John Samuel: Guided By Angels

Head shot of John Samuel - Chief Innovation Officer, LCI Tech

John Samuel  on Mount Kilimanjaro
Some people call it luck! others see a more divine force guiding their life. John Samuel, Chief Innovation Officer of LCI Tech recognizes the latter. His vision loss began early in life but it was never realized or discussed at home. Hear his adjustment to blindness journey that included adventures in India, Cameroon and more. While our lifes are more about the journey than the destination; yet, in this case where he ends up is truly part of his story.

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TR:

Do you believe in angels? Something that you can’t see or touch that you just know is looking out for you? Maybe we just don’t recognize them?

Makes me think of this story I heard a long time ago. It’s about a man who gets stranded at sea. He’s a strong believer and is absolutely sure God will save him. As he patiently waits, a man on a row boat comes by and offers him help. He explains that God will save him and tells the man to row on. Then a motor boat comes by and offers some assistance,
again he exclaims his faith and tells the person to motor on. Finally, a rescue helicopter comes by to save him and once again he turns it down as he is faithfully waiting for God to save him. No one else comes after that and he dies. Upon meeting his maker he explains how he lived a faithful life and thought he’d be saved. God says; who the hell you think sent that row boat, that motor boat and that helicopter?

Adjusting to vision loss and disability really does require us to see through things we are presented in life.
Find opportunities. Recognize the angels. And say thank you.

Reid My Mind Radio family, I’m Thomas Reid, your host & producer.
I’m thankful for you all.

Get ready for a goodie! Let’s go!

Audio: Reid My Mind Theme Music

JS:

My name is John Samuel. Chief Innovation Officer for LCI Tech

TR:

As you’ll soon see, his vision loss journey which began at 9 years old, wasn’t one he necessarily traveled alone.

JS:

I was living in Japan and during the summer time we’d come back home to the US. I remember going to my uncle’s house in Boston and one summer remember seeing the stars and the next time I came back the stars were gone. I think that was the first moment I noticed that something was changing.

TR:

John struggled to communicate the changes to his parents. The vision loss however continued and became more noticeable when he was in high school.

JS:

I just thought I was a bad basketball player. I thought I was a bad driver because I was getting into accidents and things like that, but what was happening was my vision was changing.

The fact that I was a child of Indian immigrants where the mentality is you work hard. And because I didn’t have any family history of vision loss I think it was something that my parents didn’t understand there was something wrong with my eyesight they thought maybe I’m just not working hard enough at school. Maybe I’m not working hard enough at whatever it was that I was having challenges with when actually I was losing my sight.

But when I got to college that’s when it was like there’s something going on that isn’t right.

TR:

Living with undiagnosed vision loss and trying to lead a “normal” life means John found ways to compensate. Even in areas where quite honestly, he shouldn’t have.

JS:

When I was in college, I always knew what time sunset was, because if I didn’t leave by dusk I wouldn’t be able to find my car and if I did get to my car and it was too dark I wouldn’t be able to drive . I may hit a student if they’d been walking down the road. At the same time I was working part time at Wachovia bank as a Teller. I would wait for everyone in the bank to leave. I didn’t want anyone to see me because I was going over curbs, everything to get on the road.

I memorized the roads. I knew where I had to go. I followed the tail lights. And I would just essentially tailgate somebody all the way home. There was always this sense of relief that I made it.

TR:

John’s “adaptations” aren’t at all uncommon; however, he describes his actions a bit differently today.

JS:

In hindsight it’s a selfish feeling of I just made it because not only did I just make it, all of those other people on the road also just made it and they didn’t even know.

TR:

While attending Virginia Commonwealth University, John was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa.

JS:

I did not cope with that news very well and my actions led to me failing out. I found myself coming back home to North Carolina.

TR:

Watching his friends graduate from college and move into the next phase of their lives inspired John to finish up school.

JS:

I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stay in North Carolina because I couldn’t drive. I took an opportunity to go out to Bangalore India and work in corporate finance for a software company out there.

TR:

Working internationally was never foreign to John.

JS:

My parents immigrated from India in the late 60’s. My Dad went to college up in Massachusetts. He got a job with Nortel in Canada. That brought him down to North Carolina where I was born. His career took him to Japan. He eventually went out to India for a few years. He was overseeing a lot of global research and development for the company. And that’s where it got me my exposure to international business, which was why I knew after I graduated from college I wanted to go international.

TR:

There was also a very practical reason.

JS:

I could get a car and driver in Bangalore India in my salary I was going to be making. I spent around two years there. I felt that it was actually the most difficult time in my career. Being an Indian American going to India it was a different type of stigma, a different type of challenge I had to face. I was seen as an outsider in a country where my origins were from. The workplace was very challenging, they work very long hours. I learned a lot and after two years there I had accomplished what I wanted to there and I decided to come back to the US and I moved to New York City.

Audio: A montage of NYC sounds; Subways, street sounds…
Audio: New York, Alicia Keys

TR:

Come on, you know that was going to get a reaction from me.

John worked for the city providing financial education for city employees during the recession. This required him to travel throughout the five boroughs giving him an unofficial crash course in mobility training

JS:

How to get on a subway, a bus to walking around. Learning how to trail people. How to come up to the sidewalk using my foot to kind of feel where curves were. Using my sense of listening to traffic patterns. Using all the other senses and queues that I could pick up that weren’t visual to be able to get around. And it’s a skill that I cherish.

TR:

John learned about an opportunity to work for a Telecom. Leading the startup of a new international business. While he did share some information about his vision loss, he admits he did not reveal the full extent of his blindness.

JS:

Night blind at that moment. During the daytime and during the interviews they didn’t see as many issues. The interview went well, they offered me the job, but we went out afterwards to go to dinner after I signed and that’s when they realized I couldn’t see.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

I know you weren’t taking out a white cane because it was dark…

JS:

Oh, listen; I didn’t have a white cane.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

Yeh … laughs…

JS:

I wasn’t using a white cane at all.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

Right.

JS:

I couldn’t track where people were walking in the restaurant. There was some hesitation from people in the company about sending me out to Cameroon. They essentially told me, we’ll give you six months to go out there and do what you can and we’ll wash our hands from this situation. You go your way and we’ll go our way.

TR:

So he set out to Cameroon. And yes, the accessibility challenges began immediately.

JS:

I was flying in the middle of the night and I got out of the airplane and got through baggage claim and was coming out into the airport. Luckily growing up visiting India and other emerging markets around the world, I understood what to expect . There were a lot of people outside, kind of screaming “taxi” and just trying to talk to you to get your attention. I heard someone say taxi, I went over to the person, I told them what hotel I was going to, he grabbed my suitcase and he started walking in front of me. I listened to the wheels of the suitcase as he pulled it in front of me. Getting to the taxi I felt I’m going to be okay.

TR:

He was now equipped with the travel techniques & new confidence gained in New York City. More importantly, he had an adaptive way of thinking that enabled him to find solutions.

He even benefited from the new accessibility built into Windows 7 which allowed him to configure Windows in high contrast mode.

JS:

Everything I was doing was pretty much on the computer. When it came to print outs I couldn’t see them. There was a level of trust of what people were bringing to me and my team. I had an Admin. I’d send her the document, she’d print it out. It was interesting, another contrast level, my Admin was Black so her skin tone against the white paper also allowed me to know where I needed to sign.

TR:

Throw in a mouse that gave him quick access to the built in Zoom features of Windows 7 and John had most administrative tasks covered. For the rest, well, some may say he was lucky, but John and I are going with, he has angels.

JS:

One day I was standing out looking for a taxi and a taxi driver drove by. He had somebody in the car. He told me “go back inside the hotel, I will be right back.” And he dropped off the person he was driving, came back, got me from inside the hotel and he never left my side. His name is Blaise. I joke, he became my CTO. My Chief Transport Officer. When I went into a restaurant or bar, he was always a few stools away from me. He would always watch my back when I went out in the streets of Cameroon Even when I came out of the airplane traveling; he was always waiting for me so no one could take advantage of me.

TR:

Even when it came down to finding office space for the business, something greater was guiding him.

JS:

It just happened that I found a building; it was a new building in Cameroon in Douala that had two towers. One tower was for offices the other tower was residential. I happened to get an apartment in one tower and get the office in the other tower so my commute was nothing. I just literally went down to the basement; ground floor in the elevator walked across and went back up.

TR:

John made sure to note another important part of the success equation.

JS:

My team. It was something we never talked about, my vision loss. What I learned in Africa was that, I mean Cameroon and across the continent, there’s a loyalty for the family. Our team was a family and they were very protective of me and they took care of me.

TR:

Now, watch what happens when talent meets reasonable accommodations and access.

JS:

Within 14 months of that experience we generated 12 million dollars in revenue and 2.4 million in profit.

TR:

Naturally, after building a successful business, what does John do?

JS:

I took six months to travel the world.

TR:

That international travel was already in his blood. Plus, he had personal goals when he set out for Cameroon.

JS:

I wanted to be a top thirty executive under the age of thirty. The other goal was I wanted to reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Reach the highest point in Africa.

It was much more difficult for me than I ever imagined.

TR:

It’s about 5 days of climbing before the final summit. In order to reach the top at sunrise you have to complete the final trek at night.

JS:

My friend suggested that we take the head lamp off my head and switch the color to a red light and we put it on the foot of the guide in front of me. I was able to follow this red light to the top of the mountain. Just like I used to drive home.

TR:

Following his time in Africa, John was ready to return to the states and pursue an MBA.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

Why would you want to go back to business school, because you just built a business?

JS:

I think there are two aspects of this. One goes back to that Indian immigrant up bringing where education is the most important thing. The fact that I had failed out in under grad. The fact that I was never a stellar student. Me getting an MBA was validation. It was something that I felt like I wanted to do to prove to myself that I could do it. Show my parents, you know, I did this.

TR:

Even though John’s work experience included Corporate Treasury and Currency Hedging in India along with providing Financial Education in New York City, he was concerned about competing with his peers for a spot in an MBA program.

JS:

Not to mention I thought that if the university found out that I couldn’t see, I thought that would be a liability.

TR:

No surprise here, during the first week of the MBA program, just another stop along his journey, he’s greeted by an angel guiding his way.

JS:

It was a round table event where we had guest speakers and there was assigned seats for all of us. They had name cards where we had to go sit. I couldn’t see where my name was so I turned to the person next to me and I asked them, I can’t see my name card, can you help me. It happened to be the Dean of the business school, the Associate Dean, Liesl Riddle who was standing next to me. She was the same person who had recruited me to come to George Washington University. She had no idea I couldn’t see. She just opened up and made me feel so comfortable and supportive about talking about my vision loss. She introduced me to Disability Student Services, they were very supportive. I started being much more open about talking about my vision loss with my classmates. The fact that I was able to be my true self, my authentic self, I was able to open up my heart and I met my wife in grad school.
[TR in conversation with JS:]

Do you know anything about the Dean, in terms of her familiarity with disability? The fact that she opened up like that do you have any insight about why that was.

JS:

Yeh, that’s a fantastic question. At the time I didn’t know, but she actually has a son who has special needs. She could empathize with me. She understood the challenges. She’s just such a loving person and is one of my biggest supporters and advocates in my life.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

And you just happen to be standing next to her. There’s such a pattern with you.

JS:

I know man; I can’t make this stuff up. I got angels all over the place and it really is something special. And I am thankful cause, I am not the smartest person , I’m not the best person, but I have the best people around me and the smartest people around me and that’s what I’m blessed with.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

That must be why they continue to appear for you. You acknowledge it and you’re thankful.

TR:

John began Grad School with a high level of confidence. Yet as he approached graduation, interviewing for different positions, he wasn’t finding much success. With an assist from the Dean he landed a position in a crowd funding company. He worked there for 3 years until the company folded. Meanwhile, he and his wife Nicole built a home in the Washington DC area and were expecting their first child. Stack these three life events together and you can imagine what you get.

JS:

Immense stress and it caused my vision to deteriorate even faster. At this time I was still using that inverted color screen and the magnification was getting much bigger. It was getting to the point where I couldn’t see the screen. I fell into really dark times. I hadn’t felt this bad since I first found out.

TR:

About his vision loss diagnosis.

Pairing the increase in vision loss with a lack of appropriate mobility training, John became more reluctant to go out.

While listening to a podcast, no not this one, that would make this story even better, John heard some advice that resonated with him.

JS:

Chef Jose Andreas. He made this comment “luck can’t find you unless you keep moving.” Keep moving became my mantra for the rest of the year.

TR:

If you’re not familiar with Chef Jose Andreas let me encourage you to read about the great work he is doing around feeding people especially during various crises.

Then a friend sent him an article about a new software developed at SAs using sound designed to help nonvisually access graphs and charts.

JS:

The most interesting thing to me was the fact that it was designed by a guy named Ed Somers who had the same eye condition as me and lived in my hometown in North Carolina. Up until this point I had never met another Blind person and I knew I had to get in touch with this guy.

TR:

He tried unsuccessfully for months. His wife Nicole decided if Ed could live in North Carolina, then maybe they could too.

JS:

So we found a house online and told my parents. They got so excited they thought I was never coming home. As we’re talking to my Dad on the phone, he jumped in the car and started driving to look at the house. As he was driving, he started yelling at something. I said what are you doing Dad. He said oh, there’s a Blind guy in the road, maybe it’s the guy you’re trying to get in touch with.

He gets out of the car and walks over to this guy and says are you Ed Somers. And the guy says…

Audio: “Hold Up”, Nate Dogg, Next Episode

JS:

“Yes, I am!”

My Dad just puts the phone to his ear and says my son is trying to reach you.

After apologizing to him profusely he agreed to meet me and I came down and met him.

He understood where I was coming from and where I was going.

We were having coffee and he was making all of these introductions and sending out all of these emails and I’m wondering how he is doing this with an IPhone. I had no idea about Voice Over and he’s just speeding along making all these messages. That’s what was really the introduction of accessibility.

TR:

John continued traveling monthly to North Carolina in order to meet with Ed.

John had his own entrepreneurial ideas.

JS:

I want to make sunglasses. I want them to be made by somebody who’s Blind because if I can give someone a job I could give them hope. I could give them a life and that could be generational impact. I was talking to Ed about this and he introduced me to the president of LCI. Who knew that the largest employer of American’s who are blind was just seven miles from where I grew up.

TR:

In July2017 John met with the president of LCI Jeffrey Hawting, to discuss his idea of manufacturing sunglasses. Jeffrey however, was interested in creating more technology service jobs. The two agreed to keep in touch.

Meanwhile, John had taken Ed’s advice and had been pursuing positions at companies seeking to hire candidates under diversity and inclusion initiatives. There were multiple attempts but they never even landed John an interview.

JS:

If I can’t find a job with my education, my experience and my privilege, I can only imagine what other people who are Blind were going through to find a job.

TR:

On August4th, 2017 John and his family moved to North Carolina despite not having a job.

JS:

One piece of advice that Ed told me was if you want to continue your career trajectory you’re going to have to learn as a person who’s Blind. I said alright I’m going to learn how to use a screen reader and that was the day I said no more using my eyes. That was August 4th and that happened to be the same day that Jeffrey sent me an email saying there was a job opportunity. I joined LCI to startup a new technology service business which is now known as LCI Tech.

TR:

All of this in just six months after first reading the article about Ed Somers and the SAS software.

JS:

I went from the darkest moment in my life to the start of a new chapter that has given me a new perspective of life. A life that I could not have even imagined with less sight and more opportunity.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

Talk to me about those six months because I know how you felt. To go through and get to that point in six months, I mean you had to be flying high.

JS:

You’re right. From that darkest moment there’s lots of tears and that’s when you know you have a great partner. Our first son was born in February. March 11 is when I got that article and there were lots of tears. I was having so many accessibility challenges it would literally take me the entire day to complete one application for a job. Nicole would after her maternity leave go to work, pick up the baby from day care, nurse the baby do all the mom stuff and then apply for jobs for me. That’s an amazing partner. She was doing that every day. I wasn’t getting any responses. Nothing, I didn’t get a single interview.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

I just want to be clear about this. So you were contacting places that were looking for diversity. The diversity that you were going in as because you’re Indian American you said right?

JS:

Yep!
[TR in conversation with JS:]

You were specifically saying visually impaired, Blind whatever.

JS:

Yes, at this point, after meeting Ed I was now saying I am Blind, but I feel like I wasn’t checking a box that they wanted me to check off. I was reaching out to all these folks talking about disabilities and helping with jobs and nothing. I think that’s what’s also been fueling me to what I’m doing today and the change that I want to make.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

Talk to me about what you’re doing at LCI Tech.

JS:

Our whole mission is to create employment for people who are Blind and the broader disability community in the knowledge economy. These are service based jobs, technology based jobs. These are jobs that are paying.

My hope is to get people paid and get people into a much more comfortable life. And essentially we’ve been talking about it our goal at LCI Tech is make sure that people who are Blind don’t miss out on all aspects of life.

We’re doing that in three ways;
By eliminating the digital divide
Creating pathways for employment
By changing the mind sets of people in companies

[TR in conversation with JS:]

So let’s take the first one, the digital divide.

JS:

We need to be able to address the digital accessibility piece by hiring people who can conduct tests and assessments of digital content. That’s the first line of business that we’re starting. The hope is that by having a team of accessibility professionals we can then go into companies and help make sure that their process and procedures are accessible and accommodating for people of all abilities.

TR:

Let’s say LCI Tech’s mission of making sure blind people aren’t missing out on life is an apple pie. The recipe therefore is the three ways John mentioned. That first, tackling the digital divide is like the pie shell. The recipe calls for preparing the shell in order to add the delicious filling. In this case that’s creating pathways for employment

JS:

A pre-employment work force development program. Making sure that young people who are in high school thinking about going into college or going into the workforce, that they’re going to have the job skills that they need to be able to go into them and also be successful at it. That includes soft skills and technical skills. My hope is to first get it working in the state of North Carolina then this model should be able to be scaled more across the nation.

TR:

The idea here is to provide students with year round opportunities to gain real world experience. Teaching not only the technical skills but also things like interacting with others and all of the soft skills that go along with that.
JS:

Whether it be through an internship or some type of real life scenario where students are taking what they just learned and putting it into action and seeing what the outcomes look like. And seeing. I hope to bring in companies and business into this whole learning process. So not only are students getting to interact with professionals, but companies are also going to build that empathy of understanding the talents of students with disabilities and students who are Blind.

TR:

Learning from the success of other programs and experts, John’s in no way trying to reinvent the wheel. In putting together this proof of concept, he’s starting at home.
At home.

JS:

The Superintendent of Wake County Public School was actually my Vice-Principal when I was in high school. She had no idea I couldn’t see when I met her recently. The only reason she took the meeting was that she remembered my name. The only reason she remembered my name was because I got into trouble when I was in high school.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

Laughs…

JS:

If I was a good kid and didn’t get in trouble I would never have gotten that meeting.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

Alright, one up for the bad kids!

JS:

Laughs…

TR:

Me? No, I wouldn’t know anything about that!

Continuing with that pie recipe; if that shell and filling doesn’t properly bake at the right temperature therefore creating an aroma that makes your mouth water, well, you’re probably not going to be asked to make it
Again.

JS:

The third piece is changing the mind sets of people and companies. Working with companies to make sure that every touch point that they have whether somebody’s from recruitment, to hiring to on-boarding to promoting, working with them to insure that they have a strategy to properly execute a disability hiring program. Eventually it just becomes ingrained into their entire hiring process so that it becomes universal to set everyone up for success.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

How do you sell that?

JS:

I call it godifying companies who get it. The initial companies we are going to be working with are companies who get it, who want it and who have the capacity to do it. You can get it and you can want it, but if you can’t put that time and funding to do this then that’s not what we need to be focusing on right now. We need to find those companies that have those three things. We build on that model, we get that case study and then we show the proven model, others will follow. We’ve got a couple of partners now that we’re working with who I’m really excited about. Hopefully the next time we talk I’ll be able to talk more about it.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

That part is really interesting to me because that’s sort of a piece of what I want the podcast to do. Right, that change the misperceptions and all of that and that’s kind of what you’re doing when you go in and talk about that so I want to know more about that man, when you can talk about it.

JS:

Yep, for sure. Part of the communication piece is the trainings that we do. You kind of have your traditional learning management system trainings, but podcasts, blogs all these different types of content that’s how we’re going to change the stigma. That’s how people take in and consumer learnings and trainings. Your podcast is going to be part of the eco system right. That’s what we need. Because that’s how we’re going to change the stigma.

TR:

That pie smells sweet!

As part of this effort, John has launched his own interview show on YouTube. All Access with John Samuel.

JS:

It’s a show really about sharing the stories of leaders, entrepreneurs and advocates who are improving the lives of people with all abilities. Similar vein of what you’re doing, it’s breaking down the barriers so that people can see that hey there’s a lot of different type of people out there, different leaders different people doing some real cool stuff out there and we just don’t know about them. We need to share those stories, give them a platform. That’s why I’m so thankful for you to give me this platform

One thing I appreciate with yours is that I love the sound engineering. There’s an auditory experience which is awesome.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

Cool, I appreciate that.

TR:

John literally traveled across the globe. Gaining a little more understanding about his own vision loss at each of his destinations. Now he finds himself back home, where he began his vision loss journey. As a nine year old, he wasn’t equipped with the language to explain what he was experiencing. He internalized it and managed the best he could. Now he’s back home working to make sure others with vision loss can find opportunities a bit closer to home.

JS:

Having gone through this myself who knows it better, right? We talk about all those angels and all the serendipitous meetings, me being able to come back home to a place where I never thought I could live and to be able to make this type of change it’s pretty remarkable.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

Yeh, you get to be the angel.

JS:

Yeh, it’s paying it forward right. I could never thank all of those people who helped me get here, but maybe I could help someone else.

TR:

Now that’s what I’m saying!

Salutes to John Samuel, the latest member of the Reid My Mind Radio.

You know you want to learn more about him and the work happening at LCI Tech.

JS:

Visit www.LCITech.com. And we’re also on Linked In and Twitter, @LCI_Tech.

[TR in conversation with JS:]

And are you yourself on Twitter?

JS:

I am on Twitter and I just got on Insta gram. My handle is @JohnGSamuel (spells out) that’s the same for Twitter and Insta Gram.

TR:

What an amazing story. If you’re familiar with the book, “The Alchemist “by Paulo Coelho, you probably already made the connection. If you haven’t read it give it a try.

If you’re a person adjusting to vision loss or disability, I’d love to hear what lessons you take away from his story.

Do you hang out on Twitter? I’m @tsreid.
Drop me an email at ReidMyMindRadio@gmail.com
Leave me a Voice Mail at 570-798-7343.

Call or text a friend and tell them what’s happening here on Reid My Mind Radio. Podcast.

Tell them it’s available wherever they get podcasts.
Remember transcripts & more are over at ReidMyMind.com. And yes, tell them that’s R E ID
(Audio: “D and that’s me in the place to be” Slick Rick)

Like my last name.

Audio: Reid My Mind Outro

Peace!
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