Marissa: Right now, I'm a junior in college starting her spring semester, and it's around this time that people start asking the dreaded question, “what do you want to do after graduation?” And I think of job hunting as the wild west because at least with college, there are one or two websites like the Common App where you could submit all of your materials. But with corporations, they all have their own application process and website, which may or may not be accessible, and various rounds of interviews. For me as someone in business school, most of my upperclassmen friends were starting to recruit in investment banking, venture capital, private equity, consulting, or accounting, and we as blind people are especially underrepresented in these fields. When I was recruiting with PwC last year, there was no one to tell me how to request accommodations for case interviews or how to make Microsoft Excel more accessible to those with visual impairments.
My guest today, Kathryn Webster, plans to change that. She founded Together Achieving Dreams, which strives to increase blind representation in fields like management, consulting, finance, and big law. She is an MBA candidate at Harvard Business School and she plans to work for KKR, a global investment firm once she graduates. She is super involved in the blind community. Many of you may know her as the former president of the National Association of Blind Students. And one of her greatest passions is mentorship, helping younger blind people find their way. I am really excited for you all to hear our conversation, so stay tuned to learn more about Blind Ladies Breaking into Corporate America.
Marissa: Welcome back to another episode of Legally Blonde & Blind. I am so excited to have Kathryn Webster, a fellow legally blonde and blind guest, on with me today. I think I've mentioned this a few times before, but I first met Kathryn over Zoom during the pandemic at an NFB convention and ever since I always thought she was so cool. So I'm really happy you're here with me today to share a bit of your story.
Kathryn: Marissa, thank you so much for having me. I am so happy to be joining you and can't wait for our conversation.
Marissa: Definitely, and especially cannot wait to meet in person next month, which we will most certainly get to in this episode.
Kathryn: I know it's gonna be amazing.
Marissa: So, to get started, could you describe what your vision is like and how the world looks to you just so people can get a bit of context?
Kathryn: Yeah, absolutely. So I actually, long story short, I was born completely blind and when I was two weeks old, I gained vision in my right eye. So I have never seen out of my left eye. But about five years ago, so I'm 27. When I was 22, right before graduating undergrad, I lost the remainder of my vision in my right eye. So total darkness now, but it took me a few months to even realize that because I was so used to seeing, I was so used to conceptually understanding things. It kind of was a bit of a transition to, okay, now there's nothing. And I still thought there was a little bit left. So transitioning after undergrad and starting at my first job in DC at Deloitte, that was my first time really having to hone in on my non-visual skills as a blind person working in consulting. So it’s nothing now but it's definitely been a journey of several surgeries and whatnot. But here we are.
Marissa: Here we are now. The world is completely dark. What sparked your interest in disability and blindness advocacy?
Kathryn: That's a great question. So I think I originally got into advocacy work, partially from a legislative front, like I wanted to do equal access education type stuff. I wanted to make some sort of difference from an equality standpoint, I didn't really know what that would look like. So when I graduated high school, I received a scholarship from the NFB, and that's how I kind of started dipping my toes into advocacy work. Obviously I later became president of the National Association of Blind Students, which I think furthered a lot of that advocacy interest in just working on Capitol Hill with different legislation that we were working on, and then also just mentoring students, which is quite frankly the favorite, like my favorite, most passionate aspect of, of working in the disability space. As you know, I'm going into finance. I'm at Harvard Business School now. My true passion is doing the outlet of working blind folk, but that's not my day-to-day, so I kind of do it more, not as a hobby, but more of my passion and rewarding work. Less so what I think that I'm ever gonna end up in.
Marissa: That's a great point because I feel it's really challenging to find your place in advocacy and how you can get involved with the time and resources available to you. It doesn't have to be a full-time job. It can be something that's a passion project for you, something that you pursue outside of that nine to five day.
Kathryn: Oh, totally. And figuring out what angle you wanna take. So it's funny, in the NFB, I wore a ton of different, and still do a ton of different hats, in working with the training centers or helping with Washington Seminar in Capitol Hill or whatever it may be. But I think over the past couple years as I've kind of found my place, the mentorship piece is huge. And I think to your point, like figuring out how intentionally to spend your time on things that really do bring you joy is really important.
Marissa: 100%. And on that note, what inspired you to found your own organization, Together Achieving Dreams?
Kathryn: This is my favorite thing in the world. For context, my dad passed away the same year that I lost my vision. So it kind of put a perspective on life for me where I didn't care that I was blind. I lost the most important person to me and I always wanted to figure out a way that I can honor him and some creative, but also very heart filled way. And I was struggling with it a little bit because there's so many organizations helping blind people in the world, whether it be advocacy, membership driven, whatever it is, and I didn't want to…
Marissa: They sound exactly the same.
Kathryn: They all exactly sound the same. And I didn't want to overlap or compete against any organization. I'm very proud and very involved in the National Federation of the Blind. And that's why I was struggling with do I start my own company or do I just continue my efforts elsewhere? And what it came down to for me is every space that I've been in, whether it be Deloitte, HBS, KKR, which is the private equity firm, I'm going to, I'm the only person in the room who's blind. And I hate that. Not for myself. I don't mind educating. I don't, I'm very strong in self-advocating for, for me, There are so many people that would shy away from that or not feel comfortable, understandably so. So the biggest driving force to start Together Achieving Dreams Foundation, aka TAD Foundation, named after my father, is simply that I want to have us break into corporate America more like the 75% unemployment rate hasn't changed for decades.
And at the end of the day, the one in four that are employed are typically in fields that are accessibility focused, cane travel instructor, braille instructor, whatever it is, and that's totally okay if folks feel that they wanna go into that career, if that's what they're passionate about, but if they feel pigeonholed to go into that career, that's where I get frustrated and why TAD exists. Because we wanna break into corporate America in a really intentional way where it's hitting both companies, investing in blind students, but also blind students getting the technical and social skills to become the most comfortable and competent in those spaces of work.
Marissa: I think a lot of organizations, especially those that are focused more on parents or research initiatives, aren't really talking about this unemployment statistic and how much it impacts people's lives. I never knew that so few blind people were employed until I ended up in college. It's a conversation I think a lot of people don't want to have because it's challenging to think about the barriers you might face, but it is something you have to talk about as you're starting to look around and think about your career.
Kathryn: Completely. And it's kind of a double-edged sword because society doubts our abilities and then we doubt our abilities because society's pushing those stereotypes on us. But then we also aren't guided or directed into, say, management consulting, which is, you know what you and I, what you're going into, what I had done. No one thinks like, “oh, that's a perfect job for a blind person.” And quite frankly, there isn't any reason for that. We're just like anyone else, right? Like the accommodations I need, my first day of work is a screen rating software and someone to orient me to the building. That's all. That's it. And like some people want devices, whatever, to each their own, that's totally fine, but it's very minimal compared to the productivity that we all bring to the table if we have the right resources.
Marissa: Absolutely. And that brings me to, so for context, I'm in Guide Dog training as we're recording this. And one volunteer that I encountered quite explicitly said that they were surprised that I attended Georgetown University despite my “handicap.”
Kathryn: Oh, stop. That word needs to be zoned out completely.
Marissa: Yeah. I think the words “inspire” and “handicap” need to be gone in 2023.
Kathryn: That’s our goal. We’ve got this.
Marissa: But that speaks to your point, that the expectations in many regards, when it comes to going to college and entering these fields, like management consulting or big law. are very, very low. It's helpful to see people who have done it before too.
Kathryn: Well, that's the biggest issue, is we don't, many of us don't exist. So when I was in my first year of grad school and I wanted to do financial modeling, I had no one to turn to to say, what is the most efficient way to do 30 year projections in Excel? How do I do discounted cash flows? I can figure it out but that's just more time consuming. I wish there was a very, and that's of course where TAD comes in, but a very direct streamlined way for people to get those skills in an accessible way.
Marissa: ou've already spoken about this, but what are some of the unique challenges that blind people face in corporate America?
Kathryn: It's an interesting question, and I think my answer would be different from many, but the short answer is people's doubts. I mean, to me, that's the biggest barrier. People just don't understand their discomfort. So I always break the ice to make sure others feel comfortable, but like no one I've ever worked with who's been a boss of mine, has worked with a blind person before. So it's just a bit of a—I don't wanna say shell shock—but like people just don't know. And once you show them that you're just like anyone else, then it's completely fine. But getting over that bridge does put more energy on me to make sure that they feel comfortable.
I think in consulting in particular, just as an example, PowerPoint development is huge. I'm not gonna make the most beautiful slide. Many people who are sighted aren't either, but that skill is super important in consulting. It actually was more advantageous to me as an analyst at Deloitte to not be the one beautifying the deck because then I was so knee deep in content, which many of my peers weren't. So then I'm the expert in whatever we're talking about. and my colleagues who are the same level as me, have no idea. They just know they're making a graphic on a deck or they know what font they're using. People were like, how are you going to be successful in consulting when it’s all slides slides slides? And I was worried about that starting off, but that's the angle you have to take. I'm gonna be the content expert, and then you're the ones talking to the clients.
Marissa: I had an experience where I was in a consulting club and somebody reviewing my slide said, “oh, your bullets are round and they need to be squares.” They were so small that I couldn't even see them.
Marissa: And that there's a difference between Raleway bold and Raleway semibold.
Kathryn: Stop. Is there really? That's where I'm just like, I don't care. Like tell me what you want, but, but it does not make a difference to me.
Marissa: It definitely adds to professionalism, especially in a student group, I'd say. So I understand it to a point, but it is a bit ridiculous. Anyways, you've mentioned, as you've said before, that when, whether you're in HBS or Deloitte, you're often the only blind person in the room. So how do you handle interacting with colleagues and employers that have had little to no experience working with people like you?
Kathryn: I think I take it very individually based on whoever the person is, feeling out their personality and how they kind of approach things is the first go-to. So if someone is super outgoing, confident, social, whatever, I'm gonna have a very different approach than someone who's more meek and uncomfortable. So to me, I always initiate the conversation, make sure either crack a stupid joke or like just make sure that they feel comfortable. And then I also, I guess fortunately or unfortunately, constantly feel like I have to prove myself in those spaces by, by doing better, right? Like by excelling in whatever it is. So being super prompt or pushing out a really good product, whatever, where it's like she's not different. Like sure there's this characteristic, but there's no other difference.
So I think my kind of my go-to is just to get to know someone, ask them questions, get them comfortable with just the interaction, and…but also this is like the sad part that I hope our organization can work on, but the amount of discrimination that I've received now that I'm at HBS is zero. And it's because of the brand tied to the university. You know what I mean? I'm sure you feel the same way with Georgetown, like once you have that on your resume, it's a huge help.. And then it's like, “okay, if they're good with her, if Georgetown admitted her, she must be okay.”So I think it helps, but that’s why we need to push the door open for other blind people.
Marissa: I felt that all throughout my life, especially in an academic sense, this idea that you have to go above and beyond just to be seen as competent when it's assumed for you’re sighted.
Kathryn: Right. And it's the constant more, more, more that you always have to drive towards, to just be seen as equal, like you're saying.
Marissa: So to address these challenges, what resources is TAD planning on providing for blind people interested in careers in these areas?
Kathryn: So are three pillars of stakeholder engagement. The first is the mentor program where I think undergrads paired with a blind and sighted mentor in their career field of interest, working with them on a quarterly basis on those technical skills. So all of our training will be accessible through a tech platform that is fully accessible. So if you think Wall Street Prep, like go on and download a course, that's not gonna, you're not gonna have the same access point as an accessible financial model course. So making sure that they have all those technical skills and the social outlet.
The second piece is 100% internship placement. So our second pillar is corporate partnerships, where we're working with companies who either have a vested interest in hiring blind folks or people with disabilities or diversity talent, whatever it is. And then going to the next level. Okay, you say that you want to do this, why aren't you doing it? And the answer is always, they don't know. They don't have candidates. There's no pipeline. So our organization is gonna provide that pipeline to the target companies that we're working with. So initially the industries are finance, consulting, big law and entrepreneurship. I see that broadening very quickly into different buckets of corporate America. But that's our second piece.
And then the third is resources for parents. So as I'm sure both of us experience, like the way you're raised is pivotal in figuring out if you're gonna be a successful person in life. Blind or sighted, right? It doesn't matter. So working with parents of kids from zero to six years old who have blind and low vision students, making sure that they're set up for success with a network with resources at a very young level. So that's kind of TAD in a nutshell.
Marissa: I love that because you wouldn't think of six year olds when you're talking about employment and career prep, but it really does start that early. I know, at least for me, I was raised in an environment where I was told I could do anything except become an airplane pilot. But I know for many blind children that is not the case.
Kathryn: And even now with technology, maybe you could,
Marissa: Yeah, maybe I could.
Kathryn: Maybe we shouldn't do that. But like maybe you could.
Marissa; But when parents hear this new diagnosis, their first thoughts are, are they gonna be able to drive? Are they going to be able to play sports? Are they going to be able to live a normal life? And I think a lot of medical professionals hyperbolize how “tragic” blindness is right. And make it seem as if it's the end when really it's the beginning.
Kathryn: Absolutely. And there's so many solutions out there, right? Like technology has transformed the way all of us can work.
Marissa: I couldn't imagine going through college without the technology I have now, and I bet you in 20, 30 years, college students who are blind are going to say the exact same thing. So I'm really excited to see where that takes us.
Kathryn: Oh, absolutely. And even 30 years ago, of course, it was possible, but I don't know what I would've done. You know what I mean? Like with all the solutions that we have now, it's just such a different world.
Marissa: Yes, totally. And so if people are interested in getting involved in any one of these segments, how do you recommend they reach out?
Kathryn: Yes. TADfoundation.org is our website. Shameless plug. Our gala is February 25th. It's our inaugural one, so would love any and all to join us. And that'll be in Boston, Massachusetts. Of course, you can learn more at TADfoundation.org, but also just email email@example.com and we will get folks plugged in.
Marissa: Absolutely, and I will be there. So if you want to see both of us in person and meet with my guide dog for the first time at a working event, you will have to attend.
Marissa: And it is like the Harvard Club in Boston, correct?
Kathryn: Yes. Harvard Club in Boston, Saturday, February 25th from 6-10.
Marissa: Awesome. And so if people wanna stay up to date, are there any social media platforms, any other, other ways you recommend staying up to date?
Kathryn: Yes. We're on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, all of those are under @togetherachievingdreams. So absolutely check us out.
Marissa: And finally, this is a very broad question, but what advice do you have for blind students who are interested in management, consulting, finance, and big law besides looking into Together Achieving Dreams, which is the obvious answer after this episode?
Kathryn: So two things. One is to push outside your comfort zone by reaching out to people in these feilds. There are so many connections on LinkedIn. Just messaging someone, having that initial conversation to get your foot in the door is the first thing. The second is just, I don't wanna say fake it till you make it, but be confident in yourself and try to challenge those stereotypes every day by being confident. Okay? And if it's not coming naturally to you, just try, take it day by day, learn a new skill, do whatever you can to kind of just break the ice.
Marissa: Yes, I agree. And LinkedIn is, in my opinion, such a powerful tool because you can easily find alumni connections that are interested in, that are interested in, or working in a firm that you like, and you can just send them a message, which is a lot easier than these giant networking events. It’s really challenging for us to spot someone across the room that we know or run into the exact right person at the exact right time. So taking advantage of those digital tools is huge.
Kathryn: And don't give up. If you reach out to one person who doesn’t answer your message, message other 10 different people. And the worst thing that can happen, like you said, is they don't respond.
Marissa: Right. Just don't make it sound, you're trying to sell them a religion.
Kathryn: Exactly. Simple 20 minute conversation is all you're asking for. No converting them to your religion.
Marissa: Being in College and having that support system gave me the confidence to build my wings and be willing to go beyond my comfort zone. I mean, before college, I never had taken a flight by myself or used the train or a metro. I never used a cane. I thought I would never get a guide dog. There's so much that has broadened my horizons from college and the professional experiences I've had, and that all I can say is, you know, just go for it. See what opportunities are available to you, but try not to stress too much. I know that's, that's a lot coming from me because that's what I do. Easier said than done, but know ultimately that you are valuable. You deserve to take up space. And the way that I look at it, if someone is going to discriminate against me, or a firm isn't going to be accommodating. One that's illegal. And two, I don't wanna be around that.
Kathryn: Exactly. That's the thing though, striking the balance between like, I want to educate, but I also don't wanna be miserable. Right. Like if it's a space where it's not welcome, why waste your time?
Marissa: Exactly. And as you know, because you've part partnered with several organizations, several firms that do want qualified blind people in their ranks.
Kathryn: Exactly. And we can absolutely find them.
Marissa: Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Kathryn. I’m sure that a lot of my younger listeners would really appreciate hearing your perspective. Most of my listeners are within that college range or high school range. We haven't had the experience of a full-time job and what that implies. So it's great to hear your perspective as someone who has done it before.
Marissa: And is continuing to absolutely rock it at Harvard Business School!
Kathryn: Thank you so much and I'm so happy to be here. Door is always open. Happy to talk to any student.
Marissa: Well everyone, I hope you all enjoyed today's episode and I especially hope that I will see some of you at the Together Achieving Dreams inaugural Gala on February 25th. If you have not seen my personal Instagram accounts, I have a guide dog. Her name is Smalls. She is a female yellow lab and she is the most amazing, intelligent creature on the planet. For the most part. She did a good job at staying quiet while I recorded this episode, but there was one point while I was making the introduction where she decided to sit on my lap and start licking my face. You can hear that clip here.
*Clip of Smalls running up to Marissa and her tail hitting a table*
Marissa: I have so much to share about my experience meeting and training with her. So if you're interested, keep an eye out for an episode about that next. Anyways. If you enjoyed today's episode, make sure to subscribe to Legally Blonde & Blind on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, YouTube, and anywhere else you get your shows. You can also stay up to date by following my social media pages on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram @legallyblondeblind. You can visit legallyblondeblind.com for more information. Thank you all for listening, and I hope to see you soon.