The Power of Friends Talking: Pramit Bhargava, Louie and More

There is power in conversation. A real friend can not only make you feel better by listening, but every now and then, they say something that affects you. Some times it lifts you up. other times it may not feel so good, but it’s meant to empower. Occasionally, it can even spark an idea.

Pramit Bhargava, is the founder of an Android app called Louie. Today, we explore his personal adjustment to blindness story. He shares an honest look into his experience with vision loss and how his view of blindness and disability has dramatically changed over the years.

And of course, there’s Louie!

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Transcript

[show_more more=”Show the transcript” less=”Hide the transcript”]

“Friends” Whodini

“Friends! How many of us have them? Friends! Before we go any further…”

— Instrumental continues

TR:

Allow me to welcome you back to the podcast.

My name is Thomas Reid. I’ll be your host on this journey. even better, I hope I can be your friend.

See on this podcast, this podcast right here, we’re all about featuring compelling people impacted by all degrees of Blindness and disability.

And one of my core beliefs as a person adjusting to becoming Blind as an adult is that the people we meet along our journey who have been traveling that path before us can be really important to helping us find our own way.

“Friends.”

Friends come in all shapes sizes and colors. Today, we even have virtual friends… You think you know what I’m talking about but let’s find out!

“Friends!”

Audio: Reid My Mind Theme Music

— Audio of Louie sample from YouTube…

TR:

You’re listening to a sample of an app called Louie. It’s a virtual friend who can assist you in completing tasks within apps like YouTube, What’s APP, Uber and more.

We’ll get more into that later.
Right now, I want to share the story of how it came to be, which like the app, is really all about being of assistance to those adjusting to vision loss.

pramit:

I’m Pramit Bhargava, I’m the Founder of an app called Louie Voice Control for Visually Impaired people like us!

my life has been half with vision half visually impaired. I am by education a computer engineer. And then I went in for MBA. I had normal vision. So I was just like a regular guy.

TR:
A regular guy who attended both the India Institute of Technology and the India Institute of Management where he received his MBA.

Think M.I.T!

After graduating, well, he entered that race.
Pramit:
Running running to go up the corporate ladder. I was working like crazy. And with these global companies, you had to keep all kinds of hours giving the time difference.

I was in marketing, and then I moved on to managing businesses. For example, for quest diagnostics, I set up a couple of businesses in India. And life was all about, you know, moving up the corporate ladder and running and running.

TR:

He was about 30, living a very active lifestyle which included playing Squash. He began experiencing rheumatic joint pain.

Pramit:

it just came out of the blue, no family history, and they couldn’t diagnose it. So they put me on what we know as hydrochloriquine.

— Audio clips of Hydro chloroquine & Covid19

Pramit:

The good thing was that I could still get some correction. So I could still continue to work with these companies.

But then all along my vision was dropping and I kept sort of readjusting. I was also moving into a senior level position. So a lot of my work therefore involved strategy, thinking through problems, leading teams.

Emails, PowerPoints, and excel sheets are all there. The capabilities that I was leveraging, were really the strategy thinking, and execution, team leadership, so not so much, looking at the screen all the time.

TR:

There’s often discussion around when and how to disclose a disability to a prospective employer. Pramit opted for transparency.

Pramit:

I think the reason was very simple, because my vision was so bad they would have seen it
So I had a very clear plan of action. I would be upfront.

TR:

Not only did he disclose his disability, but pramit even suggested that hiring managers take some additional time to be sure of their decision to hire him.

Occasionally there were empathetic people in power, but the response he received let him know decisions were being made based on his skill set.

Pramit:

Look, it doesn’t matter. Because we want a certain skill set. We want your mind to work your brain to work, it doesn’t matter. Yes, they had expectations of some very basic,
I should be able to manage my emails, I should be able to read some stuff. they did have those expectations.

I think the fact that I was very upfront, and I didn’t want to sign on the dotted line, so to say, and I wanted them to think about it, , before we took the next step.

A couple of them in fact, asked me to go for eye test, , and of course, the eye test results. Were not great or anything, but at least , the whole thing was very transparent. It just knocked off the pressure.

TR:

Well at least external pressure.

We want to believe in the idea that we’re judged based on our skills. A meritocracy, but the statistics tell me that’s probably not a common experience for most people.

Remember, Pramit graduated from the top technical and business schools in India.

— Audio transition changing tone …
Pramit:
there came a time. Suddenly, I couldn’t read anything at all. I couldn’t make out any Excel sheets, PowerPoints.

And, , because I had that little vision, I wasn’t really using any of the technologies, I wasn’t using a screen reader,.

So the mind said oh, I don’t need it, I can manage it.

TR:

Over a 12 year period as his vision changed, his adaptations did not.

Pramit:

I hit that point where suddenly my confidence was gone.

In my mind the devil saying, I can’t do this, I can’t do that. If I can’t do this, how will I be able to do a job like this?

TR:

It wasn’t anything external, in fact, Pramit continued to get job offers.

Pramit:

I was sort of just sitting at home two and a half, three years doing nothing.

Every time I would get offers, , for similar positions, and something inside me will tell me no, no, no, , let me not make a mess of it, I won’t be able to do it.

I was getting very, very dependent for simple things. 

I mean, even to answer the phone, , I had to ask somebody, okay, Who’s calling? Or if I had to dial somebody on a touchscreen.

TR:

Pramit was living with decreasing Low Vision for about 12 years. Not passing as sighted, but also not working as Blind

At first glance, it might appear as if he were in a really good situation. He had a high level career, management was supportive, he had resources including assistants. So I had to ask in order to make it clear.

TR in Conversation with Pramit: 13:49
What made you lose your confidence?

Pramit

(Long pause… followed by a slight laugh)

I think See, I think combination of two things if honestly, if you asked me, I think a I was in that phase of life where I was trying to run, run and like I said, go up the corporate ladder. So let’s say if there was a goal, if at that time somebody had asked me, what is that one thing you want to achieve in life? I would have said, Okay, go up the corporate ladder, become a CEO, become a CEO of a bigger company. So that was one. Sometimes the way I almost think of it was that the higher you are flying, the bigger is the fall. (Laughs)

It’s A – about my aspirations and just not knowing what I should be doing next with life.

TR:

pramit wasn’t receiving negative feedback from his peers or management.

Pramit:

You know, that you are hitting that point where performing to that level is going to be difficult, just struggling for everything struggling to present struggling to analyze.

For example, let’s say you look at a trend on an Excel sheet. Now if you can see it, the numbers start speaking a story. When you try and do it with a screen reader cell buy cell buy cell, sometimes that story may get lost. And because I was not even using a screen reader. (Chuckles) So imagine, now, I’m not seeing anything, and suddenly those numbers are coming. I think a combination of, I was trying to fly high. My aspirations, the fact that I was not preparing myself for that, gradually I could have, but I didn’t.

That loss of confidence was not because of anybody telling me, it was all inside me all in my mind.

TR in Conversation with Pramit: 17:32
I definitely understand, and I just wanted to kind of pull that out, because I think it’s an important piece. So it’s like, you have your own standards. And if you’re not meeting your standards, well, that starts to impact you. It’s not always external. And so that’s why I wanted to drag that out a little bit from you.

Pramit:

Yeah, yeah! Absolutely!

In fact, If I can Thomas add to that, sometimes what happens We process somebody as low vision, or no vision as saying, oh, he cannot see. But I think important thing is what is going on in that person’s mind. Right, and how do we process it? How do we deal with that condition? I think that’s the bottom line. And that’s where, you know, I think my biggest whatever bottleneck was,

TR in Conversation with Pramit: 18:32
My teacher that I always go back to he used to say, everything starts with the thought.

Pramit:

Yes!

TR in Conversation with Pramit:

How is blindness perceived from your perspective in India? Because in a sense you were very privileged, would you classify yourself as that?

Pramit:

absolutely no doubt. I mean, the fact that I had vision, the fact that I had that kind of education and the kind of experience Yeah, certainly.

TR in Conversation with Pramit:

What are the opportunities for others who may not have been or may not be as privileged?

Pramit:

I’ll give you a personal angle to this and I think it’s really important Right. Rather than saying how others would perceive, I can talk about how I used to look at blind when I had normal vision, I think it’s very important.

Honestly, I never interacted with somebody who’s blind. It’s not that I didn’t see them on the road. Because typically I’ll see them with a stick, and, you know, somehow managing or whatever, you know, people helping them, I just had zero empathy for blind people, you know, I’m just being very, very truthful on this.

TR in Conversation with Pramit:

I appreciate it.

TR:

He admits, he had tunnel vision – focusing only on his goal of making his way up that corporate ladder.

Pramit:
Now, if I were to, let’s say, Now, extrapolated to a broader world in India, I would say that there are people of all kinds, I think, fortunately, I think there’ll be fewer people like me, who will have no empathy.

I think in India, also on top of it, I think the facilities, you know, for example, facilities for the visually impaired are fairly limited. Now, now that consciousness is going up. Like for example, now, all metro stations in India are designed for visually impaired, they have a lot of help available, right. There are tracks specially for them, you know, which they can follow. So, now, things are changing, but, there is definitely a perception issue.

TR:

And one of the best ways to change those perceptions?

Pramit:

I started interacting only when I started developing the app, Louis voice until such time, would you believe it, I have not had a real interaction. When I say real interaction, I may have seen somebody, I may have exchanged a word or two. But you know, that heart to heart one on one conversation, I, you know, till about, I would say two years back, I had not met a single visually impaired person in that sense. I was just trying to solve my own problems. I was just doing things on my own.

— Audio “Gladiator”

Pramit:

I started realizing that look, you know, just living for personal gain and living selfishly the way I had been all along. You know, it’s not something that’s great. Because I was very transactional, everything was about what is the benefit for me. You know, there’s nothing called you know, selflessly doing something. Now I’ve been consciously trying to change it.

TR:

Pramit’s self discovery didn’t begin with the app.

Pramit:
I think it’s a broader change which happened 15 years back now.

I was doing well in my career.

All of a sudden, these thoughts started coming into my mind, where am I running? What am I doing? Why, why am I here on earth? What is my purpose in life? I mean, it just came out of nowhere.

TR:

That inner voice may have always existed. Maybe the volume is low at first, but at some point it becomes noticeable.

Pramit:

Of course, I ignored it. You know, I kept ignoring it. I think it was only about maybe six, seven years back that I landed up, you know, at a meditation center.

TR:

I know, he doesn’t seem like a meditation center kind of guy.

Pramit:

There is so much of what happens when you’re an engineer, and an MBA from a top Institute. I was so left brain that I thought I knew everything in the world. That’s also part of that ego.

so I had gone to meet a friend who is like me, you know, similar career. So you know, again, you know, and he himself same materialistic, same same kind of thing. just happened over dinner, I just asked his wife tell me some good books.

I had just got introduced to audiobooks, by the way. So for years, I had not read anything.

Initially, of course, I started with some business books and so on.

so and then she just said, okay, read this book and nothing else.

The title sounded interesting, because I would have read a lot of autobiographies of business leaders, but not a yogi. I had zero interest in anything about Yogi’s or spirituality or religion.

TR:

That’s Autobiography of a Yogi
(available on Audible & BARD from the National Library Service for the Blind and print Disabled in the US.

Pramit:

I read the book, then there was this a certain meditation technique in that, you know, so I have just feared having read the book that my life will go to waste. If I don’t do that, you know, don’t learn that. And then accidentally, I had gone to a place to buy a book.

TR:

A book on that form of meditation.

While in the bookstore, he noticed a large hall . He asked about it.

Pramit:

They said, We teach this meditation.

I just landed up there by accident. So this is like all coincidences.

TR in Conversation with Pramit:

No, that’s not coincidence.

Pramit:

Yeah, but I mean, it just looks like that now,

Ever since I came onto the path , I can well appreciate a lot of these things. I’m not doing it. It’s really a lot of you know, higher forces.

TR:

No matter what you believe in, the outcome and resulting actions should speak for themselves.

Pramit:
today, if I’m self-critical, it’s only because I am able to now assess myself because I can pull out and I can assess how big a jerk I was. And let’s say up to this time, and even now, sometimes, so I think which is good, that kind of self-assessment, and which happened only because I got onto this path.

TR:

Before he arrived on his current path, he admits trying other routes with alternative destinations.

Pramit:
I wanted to go back to the same life, the same kind of jobs.

TR:

But his confidence for that life was gone.

Then, he had a beer. But before you get excited, this is not an excuse for you to do the same. See, it’s not about what he was drinking. It’s about the friends he was drinking with.

Pramit:

One of them asked me a very, very pointed question.

He said, look, you are still living in the past, you’re still chasing what you used to do earlier. He said, Look inside and tell me, what is it that you really want to do now?

That suddenly changed my position, you know, and that and then I opened up? I said, No, yeah, you’re right, you know, all that I’m not interested, you know, I really want to do this. And I actually had something, you know, I could actually tell them, but I was trying to keep it down.

TR:

Identifying the problem is one thing, but understanding why can really be helpful.

Pramit:

We are leading our lives based on what others around us think. Therefor you want to just do the acceptable thing.

Slowly I think I started accepting the fact that look, I don’t need to care whether somebody likes it or doesn’t like it. This is what I want to do.

TR:
Others like family, friends or colleagues in many instances.

But remember that beer with friends earlier?

— “Friends” Whodini!

Pramit:

Then we had another round, In fact, with a bigger set of friends, they called up more people. By that time, I had greater granularity, I said, Okay, this is what I really want to do. And then ideas started flowing. Nobody was being judgmental, nobody was trying to say, Oh, this is bad, this is good. They said, Okay, if this is what you want to do, let’s see how we can help.

TR:

Pramit began consulting, but on his terms.

Pramit:
Some of these guys then got me contacts. And then basically what I did was that rather than doing regular jobs, I said, I’ll go into consulting, but a very different way.

I will do it one day, two day, three day, whatever I feel comfortable with, I will go work inside a company, work with their team drive their team, and I will not give them a consultant’s report, but I will actually deliver for them, whatever results or whatever targets that they had in mind.

I was lucky because some of these guys were connected, they put me in touch with people

I started my first consulting work within 10 days. My confidence was back.

I knew that I am 95% as effective as I was earlier. And doesn’t matter because I was using screen reader effectively. And I mean, there were people around so once in a while, I couldn’t see an image so I can ask them. Okay, what is this image? Just tell me, right? I mean, you have to take help whenever you need to. Yeah, but then I was independent.

TR in Conversation with Pramit: 39:18
Wow, wow. How good did that feel?

Pramit:

See, it’s like a bird released out of a cage. And that cage was created by me by my mind around me, nobody else. I mean, I cannot blame anybody else. for it. It’s only you know, how my mind was processing it.

TR:

The impact of all that, went beyond work. He began traveling on the metro subway – which even further enhanced his confidence.

Enjoying his new found freedom and career, , pramit approached a potential client, the managing director of a large Venture Capital firm.

Pramit:

he knew that I am visually impaired. So he was very keen. He asked me, in fact, a lot of questions about what apps you’re using, how are they? Do they do the task for you? Where is the gap? And you know, it was almost like, you know, trying to assess a market? Yeah. And at the end of it, he said, Look, forget consulting, you are just wasting away your life.

Let’s build apps for visually impaired.

He said, I can see because I’ve been tracking this market for a while, and I have some personal interests. He was cited.

TR:

But Pramit was comfortably consulting and even booked some long term projects. Why leave that?

Pramit:
I had gone to meet an uncle who’s like, you know, very wise and old. He said something, he said, Look, if I look at it from a material perspective, I will tell you do not do the startup because it’s very risky right now, you are doing well in consulting stick to that. But he said at the same time, I will say one thing, there are very, very few people in the world who would leverage their disability, to do something that can help others with similar disability. He said, If you can do that, you know, and he said, I wouldn’t advise you, if you can do that. I mean, that’s something.

TR:

That really resonated with him.

Pramit:

Way back in 2009, early 2009, when suddenly, I joined quest diagnostics, and my blood sugar levels turned out to be very high, and had a family history of diabetics, I lost my father because of diabetes complications. And I knew that, you know, going on to insulin doesn’t really help because I’d seen him taking insulin injections, two times a day, from childhood. Something clicked and I just changed my lifestyle. And let me tell you, because I was on this whole corporate ladder trip,

I was leading a really bad lifestyle, lot of stress, very little sleeping a lot of junk food, because junk food gives you that instant energy, it makes you feel, you know, you got energy back and you’re you know, in control. Yeah. And I was overweight, obese, you know, not overweight. So I lost something like 20 kg.

TR:

About 44 pounds.

He shared his progress on YouTube ad free, by the way and he says he’s still contacted by people around the world in regards to his journey with Diabetes and weight loss.

Reframing the idea of developing apps from this perspective made a difference.

Pramit:

When I look at all my senior positions back then it doesn’t give me joy, honestly, you know, so that was when I said, Okay, I’m ready to do this startup.

It’s very easy to criticize the tools that are available around us, you may say, Oh, this is not good. This is not bad. This app doesn’t work. You know, it doesn’t work here. This gentleman who was in the venture capital company he said, Look, I’ve heard enough about this not being good, that not being good. Tell me what is good. define it for me. So next week, I want to see what is good.

TR:

Then one evening after hanging out with a friend, Pramit began to arrange for an Uber when his friend said something.

Pramit:

He said give me your smartphone. And let me book it for you.

There were all these options. I gave him a destination. I would say take this ride, take this, there’s so much fare this fine. I’ll pay by this method, and confirm and calling. So you know, that whole experience was so beautiful. What if I could create a virtual friend right there on the phone screen, which will do exactly similar kind of continuous conversation with me. It will do everything within an app, because my friend could have done anything, you know, including cancellation, including messaging. And that is how the thought for Louie was born

TR:

Concept in mind, it was time to test the effectiveness of both Siri and Google Assistant. What he realized is that what would become known as Louie, came out of a very specific idea.

Pramit
I can build something which can be just tailor made for a visually impaired, tailor made for a blind. Louie is keeping a blind person in mind. I think that’s the difference.

TR:

Exactly how to do that required answering a few questions.

Pramit:

Can I give just voice commands to Louie , can I control my favorite apps or key features on the phone?

Just by my voice commands and with the thought that I should be able to do each and everything and being in control all the time?
I think that was very important.

TR:

That constant control is crucial. You want to be assured that whenever you need to access the app whether for information or to provide detail it’s available.

Whether ordering an Uber while out on the town, contacting a friend via What’s APp or just chillin’ on your couch surfing YouTube.
Pramit:

You can manage your contact, edit, delete block so on, everything with just voice commands. You can call, text messaging and there’s a whole series of apps and pain points of visually impaired that we are working on.

Messenger on Facebook, Google search, basically being able to navigate around in a browser, being able to read articles, being able to read documents. Even simple things like these, like, for example, some of the visually impaired even have a problem receiving their calls, picking up their calls, disconnecting their call.

What I realized the aspirations of a visually impaired are no different from that of a sighted.

These two gentlemen said, Oh, food ordering, why don’t you do food ordering? E-commerce for example and with that two way continuous interaction which the voice assistant’s don’t provide.

TR:

Pramit believes Louie can do it.

— “You can do it Louie” —

In fact, others do too. Which is why they formed the company Visio Apps.

Pramit:
Currently, we have investors, both in India, as well as USA. And I think very importantly, I think one of our investors, which I think was really important for us, he was the Google India and Southeast Asia head. And he was in Google, at that time, when he invested in the company. He just felt that look, this is something great, I really want to be a part of. So I think that has really helped.

We have 14 people in the team. Apart from me, there are three more visually impaired, there are five people in technology who are cited. People in marketing. Visually impaired people are contributing significantly, both in testing as well as user experience.

It’s a small team, we have employee stock option plans, we’re all passionate about this cause.

TR:

Since the pandemic the team has been working remotely and it looks like that will continue.

Which means there are opportunities for developers worldwide. In fact, Pramit is interested in hearing from Blind developers especially those working in IOS and Java.

You’re probably already recognizing ways that this sort of an app can go beyond the Blind community which is great. But it’s Pramit’s response to that which really sums up the power of Louie to me.

Pramit:
I’m very clear that the focus will always be the use case of a blind person. And with the assumption that look, if it works for somebody who cannot see the screen, it should work, theoretically for anybody else.

TR:

I’ll have all the links to Louie and how to reach Pramit on this episodes blog post over on ReidMyMind.com.

Again, Louie is for Android users only right now, therefore understand I have not used this myself.

But I’m all about friends helping friends get through a challenging situation. Especially when we’re centering that Blind experience.

Pramit:

I’m everyday interacting with users, I like to speak to them. So my phone number, my WhatsApp number, you know, my email is like, freely available. to anybody, and I do get calls or you know, just out of the blue from a whole lot of visually impaired because that really helps.

Just talking to people one on one, understanding the challenges with the app. I’m just trying to make it better and better.

TR in Conversation with Pramit:
So you’re telling me the CEO is the customer service?

Pramit:

Laughs… yes!

TR in Conversation with Pramit:

I officially welcome you into the Reid My Mind Radio family, Sir.

Your story is one that I think would be helpful for people adjusting to vision loss. I salute you in terms of where you’ve been, and

Pramit 1:13:59
no, no, not really. No, I’ve been a jerk I’ve been, as you can see,

If my experience can help I look at it that way.

TR in Conversation with Pramit:
But I say that because I don’t think anybody can throw stones because we all have done something. But we all don’t admit it. So I’m not saluting your jerkiness, right? I’m saluting your openness and you sharing that that’s what I’m saluting and the fact that you recognize it. When I became blind and I became aware of inaccessible websites and whatnot. And I said to myself, Oh, my goodness, I built an inaccessible website before, because I didn’t know I didn’t know. So now I know. So it’s really like when you know, it really matters what you do, then. You know what I mean?

Pramit:

absolutely.

TR in Conversation with Pramit:

That’s what I salute, sir.

TR:

Our latest addition to the Reid My Mind Radio family just provided an incredible amount of insight and value to this conversation of adjusting to blindness and disability.

It’s worth reviewing and truly sitting with and thinking about the experiences he shared.

If you know of someone right now who is in the midst of such an adjustment, reach out and tell them about this episode, tell them about Louie.

Of course let them know they can subscribe to Reid My Mind Radio wherever they get podcasts!

Transcripts & more are over at ReidMyMind.com.

Now be a friend and say that with me…

R, to the E I D!

(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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