The Next Chapter
If you’ve followed this blog, or watched me on Facebook or Twitter, or if you've known me personally for any length of time, you know that I don’t do anything in halves. Whether I’m teaching a Bible study, conducting a podcast or even visiting Disney World with my kids, I am focused on that activity with my heart and soul, to the exclusion of all else. You also might have noticed that I never back away from a challenge. In fact, I thrive on situations where the odds are long and the goal seems all but impossible to achieve. Some might call that boundless energy and enthusiasm, and some might call it just plain crazy. Whatever you call it, that inexhaustible passion and willingness to challenge the status quo have served me very well throughout my life.
I can vividly remember flying to Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2001 to meet with a group of business people. As I stepped on the plane, I had a moment or two where I questioned what exactly I thought I was doing. I was a young guy with a growing family, and while I had been an entrepreneur since I was thirteen, I’d never walked in to a boardroom before. I wasn’t even a high school graduate. How could I possibly think I could walk in to a room with well-educated, seasoned business men and hope to get anywhere at all. In that moment of doubt, I could very easily have turned around and headed home with my head hanging in shame because of all the things I lacked. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I had an idea … a dream, a vision, and nothing was going to stop me from pursuing it, especially not my own self-doubt.
You see, there was this magical thing called the Internet which was rapidly becoming a staple for people of all walks of life. Everybody likes shopping. Everybody likes music. Everybody likes communicating with people, right? On the Internet you could get all that and more, at least if you were sighted. But what if you were blind? If you were a blind person like me, with a love of gadgets and a willingness to try new things, then you could get on the Internet, at least if someone bought you a thousand-dollar screen reader and paid for your training in how to use it. But what if you didn’t have such a benefactor? What if the only technical gadget you could operate was the radio? What if you were retired and buying a very expensive computer and a very expensive screen reader wasn’t in the cards? What then? At the time, those were the thoughts that kept me up at night. I recognized that the Internet wasn’t just a fad, but rather that it had the power to open countless doors for the blind population. But as a community, we weren’t going to get very far if most of us had no access to the Internet in the first place. I knew someone had to get the ball rolling to fix that, and since I was the one thinking about it and praying about it, that someone might as well be me.
So, with a great idea, big dreams, and very little else, I set out to make my vision a reality. I wanted to see blind people using all kinds of technology just as easily and affordably as our sighted counterparts, and from that idea Serotek was born in 2002.
Getting things started was not a piece of cake. Michael Fox was the tough business guy who presided over my meeting in Minnesota. He asked a lot of critical questions and dared me to defend my plans. I was glad he did so, because he made me drill down to the details and convince myself even more of the potential of my business venture. After I passed his initiation we became great friends, and the strength of this friendship helped shape one of the most innovative companies in the assistive technology industry, even by today's standards. Beyond his support and friendship, Michael Fox has served as my mentor, and I can say without any doubt that neither I nor Serotek could ever have come this far without him. We have argued pretty heatedly over the years, but it is with his support, guidance and tough love that I have gained a better understanding of business, and have grown tremendously as a person as well.
Eleven years after that fateful trip to Minnesota, Serotek, and technology in general has changed pretty dramatically. The company has grown from selling a single standalone product to a trend setting corporation with six products spanning multiple platforms and a media outlet that is consistently praised as one of the best in the industry. We were the firsts to go where no traditional vendor had gone before. We dared to eliminate the screen reader software maintenance agreement. We defied conventional business practices and gave you a sophisticated product at a fraction of what the old establishment was charging.
It’s not just Serotek that has grown and thrived. Companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft have finally embraced the idea that blind people should be able to use off-the-shelf technology accessibly without any additional cost to the user. In 2001, it wasn’t common at all to meet a blind person who not only had a computer, but knew how to use it. Now, blind people stroll around gathering information from their environments using the smart phone in their pocket. Thanks to Serotek, they visit a friend’s house and use the computer there just as easily as they use the one or two that they have at home. We’ve come a very long way, and as I survey my domain and the tiny corner of the world I inhabit, everything looks better than most blind consumers would have dared imagine just a few years ago.
So now it’s time to pat myself on the back and breathe a sigh of relief, right? I did what I set out to do. Not only do I have a desktop computer that’s accessible and easy to use, I also have a whole bag full of gadgets that are fully accessible from where ever I may decide to work. They are all off-the-shelf, not from some company that “makes products for the blind.” I’ve not only learned how to advocate for myself but provided a platform for others to do the same when things aren’t accessible, and I belong to a community of blind people who recognize the power to change things with a single voice, and are just as passionate about using their voices to make a difference as I am. Leveraging the talents of an amazing team of dedicated blind people and the priceless guidance of my dynamic co-founder, I helped build a corporation that dared to poke the status quo in the eye. We recruited a team whose dedication, passion, and expertise is unparalleled in this industry. This team has taken my God given vision and not only lived it, but taken individual ownership of it as well. They have brought it to fruition in ways that neither I nor anyone else could have ever thought possible. As I look at everything that we as a team have accomplished over the last eleven years, I am both proud and humbled. Still, I am only observing from my tiny corner of the world, and I know that there is so much more of the world to explore, and to change.
I am truly honored that the Serotek team has walked with me on this journey of turning a dream in to reality, and there is no better or more capable group to carry that vision forward. I can look at myself and my team and know with full confidence that my purpose in creating Serotek has been more than fulfilled. If I chose to, I could continue running this business for another 11 years of my life. I could get up in the morning, design interfaces for new and innovative software, manage all the intricacies of development cycles and timelines, and motivate the team to keep striving for greater heights. I could do that, but I can’t do that and be true to my heart felt passion toward our community. I could do that, but, it isn’t what puts a smile on my face and a fire in my belly to change the world. And make no mistake, the world does need changing.
Today, thanks to the advocacy efforts of so many remarkable people, in the industrialized world accessibility is becoming the norm rather than the exception. Still, blind people do not all live in industrialized societies. In fact, there are lots more blind people in developing countries, if for no other reason than that living conditions can be so deplorable that the idea of managing a medical condition is far-fetched at best. What is being done to provide the blind population in those countries with the same advantages we have here? What is being done to make sure that those blind people can embrace opportunities beyond begging on the streets for survival? What is being done to teach the children and the culture around them that they are just as smart and capable as anyone else, and that dreams don’t have to exist only in their minds and in more affluent countries? What is being done to introduce those blind people to successful role models? The answer is simply: not enough.
It is now these thoughts that drive me, inspire me, keep me asking questions, and keep me up at night. And just like 12 years ago when I considered starting Serotek, I have realized that if I’m the one dreaming about it, thinking about it, praying about it, I’m the one who needs to do something about it, with God’s leading. I believe God has a plan for each and every one of us. I think if He gives us the power to dream it He gives us the ability to do it even if we sometimes don’t live long enough to see the completed picture.
“Okay Calvo, that’s a really motivational diatribe, but what are you getting at?”
Good question. The upshot is that I have made the decision to step down as CEO of Serotek. In the months ahead I plan to tackle a number of personal and professional goals. I plan to focus more on public speaking. I believe I have a story that could inspire others to pursue their own passions. I plan to finish my book: “Lack of Sight Doesn't Mean Lack of Vision.” I am also excited to take over as Executive Director of the AIR Foundation, whose mission is to educate the world that accessibility is a fundamental human right, not a privilege. It is my dream to see every blind person with the power of technology in their hands, not just those blind people who were born in a geographic location where technology is more readily available because it is a more lucrative market for business. It is my dream to see every blind person find the power within themselves to be proud and confident in who they are, blindness and all.
While I am stepping down as CEO I remain a board member and shareholder at Serotek. This is not the end for me and certainly not the end for Serotek. My partner and friend, Michael Fox, the same guy who challenged me to stretch myself as an entrepreneur, will be heading up the company in the interim. We've worked shoulder to shoulder in making this a venture uniquely different from anything in the blindness field. Michael brings more than twenty-five years guiding large and small companies to successful momentums, and I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that he will carry the ball forward with grace and purpose. I encourage you to stay tuned to this blog and SPN to hear more about the exciting things the Serotek team has in store.
This is a new beginning for the Serotek family, a fresh launch for the AIR Foundation, and a daunting but exciting new thoroughfare in my life’s journey. You’ve come with us this far, and it is my hope that you will continue to be as dedicated to the dream of universal accessibility as I am. Thank you for walking beside me. Thank you for your overwhelming support. Thank you for taking up the cause to walk even further to make our vision come alive.