Mike Hess is the founder and executive director of the Technology and serves on its Board of Directors. Determined to reduce the high unemployment rate among skilled blind and visually impaired IT and tech professionals in the U.S., Mike leads BIT’s mission to prepare blind and visually impaired people and the employers who hire them for success in the workplace.
Before founding BIT – a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Colorado in February 2013 – Mike spent four years as a senior software engineer for Level 3 Communications, where he led a variety of IT and other technical projects. Prior to Level 3, Mike held IT, software engineering and other technical positions with , U.S. West and other companies during the course of his 18-year career.
Mike, who has been legally blind since first grade, graduated from in 1995 with a certificate in applications programing and also received the Student of the Year award from the Computer Training for People with Disabilities (CTPD) program.
An English proverb states, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Mike began his journey as a disabled person at the age of seven in a small, Midwestern town in Ohio. As an April Fools baby, he was a natural class clown and wanted to sit in the back of the class cracking jokes as early as first grade. He quickly moved to the front of the class after realizing he was not able to see the chalkboard.
After visiting several optometrists, Mike ended up in a large Cleveland hospital. It was there that he and his mother learned that Mike was losing his sight and would be completely blind by the age of 18. At such a young age, he had no idea what blind even meant. When he asked his mom, she simply stated that he was going to be special. At this point, in many ways, Mike began to fulfill her prophecy.
Mike’s mom was determined to keep him within the public schools and did not want to send him to a school for blind and deaf children. Disabled children are commonly placed into special learning programs within the public school system and Mike was no exception. This established a clear line in the sand with his classmates, stating plainly that he was different. However, he maintained the belief instilled in him by his mom that he was special, regardless of the large print books and dark colored paper he needed to aid his learning. Mike learned to make friends quickly and refused to allow classmates to bully him for being blind. Thus, Mike plotted the course along his thousand-mile journey by either engaging people with his sense of humor or by being tough.
At the start of junior high school, Mike’s family moved to Colorado and it was there that Mike began using low-vision technologies for the first time. His secondary school education was split between proactively learning the skills he would need in the future to live as a totally blind person (cane training and Braille classes) and the low-vision technologies that would assist him in the present.
Throughout his college career, Mike had to continue pushing through challenges. With the limited technology at that time, he needed to collaborate with others and use alternative methods to achieve success. In one instance, he paired up with a fellow student who had carpal tunnel syndrome. Mike was able to do the typing while his classmate acted as his eyes. So as a blind young person, Mike had experienced the shunning of someone who is different, but also the thrill of achieving goals that were widely considered unattainable for a blind person. His success and accomplishments continued to grow, and so did Mike’s belief that his journey was meant for greatness.
Immediately after college, Mike married his wife, Natalie, and adopted her two daughters. His family grew again in 2008 with the addition of Maddox (aka ‘Little Man’). Mike believes it’s important to show his children and others that his disability does not affect his life and that he is just as capable as people who have sight. Mike’s family continues to be his driving force whenever it seems like the world is unfair, supporting and inspiring him as he inspires others through all his successes and challenges.
Mike’s family, friends and business colleagues have seen him live his mantra that vision loss is simply an inconvenience and nothing more. They have watched Mike keep a positive attitude throughout all his trials and tribulations. In addition to his education and career accomplishments, Mike competed in martial arts, became a snow and water skier, ran half marathons and climbed 14,000 foot mountains.
Mike’s journey has been both trying and thrilling. However, his thousand miles are far from over. Thanks to his leadership, Board of Directors, corporate partners, talented blind and visually impaired IT and tech pros, family, friends and volunteers, the current phase of Mike’s journey – the Blind Institute of Technology — is materializing right before his mind’s eye.
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Dr. Ai Addyson-Zhang is an educator and an entrepreneur. She received her MA and Ph.D. in Communication from Syracuse University and the University of Maryland. Ai is the founder of Classroom Without Walls, an alternative school for entrepreneurship. As an Adobe Education Leader, Ai is passionate about incorporating social media and creative technologies to enhance student learning and to acquire skills that help them become future-ready. Ai’s work has been featured in Forbes, Inside Higher Education, Pearson Education, and Mark Schafer’s book among others. She additionally contributes to Entrepreneur and Thrive Global. Ai hosts two weekly live streaming shows, where she interviews thought leaders in social media and education such as Seth Godin. Ai is also a HubSpot Academy instructor, and frequently speaks at academic and industry conferences including VidCon, Global Marketing Day, Social Media Week Lima (the largest social media marketing conference in the midwest, and others.
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Lawrence Wagner is an eight-year Army veteran who also is Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder of Spark Mindset. Lawrence has over ten years of project management experience, along with a background in military, cybersecurity, high-tech business, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and human design thinking. Lawrence has a Master’s Degree in Business Management from Colorado Technical University. He also received leadership training from Leadership Pikes Peak Signature Program and Center for Creative Leadership Community Leadership Program and is currently serving on the Colorado Workforce Development Council. Now living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he is originally from Cleveland, Ohio and is a huge Ohio State Buckeyes, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Cleveland Browns fan.
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Lauren Gifford, PhD is a critical geographer exploring the intersections of global climate change policy, conservation, markets and justice. Her work asks how, and by whom, climate and conservation policies are enacted. She is a Research Affiliate at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and teaches courses on climate change and human-environment interactions at CU Boulder and Metropolitan State University of Denver. She is founder of the Somes Group, a climate and environmental policy consulting firm that helps governments, foundations, NGOs and start-ups understand financialized conservation management and carbon pricing. She is also host of the podcast Carbon Social Club.
Dr. Gifford holds a PhD in Geography from University of Colorado, Boulder, an MA in Environmental Studies from Dartmouth College, a BA in Communications from American University, and completed courses in greenhouse gas and forest carbon accounting through the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute (GHGMI). She has conducted mixed methods field research in the Peruvian Amazon, on Cuban organic farms, throughout Maine’s forests, at the United Nations’ annual climate negotiations, and at countless civil society meetings around the world. Recently she’s been studying the use of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology to verify carbon offsets.
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Elizabeth Giorgi is a media entrepreneur and Emmy-Award winner. Her newest company, soona, is a same-day photo and video studio that provides professional, custom photo and video for less than the price of stock content. Her first company, Mighteor, was the world’s first professional production company to specialize in internet ads. She is a passionate advocate for women in production and entrepreneurship and the creator of the Candor Clause – an effort to level the playing field for women raising venture capital. You can learn more about her businesses at soona.co and mighteor.com
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Ethan Decker, PhD, is president of Applied Brand Science. Ethan unearths and distills the latest and most relevant research on marketing and human behavior to increase the effectiveness of his clients’ advertising and branding expenditures. Having spent a dozen years leading strategy and research at some of the world’s best agencies for some of the world’s biggest brands, he saw firsthand the waste and damage that many modern marketing beliefs and “best practices” are causing to firms. Now he is pioneering the field of brand science to help companies that want to embrace a more effective, evidence-based approach to advertising and brand growth.
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Aditi U. Joshi MD, MSc is Medical Director of , Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s on-demand telemedicine program and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine. Her position is multi-faceted in telehealth and tele-intake: working in operations, quality assurance, provider training, resident and medical education and implementing new programs and use cases for telehealth. She is also co-director of the at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, teaching medical students how digital health technologies will influence their careers. She runs a Telehealth fellowship for physicians. Nationally, she is the chair elect for the telehealth working group and on the consensus committee for ’s consensus conference. Prior to Jefferson, she worked at a telemedicine startup, learning barriers in uptake, marketing and business development. She is considered an expert in acute care telehealth and regularly speaks on the topics of how digital technologies will impact the future of healthcare and the workforce. She completed her residency at and has a Masters in International Health Policy from the London School of Economics.
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