John Samuel, President of LCI Tech, on the Diversity You Can’t See

Most of the time when we talk about diversity, we think race, gender, and sexual orientation. But diversity goes way beyond the obvious. There’s diversity of thinking, diversity of backgrounds, diversity of current situation, diversity of ability or disability. I brought John Samuel on the show today to talk about diversity and inclusion on some of those things that aren’t quite so obvious. John is an amazing individual, president of LCI Tech, immigrant from India…who happens to be blind.

John Samuel Diversity Beyond the Checkbox

Diversity Beyond the Checkbox is hosted by Donald Thompson, Diversity and Inclusion Consultant and CEO of Walk West in Raleigh North Carolina. For more information including the online course, head over to TheDiversityMovement.com. Podcast production by Earfluence.

Donald Thompson: Hey everyone, welcome to the Diversity Beyond the Checkbox Podcast. I’m your host Donald Thompson, Diversity and Inclusion Consultant and CEO of Walk West in Raleigh North Carolina.  On this podcast, we share diverse perspectives from leaders in their industry, and we get to hear what diversity means to them, why businesses should be focused on diversity and inclusion initiatives, and why D&I is not only the right thing to do, it is absolutely imperative to the growth of your company.

Before we get started, be sure to check out all of our diversity and inclusion initiatives, including the online course, at TheDiversityMovement.com.

You know most of the time when we talk about diversity, we think race, gender, and sexual orientation. But diversity goes way beyond the obvious. There’s diversity of thinking, diversity of backgrounds, diversity of current situation, diversity of ability or disability. I brought John Samuel on the show today to talk about diversity and inclusion on some of those things that aren’t quite so obvious. It’s such an impactful conversation, and I’ve gotten to know John pretty well over the past year, and he’s such an amazing individual.

He’s the son of immigrant parents who came to the United States 50 years ago, and for John, that meant he was different right away.

John Samuel:  it was interesting being born to Indian immigrant parents in North Carolina, Cause when I was in school, I was the only, uh, I was only Indian kid. So going to through school, you know, I was really kinda the only person of any color that I saw in my class for the first seven years of my life. The next year I moved up to New Jersey.

My dad’s career was taking him places and, um, we moved up to New Jersey again, another upper middle class community again, where I was the only Indian kid that I saw in my classrooms. So I was wondering, I was just me out there. Um, and then my dad’s career took us out to Tokyo where I spent the next two years of my life, which is probably.

Amazing experience where I learned to live in a different culture, live a place where I didn’t know how to speak to anybody, where I didn’t look like anyone again. But I had this independence in Tokyo, so safe you could get around. I would ride my bike all through the city, kind of gave me this unique experience that I don’t think many kids get anymore.

That experience in Tokyo of being able to get around, and those experiences about being different would be so helpful to him in a way he could have never imagined. Because after Tokyo, John went to high school back in North Carolina, and he started noticing something that would impact his life and career, and explain why diversity and inclusion is so important to him. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first John tells us about his completely unique college experience.

John Samuel:  Right.  Actually, I ended up going up to school  in VCU in Richmond.

the decision to go to VCU was one that I wasn’t really fond of. It was almost a fallback. Um, my sister was actually having an older sister who was in med school in Richmond, and my parents were moving out to India for their job again. And my parents didn’t trust me to be in North Carolina alone.

It’s kind of the opposite of the empty-nester.  I didn’t leave my parents. They left me. but there were some things that happened to me in high school that caused me, um, to, to not be trusted. I had a, you know, I was a young kid who, uh. Who had some great friends, people who love me, but I was also just interested in, um, I started to party.

and also, um, there was an incident. I actually, it’s a silly thing, but, uh, I, uh, was skipping class one day and I ended up, um, going over to a grocery store and, uh, uh, I stole some candy. I ended up getting caught.

Wow. And, um, that moment really was a life changing moment because, um, I felt like I lost a lot of credibility. I didn’t know that, you know, what people would think about me. It was just something that my parents were devastated. The Indian immigrant parents who kid is getting in trouble.

This is not the, not what they wanted. You know, they wanted the doctor, they wanted the engineer. And here I am getting in trouble and I, and I felt that. That moment, I lost my credibility and who could trust me after that, and that kind of stuck with me for a few years afterwards.

Donald Thompson: No. Wow. I appreciate the openness and the candor because we all have speedbumps in our life and valleys in our life that are changing. Let’s lean in to that just a little bit, not so much the incident. but how do you rebuild that credibility with your family, with the friends, with yourself.

John Samuel: Yeah, it was tough.

Donald Thompson: So let’s, let’s move to this bright future that you’ve built for yourself and others as an entrepreneur and a business leader and how have you succeeded in spite of being legally blind?

Like what have you done. Both personally, emotionally, but then also what type of things have you done to actually push you forward in the business landscape? Because you haven’t let it slow you down, like you’re doing great stuff.

John Samuel: Yeah. you know you’re right. I mean, at the beginning though, I didn’t.  I let it hold me down to when I was in college. I let it hold me down. I let it impact me and it actually caused me to fail out of college at VCU. and so I decided to come back down to Raleigh to be next to my friends, kind of the same high school friends that I mentioned before. Uh, I moved in with them in college and it was living with them and them making sure that I was still participating in everything.

They didn’t treat me any different. And as they were all graduating and moving on with their lives and getting, you know, good jobs, going off, going off to med school or going into jobs can make you more money. I knew I had to go and kind of buckle down cause I didn’t want to be left behind.

It  was not a peer pressure, but it was a wanting to be with my peers, right? I wanted to keep up with my peers. I wanted to have a future with my peers, my friends and these brothers I had built. I hunkered down and started just get through school and I ended up, I kind of hustled my way into NC State.

Yeah. They actually, and I think this is kind of where that, that, that kind of, attitude that I, the confidence I built in high school kind of transpired into this cause at NC State, I couldn’t transfer cause I was academically suspended from VCU, and so I couldn’t come down to NC State, and transfer.

So I ended up going to the lifelong education route, so I was able to take two courses at NC State each semester. So I started doing that. I ended up just taking so many courses that they eventually had to take me, and so I kind of bypassed the system to get into NC State. And, uh, I ended up finishing up with an accounting degree and just that kind of hustle, kind of get into school, you know, kind of the back, I found a back way in and, uh, would not be denied, would not be denied. And I think that was kind of the thing that said, okay, I can do this. I can get into college, and a better college than I initially got into.

And now I’m, I’m graduating with an accounting degree from NC State. but the biggest barrier for me at this point was transportation. And so, I was struggling to drive at night and  I knew what time sunset was every day. I checked the day, I knew what time of sunrise and sunset cause I knew I’d get home before it got dark.

And so, when I was in college, I sometimes had to just leave, leave class cause it was getting dark. And I didn’t tell any professors, but it was still that kind of hustle. You know, I figured out a way, despite missing lots of classes and those type of things, that hustling, that kind of, that.

I’m going to get through. I can get through after I finish up it’s college. I decided to go out to India Bangalore, India. Cause there’s, there’s a couple of reasons. One, my dad and mom had moved back from India, back in North Carolina. And my dad told me, he’s like, Oh, you can never live in India.

It’s too tough. And I kind of took that on like, all right, I can do this.

Donald Thompson: Challenge accepted.

John Samuel: Challenge accepted. I decided I’m going to go out to Bangalore, India. But I also knew I could get a car and a driver there. so I was like, all right, I can take care of the transportation and I’m going to go and prove my dad wrong.

Cause I think I can always had this thing. I wanted to prove my dad that I can. Do it right. You know, I wasn’t the typical success story for them. Right. my sister was got into med school out of high school. She has a..yeah so this is what I’m living up to. I’ve got to live up to you. Exactly. This was a way for me to prove to my parents that, Hey, I can do this, dad, I can do this.

And so I went out there, uh, joined a, boutique software firm, and I worked in the currency hedging the treasury desk because…

Donald Thompson:  This point, fully, fully blind?

John Samuel:  No, no. At this time, my vision is still deteriorating and nighttime has gone. But I could still use a computer.

I could still see the computer. It was a struggle, I think, get really close to the monitor and I was trying to figure out ways to accommodate at this time. But, uh, when I got to India, it was a unique work experience because coming there, I may look like an Indian, but I was not treated like, uh, an Indian.

I was seen as an outsider and it was a really challenging part and time in my life. It was a, I worked there for two years and it was that experience again that I, I kinda got tough skin because they didn’t hold back. They didn’t, uh, treat me any differently cause I couldn’t see. But they did treat me differently because of my background and where I was coming from.

That was kind of a eyeopening experience of what’s about to come in my life. But again, I overcame that two years there. I built some beautiful relationships with friends. I struggled, you know, in the workspace with, my management side. But, um, uh, I had built some beautiful relationships and, but I had learned a lot.

And so, but I ended up going back to the U S and I moved to New York City.

Donald Thompson: Wow.

John Samuel:  I moved there because of transportation. Again, there’s a subway system I can get around. Taxis. This is gonna take care of that barrier.

But I moved out to New York with just a suitcase, two suitcases. And I moved in with one of my college buddies he had an empty couch and he lived with the two other people and moved on their couch. And this is just again, me traveling to kind of find, places that were going to be more accommodating for me right I knew that if I lived in the city, I don’t have to worry about the transportation. I could walk around.  So that, that, that would give me an opportunity to pursue more, continue my career. But when I got to New York, I had no job. But you know, I had this carefree kind of mentality like, Oh yeah, I think it’s going to work out.

Things are just going to work out. I’ll find a job. And, uh, things did. And it was an interesting time. During the recession, I ended up finding a job with the city of New York, in their deferred compensation plan. And essentially my job was to go and educate city employees on. How to, not take the money out of their pension.

Because during the recession, people were scared taking their money out. And so my job was to go around and educate them, not to take the money out and say that was a really good experience because again, I got to use one of my best attributes and that was my way to relate to people, talk to people. When I was in India, I had this personal relationship, but from a business standpoint, if I wasn’t like I was dealing with all the banks and kind of this, this different culture. Now I was coming to New York, I’m dealing with actual people. and people of different backgrounds. it wasn’t that, you know, those white collar jobs, you know, you were police officers, fire people, sanitation workers. Everybody worked in the, in the scene. I’m going to their place of work, and I got in all over the five boroughs. This is not just Manhattan. This is every single borough where you walk into somewhere that, you know, I don’t know what languages are being spoken. It’s so diverse, you know, everywhere you’re going into.

It was just a really unique experience for me to interact with people of different cultures, different socioeconomic backgrounds and everything. when even just the smallest thing for me to get up, find a way to get to, you know, far parts of the Bronx, figuring out what trains I had to do and kind of get through like the subways to the buses to walking the streets, finding that kind of work arounds and solutions. It gave me confidence every day that these are the kinds of things that building blocks, I’m not going to be denied. Now I’m feeling confident that I can get around, you know, even though my sight’s gone, I can, if I can get to every single part of the five boroughs, you know, maybe there’s a place I can live and have a successful career.

But at the same time, my peer group, people I was hanging out with, they were on Wall Street. They were lawyers. They were making a lot of money, and I wasn’t. And I was seeing this and I was seeing them talking about going to go get their MBAs and doing their CFAs and all these, you know, higher ed degrees.

And here I was just feeling like I had hustled my way into college, barely getting by. Here I’m working for the city. I didn’t think I had the pedigree or the, the, the background that all these other people had that I was meeting in New York and. And that was, again, kind of low confidence as losing the confidence kind of being around these people.

But  I got this call from an executive one day, who I used to work with in India, and he was on the board of a company called Aster, and they wanted to start up a telecommunication infrastructure company. In Cameroon, in West Central Africa. They were actually trying to get in touch with someone else.

But, I asked him what they were trying to do and I said, send me up there. I’ll go do it. And try to convince them that, I could do something like this. They didn’t know about my vision loss, but, you know, I was able to just kind of talk them into letting me go. That was a really amazing experience because why I went there was I thought, this is what’s going to separate me from everybody else. These guys were working on the investment banks and these lawyers who are thinking about their MBAs or whatever they’re doing, you know, now, if I go to Africa, that’s going to be something that’s going to separate me.

And so I ended up going up there, took a $20,000 investment, went to Cameroon, and started up this telecom infrastructure company, but I think, again, you know how many people were going to go out there and do that? Again, it was something that I had this feeling of that I can go do anything I wanted, this is a way that I could differentiate myself and I had the confidence of doing it I think from living in India and also living in New York, being able to get around it was just the next step in that journey.

Donald Thompson: No, that’s super powerful and certainly a great story that can inspire our listeners. When we think about diversity, we make it easy, right?

Race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, but what we’re talking about is people that are differently abled.

John Samuel: Yup.

Donald Thompson: Give me some education on some of the things that you would want people to know and understand, right. About the differently abled in terms of whether it be some success stories or some lessons that you’d like to share with our listeners.

John Samuel: Yeah. When I went out to Cameroon, we’ll kind of talk about that story real quick, because when the company found out that I couldn’t see, they told me, Oh gosh, we’re only gonna give you six months to work there and we’ll just wash our hands, if things don’t work out. And so when I went out there and was able to go and kind of figure out how to navigate this foreign country, how to figure out how to, get a business license in a country I don’t even speak the language, how to hire people, how to land a customer, and how to execute on a project all within six months. That just shows kind of what a problem-solver is.

And I think people with disabilities are problem solvers. You know, every day we have to figure out how to just get from point A to point B or to do some simple tasks. So we had to figure out ways to accommodate ourselves to get there. Right? And that’s what people with disabilities, I think we are problem solvers.

We persevere. We can keep going. And that’s something that you can’t teach. What type of employer doesn’t want somebody like that.

Donald Thompson: No, that’s super awesome. And thanks for that. Let’s fast forward and get to present day. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing at LCI Tech. And the amazing people that you have as a part of the vision, that you, a vision, for lack of a better word, that you are bringing on board to really achieve some great things.

John Samuel: Yeah. LCI Tech is a division of LCI. LCI is the largest employer of people who are blind. It’s a nonprofit has been around for 80 years. And our focus has primarily been on manufacturing. And so creating jobs for people who are blind in manufacturing. But manufacturing’s a noble profession, but it’s not necessarily for everybody.

And so what we wanted to do was create this upper mobility for people, this knowledge, for lack of better words, knowledge-based jobs in technology. So we started looking at technology services as our next growth area. And that’s essentially what LCI Tech is, is a technology services business. And the first line of business that we started looking at was call centers.

We thought we could outsource call center work. And so we had a in house customer service business and that customer service business was employing around eight or nine people who are blind or low vision. And so we thought this is something we can take to other companies. But when we went to talk to these companies who had this desire to bring on people with disabilities into their workforce, and they thought customer service would be a great opportunity, we looked at their software and just wasn’t accessible for the technology, the assistant technology that we use to navigate digital content.

And so that’s when I took a step back, I said, Hey, we really need to remove that barrier because people might have the best of intentions. But until we remove the accessibility issue or the barrier, we can’t set up somebody for success. And so that’s why we focused on providing digital accessibility services.

And so right now we have five people on the team who are focused to provide testing of digital content, whether it be websites or mobile apps, to check, to see if it can be used by assistant technology, not just for people who are blind, but people of all disabilities. And so we have low vision people.

We have people who are totally blind and, uh, they go through and follow the, you know, web content, accessibility guidelines criteria to make sure that it’s accessible for all people.

Donald Thompson: One of the things that you mentioned was low-vision. It seems that, I want you to correct me if I’m wrong.

It’s not just people that might have something that is a disease of some type, but as we all age, right? Our vision tends to get less perfect, so to speak, and so isn’t that something that also affects just our general population as we age?

John Samuel: Exactly right. As we look at the baby boomers this aging population, we’re more likely to bring on a disability as we get older and age in our life. You know, we joke and say that the disability community is the most inclusive organization. We’ll bring anybody on. It doesn’t matter what color you are or what religion you are, you know, we’ll bring you on. You know, you can all get a disability at some point in your life.

And that is correct. You may not have a disability today, but you know, there’s a likely high likelihood that you’re in your lifetime. You or somebody in your life will have a disability that’s gonna impair them. They may just be, as, you know, having a hard time seeing your computer screen or on your mobile phone or even having a hard time hearing.

And this is what we’re trying to help.

Donald Thompson: Oh, that’s awesome. I like pizza. There’s a story  to do with accessibility. Tell me a little bit about the Domino’s pizza case.

John Samuel: Yeah. Who doesn’t like pizza, right. And I guess a lot of blind people do too.

Cause, uh, you know, in January there was a case that an individual, a blind individual had sued Domino’s because their mobile app and  website wasn’t accessible for their screen reading technology. And so, the ninth circuit court in California ruled that under the ADA, this individual could sue Domino’s because they saw that Domino’s is a, place of, public accommodation, meaning that anybody can go and eat at this establishment. This is something that needs to be accessible for everyone. The challenging component of this is that the ADA was written in 1990 but the internet wasn’t publicly available until 1993 so there was a gap, right? And so the ADA did not specifically talk about digital content.

And so that’s where Domino’s was arguing and saying, Hey, it’s not in the ADA, so why do we need to provide this? But rather than just going and fixing it. Domino’s said, we’re going to take it to the Supreme Court. And,  the Supreme Court said, we’re not going to take this case and that it’s going to go back to the ninth circuit ruling  of saying that people with disabilities can sue digital content organizations or perhaps digital content under the ADA.

Donald Thompson: That is powerful in terms of. Number one, making accessibility a corporate charter for many organizations and I think that’s good because at the end of the day, the more people that has accessibility, the end of the day, it was actually more good commerce that can get done. One of the questions I’d lean into is accessibility is the right thing to do, but talk about why it’s just good business.

John Samuel: Yeah. You know, a lot of companies were worried about this case. Even the, chamber of commerce, a United States chamber of commerce was saying they didn’t want accessibility lawsuits going on, you know, cause they’re thinking, Oh, it’s going to hurt business. But actually it’s going to help business because as we talked about, there’s 20% of people in the country that have a disability.

And as we have a fast growing aging population who are getting, disabilities on a rapid basis, you know, we want to make sure that all those individuals have access to online retail. Online, you know, menus, anything, you know, that we can, any information that we can access online.

Cause it’s, you know, everywhere we go, everyone’s got a phone, right? Everyone’s got a computer that we’re accessing information. So if we’re restricting a large number of people from that, we’re excluding a group of potential clients that, companies don’t want to miss out on.

Donald Thompson: So final question I’ve super enjoyed spending time and getting to know you and your business, and your story is powerful. For people taking this diversity inclusion course, what are some of the things you’d like to leave them with, as they learn about diversity, inclusion, and equity? What are some of the things you’d like to share with them?

John Samuel:  There’s a couple of things I think when we think about removing the barriers, you know, from my perspective, I see a couple of key barriers. One is accessibility. It’s critical that we make sure we talk about equity. This is an actionable step that we can do to make it an equal playing field for everybody by making sure that digital content successful.

The next is on the training get and certifications and these types of things. We’re spending so much time and effort on making sure that we’re training or upskilling, our workforce, but unless it’s accessible for everybody, we’re going to be leaving some people behind.

But then third is that corporate culture. It’s important that as an organization that we are thinking about this from the top down. From every aspect of it. And we have to have change that mindset to see the value of having a much more inclusive, workforce to represent our community that we serve outside, no matter what company you are.

But from my own experience, I think the best learning, and I think what my story shows is that it’s that proximity to people of all different types is what builds empathy. And so we can learn about it and until we spend time with people who are different than you or I, that’s only when we’re going to build empathy and understand why this is important and what we’re trying to do.

Donald Thompson: No, I think that’s right. And I think our relationship as it continues to grow and develop is a perfect example of that, right? I mean I like to consider myself very open minded and very broad in my thinking, but not having a friend that’s blind until you and I’ve gotten to know each other. It wasn’t top of mind.

It wasn’t something that I thought about in my day to day business and different things. Proximity, to a broad and diverse group of people creates empathy. And I think that’s a really powerful lesson. And then something that we should all continue to think about and strive for.

John, thanks so much for joining us and spending your valuable time with us. We really, really appreciate it.

John Samuel: Thank you.

Donald Thompson: That was John Samuel, head of LCI Tech, and great friend of mine. Such an amazing message of overcoming obstacles in life. You can find more on LCI Tech by visiting LCITech.com.

So two takeaways I want to emphasize.

  • People with disabilities are problem solvers, so it makes sense to WANT people with disabilities on your team.
  • Companies are being foolish if they’re not including the disabled. 20% of the population has a disability, and as we age, we are more likely to get a disability, so there is a huge financial disadvantage to not making everything accessible.

Thanks for tuning in everyone. As I mentioned at the top of the show, (diversity class and call-to-action)

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