The first thing that you notice when you meet Surashri Rahane is her smile, the kind that instantly warms you up. Many expected the 30-year-old to be defeated by her multiple physical disabilities but she has been an achiever all through: A topper in school, she went to study engineering at College of Engineering, Pune, before cracking a tough entrance examination to make it to the coveted Faculty of Management Studies (FMS), New Delhi, for her Master’s degree. An all-rounder to the T, she is a certified scuba diver and a trained Bharatnatyam dancer; she can sing as mellifluously as she can debate fiercely. Following a thriving career with prestigious companies like Pepsico and HP, she set up her own venture four years ago. She has been a Sabyasachi Mukherjee bride and her Josh Talks video has more than 1.5 lakh views. Nothing about her would convey that she has done it all while living with multiple disabilities and has undergone 15 surgeries in her life.
Surgeries to fix her limb: ‘My friend used to carry my school bag everyday’
The day Surashri was born, her family members knew that she was going to be a special child; she underwent her first surgery on merely the 15th day of her existence. “I was born with a club foot – a birth defect because of which my leg was twisted out of shape. So, my first surgery was aimed at fixing my leg,” says Rahane, a native of Nashik, Maharashtra. In years to follow, she underwent several procedures: operations to remove extra fingers, installation of Ilizarov apparatus so that both her feet could be of the same length. “I have limb-length discrepancy: a condition in which one of my feet is shorter than the other. To fix this, I was recommended this procedure to lengthen my bones. I had this heavy apparatus installed in my foot at a very young age and I had to adjust it every day,” she shares.
The effort did not pay off as after three years, Surashri’s family was told that the procedure was only a partial success. This was when they took a collective decision to give up any attempt to “fix” her body and resolved to ensure she got the best life with what she had, says Surashri, who wears customised heel shoes to assist her posture.
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An alumnus of a prestigious convent school in her hometown, Surashri was a star student. “I was good at academics. Besides that, I was part of the debate team, member of the choir, and a competitive swimmer,” she says. Her dream run in school was punctuated by days off that she had to take for her surgeries. “Those were some of the toughest days of my life. I missed school dearly. Whatever challenge life threw my way, it compensated for it by giving me the most caring friends. I still remember how a friend of mine used to carry my school bag everyday…” she recalls fondly.
Accessibility a huge issue: ’I had to work hard on my balance’
While the supportive attitude of her immediate family members and school friends was the wind beneath her wings, the lack of accessibility for the differently abled outside worked as a downer. “My right knee does not bend because of which I had a hard time getting on the school bus in the absence of a ramp. With my legs being of uneven length, I had to work hard on my balance. I often used to fall flat on my face while walking. But with practice, those instances got fewer and far between. What helped was that I always had help at hand – be it in the form of a dear friend or a kind stranger,” says Surashri.
Finding body acceptance in college: ‘I realised the way I walked was not hampering anything that I wanted to do’
As she excelled in academics and extra-curricular activities, and worked on managing her physical condition, Surashri hardly had the time to focus on her looks. But that changed when she went to junior college, in class XI. “I never thought I was pretty or anything but I had learnt to be indifferent about it. But all that changed when I went to college. I could not help but notice how boys would gaze at me and not in a pitiable sort of way. I got many proposals and that made me realize that I was attractive and gave me a lot of body confidence,” she reminisces. Until this time, Surashri was learning to walk without a limp. But she decided to let go of that as well. “I realized that the way I walked was not hampering anything that I wanted to do. So, why should I not divert my energy towards something more useful?” she says.
Living alone for the first time: ‘I went to engineering college’
“I stepped out of my home for the first time at the age of 18 to take up engineering in Pune. At first, it was a revelation. The experience made me realize what a cocooned life I had lived until then,” Surashri shares. “From having a car to pick and drop me wherever I wanted to go to now having to travel in public transport was quite a humbling experience, to say the least. But I took it up as a challenge and soon found myself travelling in buses, trains and rickshaws, and facing and overcoming all the challenges that came with it,” she adds.But apart from the hardships, college also brought in a lot of fun in Surashri’s life. “Oh, it was one big party!” she exclaims. “From adhering to a curfew to partying till late in the night, from avoiding even school picnics to participating in hiking and trekking, I did it all and it was a lot of fun.”College was also where she met Amol Bagul, her best friend, who would go on to be her life partner and her biggest support system.
Finding Amol: ‘He married me despite being able-bodied’
“Amol and I started out as friends: I would try and set him up with some girl or the other, he would listen to the woes I was facing in my long-distance relationship. Gradually, we realised that we were meant to be with each other,” Surashri tells us. But while Amol accepted her wholeheartedly, getting his family members to accept Surashri proved to be an uphill task. “They could not understand why their able-bodied son would go for someone like me. My education, my achievements, my love and commitment for Amol did not matter to them. They threatened to break their ties with Amol but he stood by me like a rock,” says Surashri, fighting back tears.
Surashri and Amol got married at the age of 22, with support from the former’s parents. Amol’s parents have come around only recently and now she has a comfortable relationship with her in-laws. Staying apart from his parents was not the only sacrifice Amol made for her, says Surashri. “Following our B Tech, we made it to two prestigious institutes for our MBA – I made it to FMS in Delhi while he secured admission at IIM-Indore. But Amol realised that he could not stay apart from me for two years and gave up his IIM dream in favour of an institute in Delhi,” she elaborates.
Facing the real world: ‘I was driving sales for Pepsico’
Surashri says she always wanted to get into sales and marketing. “I am aware that I could have opted for other, more ‘comfortable’ streams but I have always been one to chase challenges. Plus, the glamour of the marketing world attracted me,” she laughs. However, soon she realised that there was a world of difference between what she wanted and what others thought she was capable of. “Being a bright student, I would crack all the placement tests that I sat for. But things changed during interviews,” says Surashri. Despite her assurances, there were companies which did not share her conviction that she could be a good fit for a marketing role. “One interviewer asked me if I could drive and decided not to proceed with my candidature when I told them I couldn’t. ‘How will you sell our products’ I was asked. I wondered if driving skills were a prerequisite for all marketing aspirants. Clearly not. So, why was I being singled out?”
But then came a job opportunity that made up for all the rejections. “I was picked by Pepsico for a sales role – considered a male bastion. On top of that, I was disabled. But it didn’t matter to them at all. They practically threw me on to the field,” she recalls. “I would interact with roadside vendors and paan shop owners and they never cared if I was a woman or a differently abled person. They practically threw food packets at my face if they were defective. But you know what? I took it all on my chin, quite literally. I was glad that they were treating me as a regular sales executive and not somebody for whom any special concessions needed to be made,” Surashri shares.
Entrepreneurial journey: ‘I set up my own start-up’
Coming from a business family – her mother owns a successful saree store in Nashik named after her daughter – Surashri always had an entrepreneurial streak in her. But here too, while she believed she could make it as a businesswoman, there were others who did not. “I was about to set up a venture, everything was finalised. But the investor never got back to me after our first face-to-face meeting. Although he did not convey this to me, I had a feeling that he did not want to waste his money on someone who was not ‘physically fit’,” she says. Her business dream put on hold, Surashri vowed that she would make sure that others get to realise theirs. “As a working woman, I would set aside a part of my savings for angel investment. I would invest in start-ups because I didn’t want anyone else to suffer the way I had,” she says. After a few years, Surashri was ready to start her own venture – Yearbook Canvas.
Surashri’s choice of business is also steeped in her childhood memories and struggles that she faced due to her disabilities.
Set up in 2018, Surashri’s company, in her own words, is India’s number 1 yearbook company, which is helping education institutes and corporates create a closed social network, yearbooks and merchandise. Surashri’s choice of business is also steeped in her childhood memories and struggles that she faced due to her disabilities. “I was a very popular student in school and it would just kill me to stay apart from my classmates during my surgeries. So, I always had a slam book and would get all my classmates to fill it up for me. The book helped me survive the difficult days in hospital and made me aware of the power of documenting memories,” she says.
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Through her venture, Surashri, along with her co-founder Abhinav P Madavi, is also trying to create the largest alumni ecosystem in India. “I have been lucky to have had the support of my alumni from my colleges during my career. I want everyone to have that kind of guidance at their fingertips,” says Surashri, whose company counts prestigious institutes like IIM, Ahmedabad, FMS Delhi and IIT, Bombay among its clients. Surashri is also aiming at creating an inclusive workplace. “By the end of 2023, I want to see 30 per cent of my workforce made up of differently-abled people,” she adds.
As she recounts her journey and shares her vision for the future, Surashri does not let go of her striking smile for even a minute. “It has been a rewarding journey. I have had dreams that could be considered unachievable for any girl, let alone one living with disabilities. But I succeeded in making them come true. I believe that the universe has ensured that I achieve all my dreams,” she says.
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For every girl who wants to make it big in life, Surashri has one piece of advice: “Speak up. Demand what you need and don’t rest until you get it. You have to stand up for yourself. Others can only aid your journey, you have to cover the distance yourself.” And for people with physical challenges? “Embrace your condition with all your heart. Don’t be ashamed of stating outright that you have a condition and demand inclusive spaces. No need to hide yourself to fit in; take space. As they say, ‘be yourself, the world will adjust’.”