to it in the UK while studying M. Sc Sustainability at UCL, London. The fundamental change is the ball. So, the ball has some small bearings, which make jingling noise while it travels even in the air. The court is much smaller, and how they feel the orientation of the service line, the baseline, is with these ropes stuck to the court surface. And you can feel it even if you're wearing good shoes, canvas shoes. Now about the racquets - because the ball currently is being manufactured by just one manufacturer and it's a delicate one, we cannot use the usual senior racquets. So, we use junior racquets, a smaller version, lighter versions of say 21, 23, 25 inches size. So, I really got hooked up to the game, played well and also had an opportunity to play in the UK regionals. And then came back, introduced it in India.
Ekinath, you've worked with Reliance Power for nearly 10 years. Can you kind of briefly tell us what was your journey in Reliance Power like and what were the kind of responsibilities and work that you did there?
Initially, I joined their corporate strategy team. I was a Finance Grad from the B-school. So I gave my best. But in the corporate situation, George, time is an essence and corporate strategy, unfortunately, was the most demanding of the departments in my organization. And we would need to complete some assignments within 30 minutes, 40 minutes. So even though nobody could challenge the accuracy of my work or the quality, I was slower than able-bodied B-Grads. So, I decided that no, I want to perform where I am 100% and I sat down with my boss and we recognized that I have passion towards Law also. So, I have done my LLB along with BA Economics. And I focused on that and power industry being such a regulated industry, it always impacts your top line and bottom line in a big way. I realized that, hey, this was an important job. And I'm good at it. And it gave me good recognition in the organization. And by 2015, I was one of the go-to persons for regulatory research and advice.
So, you also did some work in the area of solar energy
Because I have a nomadic tribe background, I have seen my own small hamlet getting affected by climate change. And I say Sustainability is the passion of my life. And that's why I finished off my M.Sc in Sustainability from University College, London in 2016, thanks to a very generous scholarship by the UK government. Came back. And that's where the story of renewables and the solar power development begins. So, I wanted to quit, then my boss offered me to join. He's a smart gentleman. He said that if you want to do work in Sustainability, why not develop solar power plants because it's a clean power. It was a very convincing argument. I joined the renewables team, worked for them for a very short time, because I realized that you know, by then Reliance Power and Anil Dhirubhai Ambani group wasn't doing well. We were not having enough equity to invest in new projects. So that would have been a stagnancy. So, I shifted to CSR because we had decent budgets. I wanted to get connected to people. I wanted to do well even in the area of development. That gave me an opportunity and I recently finished off heading the CSR. With a decent budget to spend, we worked in the area of education, healthcare, rural development, climate change, sanitation. And I'm glad that I could do whatever I could in these four states of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, MP, Rajasthan in very, very backward areas where we could impact 25,000 households. So that's where I finished first as a finance professional corporate strategy regulatory, then solar development. And then finally CSR and now I have joined a very, very reputed and very good conglomerate of Wipro. I have joined Wipro Limited and now I'm heading Supply Diversity for all the geographies on planet where Wipro operates.
The Supply Diversity, can you just demystify it a little bit?
So, Supply Diversity is basically when big companies take a very responsible position saying that hey, listen, I have become big and I spent 2 billion dollars or 10 billion or 50 billion dollars through my suppliers. So, in case of Wipro, we do a lot of manpower staffing kind of operations, we buy staff because we have so many offices around the world. So, we give contracts to the, say, simple example is canteen agency or say, transport agency. So when we spend to our vendors, can we be little more conscious and say listen, hey, can we give it to the enterpreneur of this business - who belongs to this section, who is Afro-American or who is historically marginalized, who is a Native American or a women-led entity or who is a PwD-led entity. And this thought has become very big now, all the MNCs - be Intel, Wipro, HP, Dell, Apple - all these big companies are having a global mandate to diversify their supply chain. CSR has been mandated by law. And companies think about CSR only when they make profits, because that's what law says. If you make profit, then you spend 2% of your last three years average profit, right? It's not part of your main business. Any person who understands finance will understand looking at the P&L, Profit and Loss sheet and understand this comes at the bottom, comes last. But Supplier Diversity is like you are integrating the marginalized right in your business. You're saying hey, listen, we are going to go on a tool for economic growth, do you want to come along? And you give a fair chance to that disadvantaged individual or a business saying - you have a chance to present your case, and let's see if you can get involved in our supply chain and prosper with us. So, I find this role very exciting. Of course, the magnanimity of this role is that it's all pervasive, it's in the major geographies of the world. And I hope to contribute whatever way I can because it comes from the very core of my belief that whatever solutions as PwDs, as any marginalized we want is really to be in the mainstream.
You're highly educated, you've got several degrees, you got two graduate degrees, one in Economics, the other in Law, you have a postgraduate degree in Management. From a prestigious Bajaj Institute in Mumbai, you also have master's degree from the University College of London. So, I just wanted to have your thoughts on or I'd like you to share your experience of studying in a special environment and in a kind of inclusive environment.
I think George, that's a very critical and very important question to be asked in the current situation in the Indian setup. In the Indian setup, it is an underlined phrase because many of my friends suggest that you know, integrated schooling, that is PwD child going to the school is okay. But ask me, ask the child who grew up in very, very acute poverty situation, who grew up with family where not a single member had studied beyond the tenth standard, who was growing up in slums, who did not have a father to guide him. For such a situation, I think, my school Happy Home School for the Blind was a big boon. And I'll try and explain that reason. I could meet my friends who are from better families. They came from families where their parents were educated, they could talk well so I was exposed to something better than the condition that I was living in. So, I tell my friends, you know, George, thank goodness, I mean blindness happened, maybe otherwise I would have been just another goon in my slum. Because that was the case initially.
And my mother also said the same thing. So, I do not want to glorify disability. But I would say that it really depends - if we need to have a mixed system our country thrives on. Everything's mixed. So, I think a situation where a child is able to play like an equal, can find systems and friends who are like him, is very important for his confidence in his growth. At the same time, can he go and study in a mainstream school and get exposed to the subjects which this school meant for visually impaired doesn't teach? For example, I was good in Arithmetic, Mathematics, but my school for whatever reason wouldn't teach us Mathematics beyond the seventh standard.
What about your time in college?
Someone who had come to our school as a volunteer to teach English said if you want to learn, if you want a job (because that was always my worry, I wanted a job to help my mother), you want to learn English. And if you want to learn English, you should go to an environment where people speak English. And then St. Xavier's was selected, and it turned out to be a paradise. We got good support in the form of XRCVC that is Xavier's Resource Center for Visually Challenged. In fact, we were the founding beneficiaries if I can say. So that experience just helped me compete and then completing an MBA school was a completely different experience, George. Not because of my disability, but because of the streams. So in Xavier's, very high standard of ethics, very, very high standards of sincerity towards education, towards attendance was maintained. Whereas, when I went for MBA, I saw nothing mattered. What mattered was coming up at the top through whatever means - and that was very unsettling. And thanks to MBA I got a job but the one education, George, I have done not for practical reasons but for something I really wanted to learn is my M. Sc from University College, London. I did MBA because someone said hey, you want to earn five times more you need to do MBA, you will get a good package. I did it. Someone said you want to learn English, go to St. Xavier's college. I went to St. Xavier's college. Law and M.Sc Sustainability I've done just because I liked the subjects. And I was lucky to get through this Chevening Scholarship and UK was absolutely a stunning experience. For conceptual understanding of basic things is which in an Indian system you just rush off, that was not the case there. The system itself is very rigorous. So, it kind of induces you to do the course in a very deep rigorous manner. You cannot get away. You just can't get away by mugging up stuff for two hours and writing papers. So that was a different experience. Again, wonderful support. Very accessible systems, very friendly environment. And yes, Oh boy! Living in London, a developed country was an absolutely life changing experience for me in true sense.
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You know any conversation with you will not be complete if you do not speak about your passion for the outdoor. You've talked extensively about your interest in running half marathons, your interest in cycling, your interest in swimming. How did you get interested in all this? And tell us a little bit about how you actually go about these things?
Sure, George. You know all those things sound good -- MBA from JBIMS among the top five, the top B schools, Chevening Scholar of the UK government, the first Indian blind and everything is all right. But then the child which grew in slums doesn't go away - those tough experience don't go away. It does not mean that I brood over it. I-I really enjoy whatever I've lived and the bottom line is, I realize, you know, at this juncture of age and decent achievements is that one needs to be happy. That's it. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you're working as a telephone operator or if you're working in a bank, or if you're working in some wonderful WallStreet investment bank, you need to be happy. And I have realized, my happiness lied in nature, my happiness lies in the outdoors. And I was always sporty. Even during board exams, as I said, I used to play cricket. Then during college, I took up half-marathons, I used to go trekking, for pleasure sports, and I took them up big time when I came to the UK. I said this will be the tool for me to promote inclusive sports. So, as a student, there was a time when I fought for access to study books, but now it was for visibility. It was for mainstreaming. It was for simple conversations that PwDs can have with the able-bodied part of the society. And sports is a wonderful enabler I've seen. So, how I go about doing it is you know, while working with Reliance, I would work for six days, and I will just have one day but I'll make sure that I get up early in the morning and go for practice, run hard or go for cycling. So, thanks to ABBF Adventures, Beyond Barriers Foundation, they have introduced tandem cycling. I went from Pune to Goa. Of course this happens after a lot of training in the gym or outdoors. But tandem cycling is a very known game, a known sports in Mumbai at least. We have regular cycling expeditions happening now. So, Manali to Khardung La is one beautiful experience. ABBF facilitated it out and out but we had to train really hard. It is difficult to explain the challenge or the excitement of it -- I'm not sure how many of our listeners must have experienced high altitude sickness.
Well, you know, so maybe George, you're very sporty you must have experienced it. But when you are not able to breathe, and even walking a few steps, few paces becomes difficult? And we had taken up this expedition where we went from Manali to Khardung La about 560 kilometers, from the height of 3500-4000 feet to 18,000 feet.
Yeah, so that was a memorable experience -- right from Manali Kullu Valley to Chenab and its tributaries, and those gushing waterfalls, cold, barren lands -- expert description by friends, sighted friends -- my pilot, as we call it, my navigator. So, how it works is, this is a tandem cycle friends. You know aap do cycle le lejiye, ek you know, the front cycle, you remove the back wheel, and the hind cycle, you will remove the front wheel and you join it. That's how the tandem cycle leaves. It has a single chain, two pedals, two seats, and front handle is movable. So, the navigator, the able-bodied person sits on the front seat, but you are the stoker -- you have to make sure that you pedal as good or better than your pilot. So my pilot was an Australian, 65-year-old, fittest man of that age I have seen. We had a wonderful time. 10 days continuous cycling every day, of course not for 24-7, but every day for five hours, eight hours. But I've seen perhaps the best part of our country in terms of weather, beauty, everything.
Yeah, during the course of our conversation several times you did mention about your difficult background, a difficult childhood. Can you kind of talk a little bit about the childhood because I think I would like our listeners to know that the starting point in life doesn't really matter. It is more to do with your own aspirations, your own effort and your willingness to challenge yourself. So, I think it's very relevant for our audience to know the kind of background you actually started life from.
I was born in a caste - now we can't get away with caste in India -- and I was born in a nomadic tribe caste, very close to Mumbai in a place called Chiplun. Even now the literacy rate is very low there. And unfortunately, I lost my father at the age of two. And that made things worse because my mother was not educated and she had to bring up four children in a very backward area of the Mumbai slums. And now, when I was five-six-year-old, we realized that, hey, I couldn't see the board. And then blindness was the reality of life. I could see a little, but not good enough to study in school. So, all those tough times that all the disabled folks go through -- acceptance, marginalization, the prospects of life -- because my family was not exposed to all those developments happening in the area, we were really worried. But as I said earlier, that once my vision kept reducing, I reached a stage by fifth standard where I just could not continue in the mainstream school, Marathi medium, anymore. I was admitted to Happy Home School for the Blind in Worli. And that was a boon because suddenly I had hope. I had, you know, children with similar abilities or disabilities and we could play, we could -- it was a happy life. It was -- I call it my Hogwarts because that founded my take off. In a couple of years, I was as good as any Happy Homite. You will realize that in mainstream school I was demotivated, for whatever reasons, small comments and whatever. But at Happy Home, I realized that, hey, listen, some volunteer is very encouraging with the smiling face and telling you listen, you want a job, child, you need to learn English, and you're smart. And those encouragements really help. Thanks to volunteers. That's why voluntarism is so important that you'd never know whose life you will touch but these wonderful ladies and gentlemen did touch my lives. And I said, hey, listen, you know, if I want to help my mother, if I want to help my sisters, my family, I need to do better.
Ekinath, it was wonderful speaking with you. It was your story. I shouldn't be using the word -- inspiring. But it is truly inspiring and motivating. You started several yards behind the starting line, but you have caught up with the world and you have greater power and you keep running the race of life with gusto, energy. And be happy and bring happiness to many people. Thank you very much.
Thank you very much, George. Thank you very much. Have a good day. Thank you.
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