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Born With the Fire to Inspire

Through his optimism, charisma and indomitable spirit, Sai Prasad Vishwanathan provides a powerful example.

Deloitte LifeUp to this point in his life, there hasn’t been an obstacle that Sai Prasad Vishwanathan hasn’t conquered — and he has encountered many. Born in Lalgudi, Tiruchinapally, Tamil Nadu, India, with physical challenges that force him to walk with aid of crutches, Sai, a Hyderabad-based Technology Risk consultant with Deloitte U.S. India AERS, is a vocal advocate for the disabled in his country.

As a child, Sai bounced from one school to another due to his disabilities. His mother constantly reassured him he was inferior to no one.

Bolstered by this kind of confidence building, he persevered, all the while strengthening his character and academic standing. As a result of his intellect and hard work, in August 2002 he was accepted to study Electrical and Electronics Engineering at Chaitanya Bharathi Institute of Technology (CBIT) in Hyderabad.

After that, there was no stopping him.

Off to America

Having graduated from CBIT in May 2006 with a gold medal for academic achievement, Sai found his next opportunity in a new country. He had been fortunate enough to receive a research scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and work toward a master’s degree in engineering. However, many of his family members and closest friends expressed doubt about his ability to survive, let alone thrive, in the United States.

Dismayed by this lack of confidence, and with some trepidation, he arrived at UW, Madison — a 933-acre campus with more than 30,000 students and in a location that often has cold, snowy winters — a far cry from the warmth of his hometown. But once he had adjusted, Sai thrived at the school.

“The most important lesson I learned while studying in the U.S. was that education and life are not just about being the best,” he says. “They are about constantly becoming better.”

Empowered by his personal experiences in the U.S. and enlightened by the manner in which the disabled are accommodated in the country, Sai saw an opportunity to go further and send an inspirational message to the disabled in India. He would take to the sky. Thus, in 2008, Sai found himself in an airplane making a slow and deliberate climb to 14,000 feet. He was going to skydive. “I wanted to see how far I was willing to push myself,” he says. “I also realized that this jump was a way I could also make a lot of noise for those with disabilities across India, plus the thrill and fun of it all almost defies description.”

Being the first disabled Indian to skydive from 14,000 feet; Sai entered the Limca Book of Records. “Although skydiving was exhilarating, in no way is it the limit of my determination,” says Sai. “It taught me to have courage, take risks and follow my heart. It’s also provided me with a memory that shows I valued myself enough to try something I believed in and wanted.”

Going home, serving others

After having received his graduate degree from UW, Sai returned to India and in April 2010 was accepted into the prestigious MBA program at the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad. As an MBA candidate, Sai worked on developing business models that promote employment for the physically challenged. “I was also looking for a way to inspire college students to pursue additional education,” he says. “So I cofounded ‘Sahasra,’ a program that provides a four-hour workshop on preparing for higher learning as well as life-long mentors to help assure success.”

His Sahasra efforts were recognized in 2010 when he received the Helen Keller Role Model Person of the Year Award, an Indian honor for those who have promoted employment opportunities for the disabled.

Students in the Sahasra program pay a $5 admission fee for the workshops, which include practical information along with inspirational stories and leadership examples. To date, more than 20,000 students have participated in the programming on college and university campuses. “Sahasra has generated $100,000,” says Sai. “We have used that money to provide $80,000 in scholarships for needy students and have built teams of young leaders who pass along the message to others.”

The success of Sahasra transcends borders. It was recognized as one of the top 10 business plans submitted to the Global Social Venture Competition held by the University of California, Berkeley. “This work is important to me,” says Sai, “because the value our work provides will remain in the hearts of those we impact long after I am gone.”

Another new adventure

Having been recruited by Deloitte U.S. India at ISB, Sai joined the organization in 2011. With little knowledge of consulting or advisory work, he recognized that he would need to rely on his capacity for learning and to apply himself in new ways. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to showcase my talent and work for my colleagues and our clients,” he says. “I’m overwhelmed by the affection, trust and caring that the people at Deloitte show to me every day. The culture at Deloitte is really special. It’s an amazing organization that is open to listening to its people and providing them with the flexibility to grow in different directions.”

Sai’s taste for adventure now has him looking in a new direction — south. In recognition of his Sahasra work and his new interest in developing sustainable solutions to protect earth’s fragile environment, he was selected as one of 30 members of the 2041 Antarctic Youth Ambassador Programme. Led by Sir Robert Swan, the first man to walk to the north and south poles, the program offers young leaders the chance to explore Antarctica and gain firsthand knowledge of the continent’s fragile and changing ecosystem.

“When I was young, I dreamed of traveling to faraway lands and exploring the earth,” says Sai. “I have concerns on how I will manage walking in the snow and surviving the cold nights. But given all that I have already experienced, I understand that life is an adventure and I have to live it.”

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