Deborah Ambro-Crandell, above, is director of customer success for IBVI.
Sandra Teague-Martin worked in a Milwaukee-area real estate office for years until losing most of her vision to glaucoma. She tried continuing to work in the office, but “in that environment, you need all of your sight,” she says.
Teague-Martin was looking for work when her eye doctor mentioned a local organization called Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired. IBVI employs people at a wide range of jobs, from assembling toolkits for military troops to working in various customer service and office roles.
Teague-Martin took a job doing hand assembly and did that for eight months, until a major technology change at IBVI created a new opportunity. The company implemented new software that let it create customer service, financial, and other jobs in which people with visual impairments could work independently. Teague-Martin landed one of the customer service jobs, where she uses text-to-speech and ZoomText to enter, track, and monitor orders and inventory.
“I didn’t think it would be possible to find employment like this where you’re accepted, where you’re equal to people who are sighted,” she says.
Teague-Martin’s experience is emblematic of IBVI’s singular mission: Create jobs for people like her.
More than 7 million US adults are blind or visually impaired, and an estimated 70% of them are not employed full-time. IBVI employs 265 people in a wide range of roles—from assembler to machine operator, accounts payable associate to purchasing associate, to project coordinator and more. Of course, IBVI knows that its business success hinges on making and delivering quality products, and it’s always looking for ways to improve product quality, customer service, and accuracy around factors such as on-time delivery and available inventory. But unlike most companies, the nonprofit is not necessarily looking to cut its labor costs.
“If we don’t employ an additional person, it doesn’t help us,” IBVI Chief Innovation Officer Emmanuel Vouvakis says. When IBVI looks for new business opportunities, one of the first checkmarks is that the new opportunity must create blind employment opportunities at the same time.
More Job Types, Opportunities
That dual motivation—improve company performance and create new jobs—shines through in the major software initiative that Vouvakis recently drove at IBVI.
IBVI Chief Innovation Officer Emmanuel Vouvakis, left, chats with employee Justin Greenwood at the manufacturing facility.
In the past, most of IBVI’s jobs for the blind were in manufacturing and assembly. Placing staff who were blind in office jobs such as customer service, salesperson, and accounting required oversight from someone who was sighted.
By implementing Oracle Cloud applications across its back office, IBVI noticed better compatibility with tools such as JAWS (text-to-speech) and ZoomText. In addition, having one integrated suite of applications made the data easier to access and more useful for customer service and analysis, Vouvakis says. Those factors let IBVI create new independent roles (no sighted assistance required) in customer service, purchasing, and accounting.
New competition also played a role in IBVI’s decision to upgrade its technology platform. IBVI sells some of its products under a US government program called AbilityOne, whereby agencies buy from contractors that create jobs for people with disabilities. IBVI sees opportunities to expand into new markets, such as on-demand kitting services where an agency could pick and choose from among dozens of products and box options online to put into a supply kit, and it’s facing new online rivals that are selling into its existing markets under AbilityOne contracts.
To meet those challenges, IBVI moved from a collection of disparate legacy software systems onto the full suite of Oracle Cloud applications, for functions including financials, supply chain, product configuration, procurement, and online commerce. “In order for us to scale and grow, we needed a solid and accessible platform,” Vouvakis says.
Bring on Change
For employees such as Teague-Martin, it was a challenge to learn an entirely new system quickly—but well worth it because now she and her colleagues have an application suite that holds all the information they need in one place, so they don’t have to switch from screen to screen. “I like new ideas,” she says. “I’m a person who always wants to learn new things.”
Vouvakis, who is sighted, knew that moving to a new system would require plenty of training. But his experience at IBVI had taught him he wouldn’t have to worry about the team resisting the tech change. “People who are blind are more adaptable and ready to embrace change,” he says. “They’re used to adapting all the time.”
Being back in an office environment and learning new technology has changed Teague-Martin’s outlook on her career. She’s considering going back to college to pursue a bachelor’s degree, having already earned an associate’s degree.
She also likes the fact that working on Oracle Cloud software makes her more marketable than if she knew only the IBVI home-grown, legacy software. “I’d like to stay here,” Teague-Martin emphasizes, “but with the knowledge I’ve gained, I could take it to other companies.”
Vouvakis is perfectly okay with that kind of thinking. While no one wants to lose good people, creating employment opportunities fits with IBVI’s mission. “If they learn Oracle apps here, they can go work anywhere,” he says. “That will give them another avenue of career growth.”