Rajeev Annapragada, who lost 95% of his eyesight at age 12, dreamed of attending an elite U.S. MBA program, but faced discrimination from employers in his home country of India. His is now a first-year MBA at Columbia Business School. Courtesy photo

Growing up in Southern India, Rajeev Annapragada excelled in school, most often the top 1 or 2% of his class. He figured he’d end up becoming a doctor or engineer.

But at age 12, he suddenly struggled to see the blackboard at the front of the class. He was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder, Retinitis Pigmentosa, that robbed him of 95% of his eyesight.

Without many of the assistive tools and services available to students with disabilities in the U.S., Annapragada adopted his own tricks for completing his education. Friends and family often read to him homework and exam questions, and he would dictate back the answers. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Commerce, Accounting and Costing from Balasiva Degree College, and dreamed of earning an MBA from an elite program in the United States.

But employers in his home country were reluctant to hire a blind candidate. He had countless interviews, but was turned away once hiring managers saw his disability. Without job experience, most elite MBA programs wouldn’t consider him.

He didn’t give up.

“I always tell everyone, ‘Dream big. You will face hurdles, you will fail at times, there will be struggles you have to go through. But that shouldn’t stop you from dreaming or from continuing your journey,'” Annapragada tells Poets&Quants.

“You have to move forward, find options, and achieve it. Be resilient.”

Today, Annapragada is a first-year MBA at Columbia Business School. Between his demanding schedule, he took the time to share his inspiring story with P&Q. Our conversation, presented below, has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m from the southern part of India, in a city called Kurnool in the state of Andhra Pradesh. I was the youngest in the family. My father was a civil engineer, my mother was a homemaker, and I have an older sister. Everything was quite normal until the age 12.

Rajeev Annapragada, MBA ’25

When I was in sixth grade, I started having difficulty seeing letters on the blackboard. I got glasses, but it didn’t help me much. Over time, my vision was getting worse.

That’s when we went to an eye hospital in Hyderabad and I was diagnosed with a genetic problem called retinitis pigmentosa, which doesn’t have any proven treatment to date.

It was a tough situation. I still remember that day when the doctor was talking to my parents about it. I didn’t understand anything because I was just 12. I only really understood when the doctor said I could not play cricket nor football. That was so frustrating.

I wasn’t mature enough to understand the situation. I used to be in a very confused, very depressed state. You know, like why me? Nobody in our family has eye problems, so nobody knew how to deal with the situation. The town I grew up in didn’t have many facilities for special kids.

Then I saw my grades coming down, which I really didn’t like. I used to be a very good student, always in the top two percentile of the class. So when teachers or people started to pity me, I didn’t like that. I thought, “I have to do something to come back on track.” I started looking for options to study and started seeking help from my friends. My family, my mom especially, used to read things out loud for me, and I would dictate to them what to write for exams. That’s how I actually started adapting to my new life. Because it’s like I had to start my life again from scratch.

From childhood, I always wanted to be the best at what I do. I don’t know whether it is good or bad, but it helped me to come on track in my studies. Simultaneously, my mom introduced me to Indian classical Carnatic music. Music also helped me to calm myself and helped me concentrate more on the skill rather than the mishap that happened. I did my diploma in Indian classical Carnatic music.

So after 10th grade in India, I had to choose subjects. So, when I spoke to different people, of course medicine was ruled out because doctors cannot be blind. I was always driven by economics studies and social studies in school. I can understand it very intuitively and naturally. Also, practically back in India, there wasn’t a single blind student who did studies in science, at least in the knowledge that I had at the time. So I thought, practically, accounting would be more accessible for me than science.

I thought I would pursue accounting and commerce. Slowly I developed a deep passion for finance and I did my undergrad Bachelors in commerce. I also did Chartered Accountancy. That helped me to develop more understanding about the financial sector.

During my undergrad, it was always a dream to do my MBA in one of the Ivy League schools in the U.S.. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do in business, but I want to be in the business world. But, a lot of big MBA schools require a minimum number of years of work experience.

So after my undergrad, I was hunting for jobs. However, whenever I used to go to an interview with any company, I used to always get rejected based on my disability. On my profile, I used to get shortlisted for interviews. But when I showed up, there was always a stigma that a disabled person could not work. I used to travel almost 200 kilometers, 300 kilometers for an interview just to listen to a rejection.

I never shared this with my family because they would get depressed about my situation. I never shared any struggle with them. I just said maybe I didn’t perform well, that’s the reason I was rejected. So that’s how I dealt with that situation back then.

There was one particular situation where I went to an interview with a firm and, at the interview table again, I was told the same – that they could not entertain a disabled person. I use an assistive technology called JAWS screen reader. They said they cannot accommodate that. I was standing aside on the floor, and I was feeling very bad about it. Then they came again and told me I can’t even stand there, I had to immediately leave the campus. I asked for some time so that my friends could come back and pick me up. They didn’t even listen, they called a security guard and they almost pushed me out of the campus.

Rajeev Annapragada grew up in Kurnool in the state of Andhra Pradesh. He earned his first MBA at Indian Institute of Management-Trichy.

No, definitely not. I don’t believe it’s the culture of the company as well. That particular individual who was there that day was not the right person, I believe. Just because of what one person did to me I cannot really generalize the whole culture of the company.

Of course the opportunities are definitely less to people with disabilities. But that kind of treatment? I don’t think so. It’s one in 100 or 1000 times you face that.

Unfortunately, I had that bad situation, and it actually encouraged me to achieve good not just in my personal life, but also that’s when I decided I need to do something for my community so that nobody should face the situation again.

Without any option of finding a job, I decided to get an MBA in India.

I did my MBA at Indian Institute of Management-Trichy, one of the premium colleges in India. I had a very good experience in my MBA, but personally, after my parents left me in the university, within 15 days, I lost my father. I completed my orientation, and I was preparing for the very first class of the first semester, and I got a call from my home that my father had died because of a cardiac arrest. I was blank for some time.

I really have to say my administration, students, academic staff, non academic staff, everybody helped me so much to come out of my grief. And I literally felt like I grew up overnight to take care of the family.

I completed my MBA – they call it PGDM, Post Graduate Diploma in Management – and I joined Royal Bank of Scotland. Still, my recruitment wasn’t easy. Many companies wanted to take me, but they didn’t get enough support from their internal teams.

Yes. There was a dedicated recruitment team who ensures everybody gets a job. It’s a more formalized procedure they have compared to America, so that is one good part of it.

My mentor is the Chief Risk Officer of Royal Bank of Scotland, India. He’s the one who recruited me, and I was part of their risk management function. After working there for two years, I started working with the diversity, equity, and inclusion network of RBS, focusing on people with disabilities more.

I think that’s when I started dreaming about a U.S. MBA again because then I had good work experience. I built my profile across different backgrounds – not just academically, not just professionally, but also I was pursuing my music. I was a lead singer in many bands. I was heavily invested in diversity, equity, and inclusion activities for people with disabilities. I’ve run a lot of initiatives to spread awareness on disabilities and best practices in recruitment and the workplace. All these things really helped me in my application. Three years into my work experience, I decided to apply to U.S. MBA schools.

I always had this passion for finance, so I started thinking about which schools to apply to. I already had one premium MBA from India, so if I was going to do another, it had to be the best in the world. I couldn’t compromise in the school program.

So I wanted to apply to HSW – Harvard, Stanford Wharton – Columbia, and Chicago Booth. That was my list. Then I started searching for consultants to help me in the process because they will know the process much better than me.

Honestly, Poets&Quants helped me so much in my understanding about various consultants and various schools. P&Q was my go-to resource for any kind of questions regarding MBA processes. I read about multiple consultants. I had calls with multiple consultants.

Many of the consultants, when I shared my story and the list of target schools, they said I was overly ambitious. I didn’t have strong numbers on my profile, they said. Just to give context, I did almost all my education without the assistive technology: Just listening to someone, remembering it, and writing it in the exam. Even with that, I was able to score close to 90%. Still, most of the consultants said they’d rather help me not with the top five schools, but the top 15.

I said if somebody’s not confident in me, I really can’t work with them. If someone is not able to dream what am I dreaming, it doesn’t make sense for me. That’s when I met consultants who both really like my profile and started working with me.

Luckily, the very first school I was able to get into was Columbia Business School. I applied in the early decision round, and it was a great fit because of my interest in finance and being in New York with access to Wall Street.

At Wharton, I was able to go to the interview round, but I could not convert it. Harvard and Stanford, somewhere it didn’t work. However, I’m very happy with the choices I made in terms of coming to Columbia Business School.

Rajeev Annapragada hopes to work in finance upon graduation from CBS.

I think from my resume to putting my story together for schools. I mean, I used to think a certain way, but after talking to the consultants, my perceptions changed.

I had assumptions about some things going in, but they laid out the path to understand what exactly the process was and how exactly we have to approach it. Particularly in the essays, they helped me so much to speak from my heart. They got the best out of me, and without them I might not have done it that effectively. For example, I used to think certain things in my profile were most important, and I had to state them. But my consultant would say those things don’t matter as much. Things I used to ignore were actually more important. So that really helped.

Academically, CBS’s Office of Student Affairs is helping me with all the required materials for classes and exams in an accessible format with the help of the Office of Disability Services of Columbia University. All the professors are very accommodative, and they are ensuring that I am following the classes without any accessibility related issues.

My fellow classmates, second year students and my cluster mates are very helpful.

They have supported me both academically and non-academically from day one. I found a great student community here at CBS.

I joined CBS with an open mind, eager to explore new opportunities and expand my career. With previous experience in financial services, I aim to use those skills in more strategic roles within multinational companies. My goal is to make a positive impact not only within the company, but also in the community. I’m excited to contribute and grow in a way that benefits both business and society.

Because of the costs, a lot of Indians think that a U.S. MBA is not for us. I come from a middle class family where I have gone for a loan. But what I really advise them to think about is that the financial help available – be it from the schools or be it from the lenders – really enables us to pursue our dreams of doing an MBA in the U.S. If it is your dream, it’s always good to try, rather than regretting it later in life.

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