Nearsighted is stoked to bring you an interview with Mike Hess, the CEO and Founder of the Blind Institute of Technology.
Belo Cipriani: What is your background and why did you establish the Blind Institute of Technology?
Mike Hess: An English proverb states, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
I began my journey as a disabled person at the age of 7 in a small, Midwestern town in Ohio. As an April Fools baby, I had an affinity towards acting like the class clown. In fact, I wanted to sit in the back of the class cracking jokes as early as 1st grade. I quickly moved to the front of the class after I realized I would not be able to see the chalkboard. However, I was still unable to fully participate. After several larger town visits to more sophisticated optometrists, I ended up in a large Cleveland hospital where my mother and I were told that I was losing my sight and would be completely blind by the age of 18. At that age, I had no idea what blind even meant. When I asked my mom, she simply said that I was going to be special. At this point, in many ways, I began to fulfill her prophecy.
My mom was determined to keep me within the public schools and did not want to send me off to a school for blind and deaf children. Disabled children are placed into special learning programs within the public school system. I was no different. This established a clear line in the sand with my classmates, plainly stating, “I’m different.” However, I maintained my belief that I was special, regardless of the large print books and dark colored paper to aid me in my learning. I learned to make friends quickly because fitting in was not an option. I also refused to allow schoolmates to bullyrag me just because I was blind. Therefore, I stayed the course throughout my thousand-mile journey because either I engaged new people through shenanigans or I played tough.
Junior high school quickly came and we ended up in Colorado and I began using low vision technologies for the first time. My secondary educational life was now a mix of learning life as a total blind person through cane training and Braille classes, and low-vision technologies.
After high school and a couple years of junior college classes, I enrolled at the Community College of Denver (CCD). I studied programming while in college and began a career in Information Technology (IT). I graduated from CCD in 1995 with a certificate in application programming where I also received the Student of the Year award from The Computer Training for People with Disabilities Program (CTPD).
Of course, throughout my college career, challenges continued to present themselves. With the limited technology at that time, I needed to collaborate with others and utilize alternate methods to achieve success. As an example, I paired up with a partner that had carpal tunnel syndrome. I was able to type while she acted as our eyes. So as a blind young person, I had experienced the shunning of one who is different, the thrill of achieving like one who is not and continued to grow in the belief that my journey was meant for greatness.
Immediately after college, I married my wife and adopted my two daughters. Our family then grew again in 2008 with the addition of a little boy. I believe it is important to demonstrate to my children that my disability should not affect my life and that I am just as capable as someone who has sight. My kids experience a dad who attempts all mental, physical or emotional challenges. They have lived my mantra that my vision loss is simply a mere inconvenience and nothing more. They have watched me keep a positive attitude throughout all my trials and tribulations. They have seen me compete at martial arts tournaments, snow and water ski, run half marathons and climb 14,000-foot mountains. My kids have witnessed me working 16-hours days to create business-valued systems and spend hours on a bus each day to keep my employment. Finally, they have been my driving force when it seemed like the world was unfair. My family has been my excuse to thrive, my joy and support throughout all my successes and challenges.
My journey has been thrilling thus far, as I have climbed corporate ladders, martial arts belts and literal mountains. However, my thousand miles is far from over — the next phase of my journey is materializing before my mind’s eye with Blind Institute of Technology (BIT). BIT was founded in February 2013 with the mission of preparing the visually impaired, and the employers who hire them, for success in the workplace. BIT strives to close the gap between the blind and their sighted counterparts by providing relevant business-valued skills. Because of my personal successes, I initially focused BIT’s efforts on education, coaching, and job placement services for the blind.
Belo: How did you acquire the funds for your organization?
Mike: My wife and I went “all in.” With my wife’s support, we used our life’s savings to establish the legal entity with the Secretary of State and the IRS. My goal is to create a legacy for myself and not just a six-figure income in the corporate environment.
Belo: What services do you provide?
Mike: A list of BIT Programs:
Employer Education & Outreach: Educating employers about the untapped pool of talent found in the visually impaired community, and the actionable steps they can take to make blind employees a valuable addition to their own workforce.
Workplace Preparation: Preparing the employer’s workforce and worksite to support successful employment of visually impaired candidates.
Certifications & Training Programs: Developing and increasing the visually impaired’s access to certification programs in project management and technical skills.
Staffing & Placements: Helping Colorado employers recruit, train and maintain a talented workforce through low-cost staffing and placement services.
Belo: How many people have you helped? How did you help them?
Mike: We have secured 7 paid opportunities thus far and spoken with hundreds of executives across the country. We have delivered dozens of workshops and keynotes illustrating the many assets and advantages the visually impaired community brings to an organization. BIT has recently signed a contract with a global organization that will allow us to place hundreds of blind people.
Belo: What are some of the institute’s future plans?
Mike: We will continue to execute on all four programs and focus on opening eyes through BIT.
Belo: How can people get in touch with you?
Belo Cipriani is the Writer-in-Residence at Holy Names University, a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind, the “Get to Work” columnist for SFGate.com, and the author of Blind: A Memoir. You are invited to connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube.