Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Blind entrepreneur in Ireland wows conference

From The Wall Street Journal Europe:

Caroline Casey (pictured) enthralls the audience at the Dublin F.ounders conference You might call it tenacity, or you might call it sheer bloody-mindedness, but one defining characteristic — probably the defining characteristic — of an entrepreneur is the way they simply refuse to take “no” for an answer. No you can’t do that. Really, well just watch me.

If so, then by that definition Caroline Casey must be the ultimate entrepreneur.

No you can’t drive. So she raced five laps around a Malaysian race track at nearly 200kph (125mph). No you can’t go round the world. So not only did she go round the world, but did it in a contest where she had to use 80 different forms of transport (Around the world in 80 … ways). No you can’t be a management consultant. No you’ll never get a masters degree. No you can’t trek for 1000km on the back of an elephant. No. No. No.

Well she has done all of those things, which would ordinarily make her a reasonably interesting person.

What makes her extraordinary is that Caroline Casey is blind.

Yes. A blind woman raced five laps at nearly 200kph (125 mph). And it gets better. She was racing against another blind person. Oh and her co-driver had no legs.

When Ms Casey takes to the floor here at the Dublin F.ounders conference she is given a respectfully polite reception but the buzz of background chatter continues. By the time she is half-way through the assembled uber-geeks are absolutely captivated, everyone focussed on her. When she ends the applause echoes for minutes. So what is she doing here, and why are they listening to her with such intensity?

Well mainly because you have no choice. You can’t not listen. Her story is so compelling. And there is so much of it.

Born with almost no sight, her parents took the decision not to tell her she was blind. “You don’t need eyes to see.”

“I knew I didn’t have good eyesight”, she says, “but I had no inkling it was that bad I would never drive.” No idea at all? “No. None. I just thought I was just worse than everyone else.”

This was either terrible parental neglect, or inspirational parenting. “My parents made me believe I could see. And because I didn’t know any different, I just went along with it.”

Her younger sister, Hillary, was born with the same condition, ocular albinism, but Hillary’s condition needed corrective surgery. She believes her parents used that as cover. “My parents had to tell her, but they didn’t tell me. That’s how they got away with bringing me to eye specialists. For 17 years I just thought I was ’supporting my little sister’ thinking ‘Oh my god, my poor little sister, who thinks she is going to be a pilot — God bless you, you are not going to be a pilot.”

One of Ms Casey’s childhood ambitions was to drive. So on her 17th birthday her father took her for her first — and only — driving lesson.

“My parents knew this was what I wanted. I was so excited.

“So we go down to the eye specialist. I am not even thinking about it. Hillary gets examined, I get examined. He just noticed it was my birthday. He said ‘what are you going to do for your birthday?’ and I said ‘I am going down to the police station to get my licence. I can’t wait, I can’t wait’

“And there was that awful quietness when you know that something is wrong and he looked at my mum and said ‘you haven’t told her yet’.

“And he turned to me and said ‘Caroline, you can’t drive’. And I said ‘Of course I can’t, that is why I am going to the police station’, thinking to myself ‘you stupid man’.

“He told me ‘No. You will never drive’.”

Well he was the just the first of many people who were proved wrong. And how.

So now for the racing car story. She tells the assembled entrepreneurs how in 2002 she was part of a sponsorship project raising money. She was one of three people with disabilities traveling around the world. Her, Miles Hilton-Barber, who is blind, and Mike Mackenzie, who is paralysed from the chest down and the team manager Jonathan Cook.

“We had a camera man with us as well. Turned out he only had one eye.”

Then in Malaysia someone found out about her passion for cars and somehow the next thing she knows she is sitting on the track in a racing car.

“So I was in one car with Mike and John was with Miles in the other. So there we are and there is the man with the flag. And the flag drops”. And then Ms Casey stops, turns to her audience and asks: “So can anyone see anything wrong with that picture?”

There are too many stories to capture them all. The one about shouting at Bill Gates, or even the elephant, well, maybe another time.

She is addressing the luminaries partly as inspiration, but mainly for her cause — to change attitudes to the one billion people affected by disabilities (I am chastised for using the term disabled person). As she sees it “the only way life is ever going to change for those people is if they are seen as a business opportunity, and not pitied.

“Working with business you have to understand how business works. Worthy is not a business plan. So if business transforms its views around disability, then it is done. Disability will be done.”

For her technology is one of the key drivers. “It is one of the most empowering things there is for the community. Take Twitter for example. Deaf people can take part in a conversation. eBay has made disabled entrepreneurs, there is voice activated software. We can now use technology to have a life. It is one of the critical drivers. Unfortunately Facebook is not fully accessible for people who are blind but it is better than nothing.”

Her list of achievements is humbling. Now running an advocacy group for people with disabilities Kanchi (named after the elephant she worked with for four months) her task is no less challenging than the race. It is to change the way society behaves by changing the way it thinks.

She is writing a standard to promote best practice in business relating to the inclusion of people with disabilities, she has devised an international awards programme that has already run in Ireland and has now persuaded Telefonica, the world’s second largest phone company to sponsor them in Spain.

Talking to the Chief Executives and programmers later in the day the one thing that everyone remembers, un-prompted, was Ms Casey’s speech. If you want to change business’s approach to disability, who better to win over than the very people who are themselves changing business?

As one tweet described it — she re-defined inspiration.