01 Apr 2001
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Beyond Accommodation

Jim Gibbons Blazes a Trail
by Margie Kelley

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It was in grade school that James D. Gibbons (MBA 1994) first began to lose his sight, a process he retraces in terms of his ability to cope at school.

“I started moving up to the front of the class but not because I was smart,” laughs Gibbons, a tall, affable Indiana native.

“I played baseball until seventh grade, basketball until eighth grade, football until ninth. Then I wrestled and threw the shot put and discus through high school. The faster the ball moved — or the smaller it got — the sooner my career in that sport was over!” Gibbons’s vision loss was caused by macular degeneration, a little-understood retinal condition that is the leading cause of blindness in the United States. Despite its onset, Gibbons was raised with the expectation that he would excel in life. “My family didn’t tolerate low performance,” says Gibbons, who is the youngest of eight children. “I never got out of household chores because I couldn’t see.”

By his junior year at Purdue, where he studied industrial engineering, his vision loss was complete, and Gibbons finally needed a cane to get around and readers to help with his studies. Through it all, he says he held out hope that he would see again, but realized after college that such a turnabout was unlikely. “When you’re going blind, there’s plenty of denial. But you’ve ultimately got to get comfortable with it and deal with it.”

Today, Gibbons has gone far beyond mere accommodation with his blindness. The president and CEO of the National Industries for the Blind (NIB) in Alexandria, Virginia, a post he assumed in 1998, Gibbons is the first blind person ever to lead the 63-year-old agency. Previously, he had worked at AT&T, first in operations management and later in marketing, before enrolling at HBS. At the School, Gibbons had help from his study group and from Recordings for the Blind, which made audiotapes of all his cases and other required texts. He became the first blind person to graduate from HBS. “The Business School was awesome, from the Dean down to my classmates,” says Gibbons, who “gives back” to the School by serving on the HBS Alumni Association Board of Directors.

After earning his MBA, Gibbons returned to AT&T to head its subsidiary, Campus Wide Access Solutions, a $15 million company providing cash-card operations to colleges and universities. When the NIB post came up, Gibbons knew he could have a direct influence on the thousands of blind people it serves every year. Still, he wasn’t likely to take the job just because he happened to be a blind CEO. “Entering the blindness business was never really my objective at this stage in my career,” he says. “But NIB had a pretty interesting model, and I thought it would allow me to have a direct impact for a while.”

The interesting business model that attracted Gibbons to NIB was also the organization’s weak point only a few years earlier. As a nonprofit organization established by the federal government to provide manufacturing and service jobs for blind people through a network of associated agencies, NIB had once enjoyed a relative monopoly of the federal procurement market for its SKILCRAFT® brand of office supplies and some two thousand other products and services.

But that monopoly began to erode in the mid-1990s under strict new rules that reduced government procurement costs and streamlined distribution channels. “This was a turnaround situation,” Gibbons explains. “NIB had a declining top line and was operating in the red. We needed to shift from a monopolistic culture to one where we had to compete.” NIB was a $244 million operation when Gibbons arrived. He has since led the agency through unprecedented growth to $296 million in sales in FY2000. “I push the organization in a lot of ways it hasn’t been pushed before,” says Gibbons, who also led the effort to launch NIB’s e-commerce site, JWOD.com (an acronym for the law that established NIB).

“We exist to create good, enabling work environments of choice for blind people,” he explains. “They have an extraordinarily high unemployment rate, ranging from 65 percent to 75 percent. There’s a lot of discrimination and low expectations.” But the good news, Gibbons notes, is that technology has widened opportunities for America’s 1.3 million legally blind, working-age adults. Now blind workers produce a whole range of office supplies, manufacture aircraft parts, perform milling and grinding procedures, and staff customer-service call centers and offices. “Technology is the great equalizer,” says Gibbons, who himself makes use of voice-recognition software on his PC and a portable, computerized organizer that uses a Braille-audio interface. The challenge, he observes, is convincing employers that with minor technological adjustments, a qualified person who happens to be blind can perform as well as anyone else.

Gibbons hopes his own example will inspire other blind people to reach beyond traditionally “blind” occupations — in advocacy, rehabilitation, or service positions — to consider careers in business. “I’m particularly interested in developing talented young people who are blind into business leaders,” he says. “I really hope to blaze new trails in that way.” Gibbons states that he’ll stay at NIB to see it through some bumpy market transitions. But he admits to missing the competitiveness of the for-profit business world and expects that he will again lead a private company in the future.

Gibbons, who resides in Alexandria with his wife, Tami, and their three young children, remains committed to getting other blind professionals into the leadership pipeline. “When I’m on the road, I try to give talks at schools for the blind,” he notes. “I want to show these young kids that they can be leaders. They can meet me and know that it’s possible.”

Gibbons also has a tip for his fellow HBS alumni: “Don’t underestimate the blind,” he says. “Expect results. You’ll get them.”

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Class of MBA 1994, Section I
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