(Please note: This article was written in 2020 by our Director of Operations, Kristy Schenderlein.)
As a member of the Blind and Visually Impaired community (BVI), I had heard of Blind Institute of Technology ™ (BIT) for several years, it wasn’t until Spring of 2019 that I became more familiar with BIT and its mission. A BVI professional myself, having navigated employment in corporate America with both success and failure, I was intrigued with BIT’s methods and the path BIT has taken to get where it is today. Interested in BIT’s history, I sat down with Founder and Executive Director Mike Hess to learn more about BIT’s journey.
Simply put, BIT’s mission is to support people with disabilities and the employers who hire them, find success in the workplace. Speaking from experience, there is nothing simple about this mission. There are many government programs and placement agencies whose mission is to get people with disabilities employed, but none that take the approach BIT does. Strong in the belief that he was successful because of his blindness, not despite of his blindness, Mike knew that the BVI community was full of talented professionals whose lack of sight produced unique and valuable skills corporate America had yet to discover.
From his time in corporate America, Mike knew the focus needed to be on what people with disabilities could do for the business, not the other way around. Further, believing that the medium to employment opportunities for BVI is through accessible technology, Mike developed a unique business centric model focusing primarily on the technology sector.
Beginning in 2013, Mike hit the streets of Denver as a one-man band, knocking on the doors of local corporations peddling his Art of Blinders seminar. Originally sold as an unconscious bias seminar, the Art of Blinders presentation has evolved into an active listening and team building training that is sought after by corporations across the country today. In addition to getting the conversation started, this training is used to showcase some of the skills BVI have to offer. BIT’s first Art of Blinders seminar was at Denver Water, where Mike met former CIO Chris Dermody, who would later become one of BIT’s first Board Members.
Relying on Mike’s experience with organizational structure, BIT targeted Denver executives with the introduction of the Executive Breakfast in late 2013. With the first Breakfast attracting 30-40 of Denver’s top Executives, Mike took the BIT mission directly to the C Suite, presenting the case of how corporations will benefit from hiring BVI. The first Breakfast featured a presentation from Chris Dermody on the importance of adopting this hiring initiative.
The Art of Blinders and Executive Breakfast seminars began to draw attention to BIT’s focus on accessible technology. Local organizations started to inquire about BIT assessing the accessibility of their own internal systems. BIT’s first dip into the assessment pool was with I Triage (now Aetna). This meant opportunities to employ BVI to conduct these assessments with the added benefit of exhibiting the productivity and value BVI bring to the workplace.
BIT celebrated its first placement in 2013 when one of BIT’s Board members, Julie Burrows, hired on a BIT candidate for an open data position she had within her own organization. With support from BIT, this talented BIT candidate pursued her certification as a Salesforce Administrator and excels in this role for a major corporation today. By leveraging their relationships built with corporations, BIT strives to get their qualified talent competitive employment opportunities. BIT has placed employees in roles from Salesforce Administrators to web developers, from project managers to accessibility architects and many other roles in between, earning a median salary of $70,000 a year.
These early years saw many ups and downs for BIT. When one door opened, it seemed 2 closed. Mike found himself in many instances emotionally overwhelmed and not sure of BIT’s viability. In addition to his wife Natalie’s assurances they did the right thing, encouragement to keep pushing came in many different and unexpected ways. “Over the years it has amazed me where I got the gentle nudges to keep going. In my first business development meting (which at the time, I didn’t know that is what they were called) Cable Labs’ COO, Chris Lammers, stopped me and told me his siblings were both legally blind and he believed in our mission. I continue to encounter experiences like that, and it keeps me going,” says Mike.
Affirmations of the use of BIT’s business centric model in the tech sector came in 2015 and again in 2016 when BIT was featured in the Denver Post. The Post’s interest arose from BIT’s partnerships with both Uber and DaVita, Inc. Further confirmations came over the next few years in the form of various prestigious awards. The first honor came when Mike received an APEX award in 2016 by the Colorado Technology Association, recognizing Colorado’s innovators and tech leaders. The CTA Award was followed by both the Martin Luther King Jr. Business Award and Executive Director of the Year Award by Governor John Hickenlooper in 2017. Continued recognition of how BIT is accomplishing its mission came in 2018 with an appointment to the Colorado Work Force Council and in 2019 with invitations to be part of the Colorado Smart Cities Symposium, and Denver Startup week.
Although the mission of employment has stayed the same over the 7-year history of BIT, the path has taken many twists and turns. “I’ve learned there are many vehicles to get from policy to placement.”
In 2017, BIT was introduced to the diversity, equity and inclusion corporate movement by Diana Ferguson, former BIT Board Member and executive at Oppenheimer Funds. Diana counseled Mike that in order to be part of the D and I conversation, BIT needed to bring a complete D and I solution to the corporate boardroom.
Over the next few years, BIT began to construct this total D and I solution, focusing on accessibility education, work force development and inclusive work environments. BIT’s one-man band grew to include a Chief Accessibility Officer, a Director of Professional Services and a Director of Candidate Services to see to its new D and I initiative.
From its first placement in 2013, BIT has strived to put its candidates in the best possible position for success. With workforce development in mind, BIT created the BIT Academy ™. For those candidates who have the technical aptitude but lack relevant certifications the BIT Academy offers opportunities to achieve the training and certifications that help them to be competitive. “From the beginning the BIT academy has never charged its candidates for training. Our end goal is always employment,” says Mike. “Providing our candidates with these opportunities takes away that one more thing corporate America can fuss over and will hopefully open new doors.”
Expanding on BIT’s accessibility assessments and Art of Blinders seminars, BIT has begun offering several levels of accessibility training to organizations. In the summer of 2019, BIT introduced a new teach the teacher model of accessibility training with a first of its kind internship program with the St. Vrain Valley School District. The interns, all students with disabilities, attended an 8-week session teaching accessibility guidelines and how to transform their current internal digital space into accessible systems. This program’s success caused it to be turned into an educational training program BIT is now offering in a corporate environment.
BIT felt it needed to practice what it preached with regard to inclusive work environments and began to create accessibility in its own internal systems. By leveraging G Suite and Salesforce, both accessible platforms, BIT has created its own fully accessible candidate tracking system. This has allowed BIT to pull from the same community for its own internal hiring needs as they are placing. Attracting attention from both Google and Salesforce, BIT was invited to present this model at both the 2019 Google Cloud Next Conference and Dreamforce19.
Furthering its goal of full accessibility for BVI, BIT ended the decade with a bang with the introduction of EdgGuide. EdgGuide is a navigation system that allows BVI to independently navigate physical spaces, allowing BVI to experience the products, goods and services previously inaccessible. The roll out of EdgGuide at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science has garnered BIT and its mission attention from coast to coast. Having experienced EdgGuide myself, I believe he opportunities for employment, safety and generally the improved quality of life are endless with this innovative technology.
As the sun sets on the decade that saw BIT’s beginning, BIT is looking to its future in the diversity and inclusion movement. Due to BIT’s products and services, from its talented pool of BVI professionals, education and emphasis on accessible technology, large corporations are beginning to approach BIT to become their D and I provider for the disabled community. BIT’s goal for the next decade is a lofty one, becoming the D and I provider for 10% of the Fortune 1000 space and to have celebrated with 10,000 BVI on their employment success. “I am confident BIT will rise to the challenge,” says Mike “I believe we are getting closer to realizing our vision that one day corporate America will actively recruit and retain BVI independently, confident in the knowledge that BVI provide as much value to their organization as their sighted peers.”