By Nick Erickson
The forecast on this North Carolina night called for rain. And John Samuel, M.B.A. ’14, dreaded rain.
A teenager at the time, Samuel knew the precipitation in darkness would puddle-up the road and make the light reflections from traffic or streetlights even brighter. And sure enough, as he drove to his friend’s house, the blurriness of oncoming headlights made it difficult for him to catch the puddles, which his tires would then go over without warning, causing him to jerk the wheel. It was another frustrating night in what felt like a string of many.
It turned out Samuel was in the beginning stages of retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a rare, inherited degenerative eye disease that eventually caused him to be legally blind the rest of his life. But as the son of self-made immigrants from India, Samuel assumed he was just not working hard enough at this adjustment, causing more angst created by the underlying medical condition out of his control.
“As a young person, you don't want to be different,” said Samuel, whose lower legs are scarred up from scraping his shins so many times on objects he couldn’t see. “You don't want to not know what was going on. I thought that's just what everyone's seeing and that I'm just not doing it as well as other people.”
For many years both before and after his official RP diagnosis, Samuel shielded his true self from the public, fearing it would hold him back or that others would think less of him. Even as he started failing out of college in Richmond, Virginia, he didn’t tell anyone because he thought professors—and his family—would see it as an excuse.
It wasn’t until years later, even after a successful business venture in western Africa that included a daring climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, that he arrived at a place where he finally found comfort in embracing all parts of him. That was George Washington University, where he enrolled in the global master’s in business administration program in the School of Business.
Thanks to the university serving as a key to unlocking his true potential, Samuel has been able to open the door for so many others behind him. The company he co-founded in 2020—Ablr—challenges businesses and technologies to think about accessibility and remove barriers for people with disabilities.
He remains forever grateful to GW for shaping the advocate, worker and person (not to mention husband and father) he has become today.
“I started becoming very open about my vision loss with my classmates and figuring out ways to work together while allowing me to be my true self,” said Samuel, who earned his undergraduate degree from North Carolina State University. “It allowed me to be able to contribute in a way that I hadn't before.
“Also, for the very first time in my life, I was able to open up my heart, and I ended up meeting my wife in the M.B.A. program.” His wife, Nicole (Lynn) Samuel, is also a 2014 GW global M.B.A. grad. The have two young children, and they’ll be back on campus this October as Samuel accepts an alumni achievement award.
He took control of his own wheel early into his GW tenure—in large part because he was so appreciative of the university’s personalized admissions approach. From the moment he wrote to the institution as a prospective student, he felt a connection. He forged an early relationship with former GW School of Business Associate Dean for Graduate Programs Liesl Riddle, who just this summer was named dean of the College of Professional Studies.
Because of his experiences working in western Africa, Riddle was excited to bring him on as a research assistant working on diaspora investment issues. And at an M.B.A. orientation session, he finally disclosed to Riddle his RP diagnosis. To his delight, she introduced him to opportunities in GW’s Disability Support Services.
From that point forward, Samuel became a vital classroom member and contributed greatly to healthy discussions and put forth work that would later win him CASE competition awards. Riddle said his openness allowed him to connect with a strong group of students in the class, and there was a mutual support system built on trust and determination.
“You could see very early on that John was going to be a great leader,” Riddle said.
After GW, he seemed destined for a traditional M.B.A. route by working for a startup investor. But even with an advanced degree in hand and a new sense of belonging, a cloud of familiar frustrations hung over his every move.
In between jobs, Samuel specifically remembers the difficulties of filling out an online application. Because it was so intensely catered to people without vision issues, Samuel would bog through as best he could but would take longer than the allotted time the online portal would grant, and it would erase his work. On the verge of tears, he would ask Nicole when she got home to help him finish the application.
It was clear a change needed to occur. Then, happenstance intervened.
A formidable journey
In Samuel’s quest for more meaningful employment better suited for him, he learned about a software designed to help people with low vision or blindness visualize charts and graphs using sound. The creator of it, Ed Summers, was from Samuel’s hometown in Cary, N.C., and he also had RP.
Samuel tried for months to get ahold of Summers—even moving from Washington, D.C., back to North Carolina in the process. His father, aware of his son’s desire to meet Summers, was on the phone with him one night when he saw a blind man was walking down the street. To Samuel’s original dismay, his father ran outside and asked the man if he happened to be Summers. But his father’s instinct was right. It was Summers, and suddenly he and Samuel were on the phone.
Lo-and-behold, that became the day Samuel set off on a mission to create jobs for people with low vision. Summers introduced him to the head of a manufacturing company, LCI, that employed the most people with low vision or blindness in the United States. While there, Samuel would meet his eventual Ablr co-founder, Mike Ianelli.
And two years ago, Ablr was formally launched as a company aimed at removing barriers for people with disabilities by helping business eliminate a digital divide, raise awareness and create pathways for employment for the nearly 20% of the population that lives with a disability.
“If I could give someone a job, I can give them hope,” Samuel said. “If we were going to create jobs and create employment for people in tech, we had to eliminate the accessibility issues.”
To do that, Ablr offers businesses the opportunity to test for accessibility, partake in diversity and inclusion training and learn about digital accessibility through consulting. They start with a thorough audit of digital content leveraging certified analysts to ensure accuracy in compliance and accountability. They then work, monitor, educate and integrate solutions to make sure all businesses can break down existing barriers.
It's also just good business practice. According to Accenture, companies who hired people with disabilities outperformed their peers and saw a wide variety of improvements. These businesses saw 72% increased productivity, 45% improved workplace safety, 30% higher profit margins and 200% higher net income.
“Voices like John not only help raise awareness, but they can also really help identity and crystalize what steps there are to take in order to be more accessible, more inclusive and to innovate so that we can actually create products and processes that assist and enhance the lives of those living with disabilities,” said Riddle, who has 30-plus years of industry experience.
As his stock rises while revolutionizing the way businesses become more inclusive and accessible, Samuel has never forgotten his roots. He frequently visits GW classrooms and is always willing to have one-on-one phone conversations with students. In 2020, he was GWSB’s Commencement speaker.
His story of triumph over adversity is a resonating one that not even a rainstorm can water down.
“My GW Commencement was the catalyst for where we are today,” Samuel said. “A lot of my time at GW has just placed my career and what I'm doing on a trajectory level that I never could have imagined the amount of impact we're able to make.”