AXSChat Podcast

AXSChat Podcast with John Samuel, Cofounder & CEO of Ablr.

March 09, 2022 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with John Samuel
AXSChat Podcast
AXSChat Podcast with John Samuel, Cofounder & CEO of Ablr.
Show Notes Transcript

John Samuel is the Cofounder & CEO of Ablr, where he focuses on helping organizations be more inclusive by removing the barriers that have hindered people with disabilities from accessing education, retail, entertainment, and employment. John’s passion for his work is very personal as he is blind and wants to make sure the obstacles he has faced are removed for others. Over the past 15 years, John has held leadership roles domestically and internationally. While launching and serving as the CEO for Aster Cameroon, a global telecom infrastructure Joint Venture, he built a $45 million business bringing internet access across Africa. Afterward, he became an early member of Homestrings, a USAID backed crowdfunding platform, where he helped raise capital for startups in emerging markets. John holds his MBA from George Washington University, BS in Accounting from North Carolina State University. John is a former Triangle Business Journal’s 40 under 40 award recipient and was selected to the Business Journal’s Influencers: Rising Stars, a national list of 100 young influential business leaders. In 2021, John received the Triangle Business Journal’s Leader in Diversity Award, and earned a certificate in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the workplace from the University of South Florida.

He also serves on the Board of Directors of Aravind Eye Foundation, the world’s largest eye care provider, and the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County.

This is a draft transcript produced live at the event and corrected for spelling and basic errors. It is not a commercial transcript and will need to be checked if you wish to publish it. AXSCHAT John Samuel

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I'm delighted we are joined by John Samuel. John is the co-founder and CEO of Abler. Welcome John, it's great to have you with us and you're joining us from North Carolina today

and it's what 10:

30am? I am hoping you have had some coffee and you're revved up and ready to go. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to work in accessibility and what, for our audience, Abler is and what you do?

JOHN:

Perfect. Thank you so much Neil for having me here. I'm super excited. My story really kind of leads into the formation of Abler which is a disability, inclusion and accessibility firm. But it really started when I was in college and when I was in college, my freshman year of college in Virginia, with the University, I was diagnosed with a degenerating eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa and was told I was going blind. As a young person it was devastating news, and I was ashamed and embarrassed, and my actions led to me failing going to college. I moved back home. Didn't want to tell anyone what had happened to me, and I eventually rolled in classes NC State University. I found a loophole. And I took these classes through a continuing education program. Eventually I took so many classes through that program they had to let me into a full-time program, and I eventually graduated. But I knew, growing up in North Carolina there was really only one way of getting around and that was driving, and I was still driving even though I was losing my sight. It wasn't safe for me, and it wasn't safe for other people on the road. I decided to move out of North Carolina, and I moved to Bangalore India because I knew I could get a car driver there pretty cheap, and I did that for two years. I decided to come in back home to the US move to New York City and in New York, I was working for the City of New York providing financial education for city employees. But I was living paycheck to paycheck. I was living in Manhattan. It was so expensive but when I was looking at my friends around me their career trajectories were just a lot different. They were either going to grad school or they were going to, moving up in their companies and I just didn't see the same type of future for myself. And that's when I reconnected with a gentleman named Steve Clemence who I worked with in India and he was now on the Board of Directors of a cell phone tower manufacturing company and they wanted to start a company in Cameroon which is in West central Africa and when I heard about this I said send me out there and give me a chance, I can do this and Steve knew I had some sort of eye condition but he didnt know the extent of it but he agreed and so when I went to go sign my contract, the investors of the company found out that I couldn't see and they said, hey, we can't send you out to West Africa if you can't see. I pleaded with them, and they said all right. We will give you six months and we'll go our separate ways. I said fine. So I took a $20,000. I left Manhattan, I moved to Douala Cameroon, to go start this new Telecom infrastructure company building cell phone towers in a country I had never been to before. I had not even seen a cell phone tower at the time but I went there to go build these and built a team around me once I got there on the ground and my team and I we had immediate success and within the next 14 months we generated $12m in revenue, $2.4m in profit and over the next three years spread that across the continent. But I had built the team around me really designed in a way to hide the fact that I could not see because I kept it a secret out of the safety of my own life. My team, it was really something we never talked about, but it was really about building a team that I could trust. But after three years I decided, just like my friends in New York, I could go to grad school, so I moved to Washington DC to do my MBA. I was at this orientation event and there was, they had these name cards where you were supposed to go sit and I could not see where I was supposed to go so I turned to the person next to me, that happened to be the Dean of the Business School and she had no idea that I could not see. She was the one who recruited me there but she could empathise what I was going through because she actually had a child with special needs and she encouraged me to be open with my visual impairment with my class mates and so I was and I often say that was the first time I could be my true self and my authentic self and I was able to open up my heart and I met my wife in the MBA program but afterwards you know, even though I was open talking about visual impairment with my classmates in my personal life I was scared that companies would see it as a liability. I struggled to find a job right after my MBA and I eventually land on my feet with a private equity investment company. But after three years that company folded and I was out of a job again. And at this time my wife and I had just built a house in the Washington D.C. area, and we just had a baby, both of which are not cheap and now the stress of it all caused my sight to go even faster and I could no longer see the computer screen and I thought my career was over. And that is when I heard about this software that was developed at a company called SAS, which is a data science company and they designed this software to help people who were blind with low vision, visualise graphs and charts using sounds. And I thought it was so cool really cool but what was really cool was the guy who designed it and his name was Ed Sommers and he had the same eye condition as me and lived in my hometown of North Carolina. The same place I thought anyone who was blind could ever live and so, up to that point I had never met another blind person. I was like, I got to get in touch with this guy. And I tried for two months, without any luck and then finally my wife said, if he can live in North Carolina, maybe we can too. So we found a house online, told my folks and they got so excited because they thought I was never coming home and my parents immediately jumped in the car to go look at this house and as my Dad is driving he is talking to us on the phone and he started yelling at something and I was like what are you doing Dad and he was like, there is a blind guy on the road, maybe it's the guy you're trying to get in touch with and I was like, oh Dad, please don't yell blind people on the road. He gets out of the car and walks over to this guy and says are you, Ed Sommers? And the guy says yes, I am. And my dad just puts the phone in this poor guys ear and after apologising to him, he agreed to meet me, and I came down next weekend. And a thirty-minute conversation turned to three hours and what Ed showed me was that my career wasn't over, and he introduced me to the world of accessibility. And fast forward he introduced me to an organisation called LCI which happened to be the largest employers of Americans turned blind and we are based seven miles from where I grew up and they were primarily a manufacturing company, but they wanted to create a new business. They would create upward mobility for people who were blind and so I joined the company tasked with that and I knew, the first thing we had to do was address the digital accessibility barrier that was hindering a lot of people and eventually that became Abler. A long story to get where we are.

NEIL:

A long story but a fascinating one. And I love the circuitous route through which we all end up in this industry because for the most part, most of the people working here it's not their first career and it's certainly not something you grow up and go oh, I want to work in accessibility. No. You know that is not your childhood aspiration. So, I think it's interesting that you had the background and in there it's not uncommon amongst the people I talk to regularly with degenerative eye conditions that they hide it. So, there's some commonality in that. It was interesting you said that that was the first blind person you met. So that sort of sense of segregation I think is a thing that is interesting to unpack because if that happens to you that must be happening to hundreds and millions of people around the world and that must have been tremendously isolating. So whilst you're working on the assistive tech, are there also things that you could advise to people or think about how you might bring the community together so that people didn't feel that they had to be hiding it or felt that you know connecting people with similar conditions so that they can you know have that Ed to talk to or that John to talk to. So that there is someone that you know really understands and empathises with the condition.

JOHN:

Yeah, I mean that is why I share my story as much as I can because my story is not one of someone who is a par athlete. But I'm not special, I'm not a great athlete. I failed out of college. My story, I feel can relate to a lot of people because I had gone through that and then, I hope by sharing it people can empathise with that and understand it. But you know, even at Abler, we realise it was even my own life experiences, that we are not just a digital accessibility firm but we realised that there were three major barriers that had hindered me in my life and that was the digital divide and then the second piece was the mindsets of people and so we realised we had to change that, to change the mindsets of people in organisations. When I had to go for my job interviews companies didn't know how to deal with somebody who could not see. I didn't know how to advocate for myself, so I really tried to work on changing the mindset of people in organisations and then finally trading pathways for employment because you know, I kept on. I had the privilege of being able to travel around the world and take that risk because I grew up you know having that confidence. But I know that everyone doesn't have that experience and so I think by sharing the story and you know helping others to breakdown those barriers that is really how we are trying to do that right now. But it's opportunities like this, to be on your show right now that I hope that we can reach more people. So that you don't have to feel so isolated because for years I felt I had a mask on my face because I thought I was just portraying what I thought an executive was. But if I can show that an executive can be blind, I hope that can change someone's viewpoint.

NEIL:

And absolutely they can. You're living proof that you can, and I think that there is multiplicity of different things and really valuable insights that people with disabilities can bring to management and creativity being a key part of that because you have to problem solve. I love the fact that you went to India. Just because you can get the driver. Driving is really important to me, what am I going to do, I am going to move continent. I thought that was really interesting. It's not the right word. Let's think about other planet friendly mobility solutions. I am going to get myself a chauffeur.

JOHN:

Yeah, exactly. Well then, the funny thing is I took a local salary in India. My salary was $500 a month and my driver made $100 and so that is what I had to do. 20% of my salary was going to my transportation. And you know it was not, you had to be able to have that confidence to take that risk. I think that suited me well.

NEIL:

Yeah, absolutely. So Antonio, did you have a question, you look like you you're about to come in?

ANTONIO:

Reflecting a little bit in your life story and so, what when you have to deal with customers on the daily basis, what are the things in which you find that your experience and your story brings value for them to understand the importance of accessibility?

JOHN:

Yeah, and I think you know that you know from an accessibility issue whether we talk about it from digital perspective or we talk about it from a physical environment, you know, growing up in North Carolina, there was no public transportation so that was an accessibility barrier for me. But when I met Ed and he showed me that accessibility would allow me to do my job or there'd be, one piece of advice he gave me, was you have got to learn to learn as a blind person. And I started thinking about that. I was like what does that mean. And I started to think about how to use assistive technologies. And for years, I hid the fact that I was not even using a cane. So my shins were a constant splattering of bruises and cuts and my face was all cut up. So, once I started using the assistive technology and the screen reader, you don't realise how that changed my life and then I started using a cane and so that improved the accessibility in my daily life because all of a sudden, I was able to have that mobility. I was able to have that autonomy and I was able to do things again. So it's funny and I talk about this often is that my Uber rating, before I started using a cane and sharing the fact that I could not see. My Uber rating was 4.6. But the moment I got a cane I didn't have to explain to the Uber driver why I couldn't find them or why, all the issues of me getting into the car etc; and my rating went up to a 4.99. And I think that is just an example of daily life how my learnings have improved my accessibility. Not only from a digital perspective but from an overall life perspective.

NEIL:

I think that is a useful point of learning. I think that I am really, really interested in the sonification of charts and complex accessibility work that you were talking about. So maybe we could explore that a little bit more because as an assistive technologist background, playing with assistive for a long time charts and sonification are some of the areas that you know for screen reader users, those complex graphics and visual representations are really, really challenging so can you explain for the audience a bit more about that kind of work and how you can translate something that is you know extremely visual and not just one visual representation but a lot of complexity and a lot of information contained within that visual into sound.

JOHN:

Yeah, so for people who don't know what sonification is so let's look at a chart and they can use different tones to be able to describe it. As a visual person you can see it. You can quickly see this information. You can see the chart goes up and comes down and goes back up. That would sound like du du du du du du and so that sound would allow us to understand just as a way you can visually see this data represented. We can hear it in a way using different tones. And if it was really cool for me to see that and so, Ed Sommers who created this over at SAS, when I was doing my MBA, I was using SAS and I was taking a data modelling class and I had to drop out of it because I could not do it anymore because I could not see the graphs and charts and the Professors did not know, they tried their best to help make it accommodating to me but it was not. You know, that is when I met Ed, it really spoke to me because you know careers in finance were something I was very interested in before and I didn't think I could go into those types of roles because I couldn't deal with graphical representation and data representation and all of sudden using sound to be able to do that was novel to me and so even over the last year I worked with an organisation who was talking about sonification in news media and trying to use graphs in a Podcast format, how do we use sonification to represent data and it's really cool. How we can represent data, not only from a visual standpoint but from a sound way.

NEIL:

And I know that you know that this access to this data can be really fundamental in terms of access to financial information for personal finance for example. So, I remember seeing a demonstration HSBC which is a global bank where they were showing interest rates and so on and the sonification and so people were able to understand you know the rise and fall of interest rates and bank balances and this kind of stuff by listening to go the sounds. So what I mean so, you know something like a sort of chart tracking share prices for something is relatively simple in that you can easily translate the visual peaks and troughs in noise. You can go up in pitch and down in pitch. And your brain can easily sort of map the two across if y. like. What are some of the challenges of and how do you represent slightly more complex data and is this an area that you are still researching?

JOHN:

Yeah, and when I was working with that Org, that news media over the last year, but what we realise is that we had multiple data sources right, and then comparing the two. So if you have two different data you're trying to represent at the same time was that got very complicated. You could use different; you could use a piano tone verses a violin. t that was, you know to be able to do that but also to set that, what is a median, what is that median point? And so, we realised that there was some complexity to this. It's something that has been worked on. But I think with more research we can do this work and that means getting more users in. More user testing to go through it. But I think we are going to see some more. It is not only going to benefit people who are blind. It is going to benefit everybody. Like I said, like on a Podcast, if you're also in a meeting and you don't have time, look at data, sometimes you see charts and you want to be represented by hearing. It could a good way. It goes back to universal design, being able to represent data in multiple ways. But again, I think going back to user testing, that is what is going to have to happen.

NEIL:

Antonio did you want to come in?

ANTONIO:

I was looking at you know where we are today in terms of inclusion, in terms of accessibility and how can that impact innovation. So looking, how do you see the importance of organisations to considering accessibility as part of their innovation efforts not only to create better products but also to better engage with and open the door to new types of customers?

JOHN:

Yeah, that is a great question. Actually just last November I did a TED talk called the idea of belonging and so, the idea was inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility. I think when you're able to start to build a culture of belonging you bring more people to the table and when we have more people in the design phase who have a seat at the table and are being heard, then we can have that new innovation right? And that new innovation is not going to help one sector group of people. It's going to help all people. And I think that it goes back to that. It has to be part of your fundamental where there is lots of about diversity, equity and inclusion. But if you really want to be truly welcoming to all people, youve got to add that accessibility. That diversity of thought is critical and people with disabilities as we talked about it before, right Neil? The natural problem-solving disabilities is such a valuable trait and that can add a lot of value in terms of innovation. And so, I think you know, and that innovation is not only like the right thing to do or the inclusive thing to do but it actually makes business sense and I think that companies now are starting to see that and it's super exciting.

ANTONIO:

We know that in the United States there's a long story of litigation within accessibility. We know that some countries in other parts of the world there is a more optic of education for accessibility. What are your views on that? Yeah. I don't like to lead with the litigation component because you know my whole thought process has been, I don't want to drive a wedge between the disability community and those without disabilities. But you know in some cases just litigation is a way to open up. It forces people to open up their eyes and to be able to look at it. But you know I think if we talk about you know a lot of education in kids. We talk about science, technology and engineering and mathematics but if you think about those standard careers and what we are educating people young people. If you start to provide them proximity to those with disabilities and understand the challenges that people face and empathy and I think if we can start with the younger folks and change the mindset that we raise people, as we raise children that could also have a big impact. One of the things that I talk about also is I have two young kids. I have a five-year-old and a three-year-old kid and so I used to take them before Covid, take them to their classroom. And once I go into the classroom with my cane. It was so amazing, jumping up and down oh, what is this asking me all these questions about my cane. I talk to them about what I do and how I navigate, and I showed them my watch and all these different things, and it was really cool for them. But it is often the case when I'm walking down the road and a child is holding their parents hand and the kid starts looking and saying on Mommy, what is that. What is that. The parent is like don't ask just let's go and they rush them off. It's that kind of you know mentality, if we can have an open dialogue and create that education, I think that is really where we are going to have more you know more true inclusion and I think that it's not just with children. But it's all people.

NEIL:

I think that is very true. I am keen to ask questions and I am keen to be asked questions because I think that to not ask leaves us ignorant and you know, we only move the needle forwards if we are prepared to have that dialogue and yes, sometimes it may be tiring and it maybe the 80th time today being asked and you're probably sick of it on one particular occasion, but at the same time you're fostering a mindset where people understand why you have it. What benefits it gives to you and so we ought not to crush that childhood curiosity and as adults we ought not to feel quite so inhibited to ask the questions either because I think that kids innately do it and it's the fear of upsetting people that I think genuinely puts people off because they are worried about being embarrassed because they ask a question that is stupid or whatever. I think that most people that I talk to in this community are open to being asked questions if people are doing it out of a willingness to learn.

JOHN:

That is correct. I have seen that so much throughout my life. It's that fear of saying the wrong thing because you know before I got the cane, and I would go to networking events, and I could make eye contact and people would be smiling and I could not see them and then they thought I was a jerk. So then when I got the cane, I thought this going to now make it so clear to everyone. I understand now why he can't see. Is he making eye contact or he's not smiling or he's not shaking my hand? But what I realised was that people when they saw the cane, it became this new barrier, people were staying away from me and i was like, what is going on here, why are people not talking to me now. They know I can't see. And so, I realised that the cane become this barrier and so, I actually launched a contest a couple of years ago, in 2020, we did our first Drip My Cane. We had people come up. We had people from all over the world come up and design my white cane because to me it was this beautiful white canvas and we wanted people to design it because I wanted it to become a talking piece. I wanted it to be something that people felt comfortable because art is something that brings people together. If my cane is a piece of art that still serves my purpose of helping me, my mobility and my navigation but if it helps me to have people start talking and break down that barrier that is what it's about. I'm so happy when people do come and ask questions and talk. Like I said, that is how we spread the word and raise awareness for disability and inclusion.

NEIL:

I think we just, inadvertently landed here on another area, which I find really interesting and that is customisation and personalisation of our disability tech and the fact that there is a lot of this stuff is horribly utilitarian and really lumpenly designed. You know it's definitely following the medical device model rear than the personal empowerment model, you know. So, I look at stuff for the built environment and you know you go into an older person's bathroom, and they may have spent thousands on you know a nice shower suite and tiles and everything and then you have got this enormous plastic grab rail there that looks completely incongruous. You know, why do we have to design stuff for disability that looks horrible? Because there is no need for it. We can make stuff that is beautiful too. So I think there is definitely a movement for people to customise their own kit. There are numerous people on Twitter that are showing off their various different canes. Tara Moss being a good example, who is an author and disability advocate. She has got various different canes. She has fantastic skins for her wheelchair wheels, pictures with Freida Carlo on them and you know it's really funking up her access devices because you know these aren't things that we should be ashamed of. They should be things that we, firstly they give us freedom. You know they're not wheelchair bound, it's a freedom machine and secondly, you know they become part of us, they should reflect our personality. If everybody wore the same clothes we would look like prisoners.

JOHN:

Exactly right because I mean I have been own vanity. I want to look good. I want it to be, if I'm wearing a nice suit, I don't want it to be plain old white cane and I think those aspects of it like I'm not wearing my E1 watch. I don't know if you heard about E1 which is a universally designed watch. So E1 at the 2012 or 2011 design of the year and it is just such a beautiful watch. Not only is it accessible for people who can't see but it's accessible for those who can see. And it's a beautiful watch and for me, I often talk about the watch being something that was very important to me throughout my career. It was a symbol of success to me and so when I could not use my watch anymore, I could not see it. I felt really, oh man, I have lost a part of me. And I know it's kind of superficial, but I think we all have a superficial part to us. We look at ourselves in the mirror. We want to dress nicely, and I think that is no different for people who can't see themselves in the mirror.

NEIL:

Yeah, and E1 is an iconic piece of design. It's both beautiful and functional and tactile. And you know, it really is a fantastic piece of design and also, you know I think people make the false assumption that just because someone has no vision though they are no longer interested in the visual and of course, people labour under the misassumption that because you're legally blind that you have no vision at all. So, we recently interviewed a chap that works in the Lego group who was a key visual designer for Lego who also had RP and obviously it's got harder and harder, but he was engaged in making all of the decisions about the visuals. He has acute sense of what good design is, what colour is, all of this kind of stuff so I think that that is you know something that we need to really address that sort of accessible design need not be ugly design. That you can actually do something that is beautiful and inclusive and all the rest of it and not make the assumptions that because someone is losing their vision that they don't want to use it.

JOHN:

Yeah. Exactly, and I will even use this platform right now to ask your network and your community if there's anyone who works at these fashion brands because to me, I have been trying to reach out to Nike right now because I want to make, it took me years to accept using my cane. But once I did it opened up an entire world for me. And I started to think about young people who don't have access to who aren't using a cane because they don't want to be seen as different but if I can get a Nike cane or a Jordan branded cane, all of a sudden that kid is no longer thinking about, oh this is not cool but saying, hey this is just part of an extension to my style and I think that you know open it up. It breaks down that barrier to say this is a stigma of not using it to really become an adoption tool. And once I did it, it really did change my life. I have been trying to reach out to different brands. So if anyone in your community has connected to fashion brands or you know I'd love to talk to them about it because 'Drip My Cane' was really about that and it's super cool and it helps raise awareness.

NEIL:

Okay. So we will definitely try and make some connections for you. And maybe you can share some pictures of those various different art on the cane both in our chat that is going to follow up and also maybe for just generally because I think that is super interesting. We have reached the end of our half hour. It came around too quick. I'm really looking forward to the conversation that we are going to have on Twitter. Thank you very much John. It has been a real pleasure to meet you and hear your story. We are going to be definitely staying in touch.

JOHN:

Thank you, Neil, thank you Antonio. This has been awesome.

NEIL:

And thank you also to My Clear Text for keeping us captioned. Page | 2