by Daniel Novielli

It is not too often that you come across a business leader who is blind. Yet that is my career ambition. I am well on my way to achieving that goal, in large part due to the National Industries for the Blind's (NIB) Fellowship for Leadership Development.

Ten years ago I was involved in a life-changing head-on collision on my way to work at my family's construction business. I finally woke up from a coma, and realized I was blind, had multiple broken bones, and had suffered a stroke that left my limbs lifeless. I knew that I had a long journey ahead of me. I was not about to give up and 10 weeks later, to everyone's surprise, I learned to walk again. Less than a year later, I completed all of my physical rehabilitation and received training from the Seeing Eye, including mobility, adaptive technology and braille.

I was finally feeling whole again the only thing that was missing was a new career path. I had the same goals and ambitions as many people do; I just knew that I had to do things a little differently to succeed. I was determined to go to college, since after graduating from high school I had opted to serve my country by joining the Coast Guard instead. In 2001, I graduated magna cum laude from Middle Tennessee State University's School of Business and am proud of my Outstanding Scholar Senior Award, which is bestowed upon students who graduate first in their class within their major.

Then came the real world as a blind American. I sifted through several job ads and found myself running straight into a brick wall more than once. Interviewers were not very accepting, focusing on my disabilities rather than my abilities, and I found it challenging to make a company believe that I could succeed in business. I finally accepted a government internship that left me feeling empty because my sighted colleagues failed to believe in my capabilities. It was then that I realized that people who are blind remain one of America's greatest untapped labor resources, with nearly 70 percent of working-age blind adults still not employed. About one-third of those who are working are considered underemployed in relation to their qualifications. Just as I persevered after my accident, I knew that I could not give up on my dream and that I needed to change my attitude.

Shortly thereafter, I saw an ad for NIB's Fellowship for Leadership Development. To be honest, at first I felt little enthusiasm for the program, believing initiatives supporting employment programs contain many false promises. But I decided to apply anyway and was accepted as an NIB Fellow. After being accepted, I decided to turn my pessimistic feelings into optimistic energy in order to drive my success as a potential leader. I became excited about learning to become a successful business leader and to finally apply my skills and abilities. Employment Choices

NIB is an organization dedicated to combating the unacceptable rate of unemployment facing Americans who are blind. For nearly 70 years, NIB and its network of associated non-profit agencies around the country have been creating and improving employment choices for Americans who are blind. It is the single largest employer for this segment of the population. However, NIB is not about to stop there.

NIB has noted, with great enthusiasm, a rising population of talented, capable professionals who are blind emerging from college and university campuses, as well as the workplace. But we often have fewer career choices than our sighted counterparts, and those interested in professional careers have historically been counseled toward vocations that allow us to function more as independent contributors. Over the years, NIB also noticed that training and development programs designed to prepare individuals who are blind for careers in business are few and far between. The result? Only a small number of people who are blind occupy upper-level management positions in the business world, something I was learning firsthand. This deficiency in business training and employment preparation is a major barrier to competitive employment for people like me who are well-educated, motivated, and potential leaders.

NIB is uniquely well-qualified to help solve this problem. In 2003, it launched the Business Leaders Program, which provides a tri-fold menu of training opportunities designed specifically for highly capable people who are blind, allowing us to gain applicable business skills and experience. The Business Leaders Program operates on the premise that, given natural ability and inclination, people who are blind need only the tools and skills -- such as those taught in business schools -- and hands-on opportunities to achieve success. To that end, NIB offers three tracks: the Fellowship for Leadership Development; Business Management Training; and Leaders at All Levels.

Each program component is designed to further develop the leadership and business skills of people who are blind, allowing us to enter or advance in the business world with confidence. The fellowship combines experience- based learning with formal training in business and management over a two- year period in on-the-job, classroom, distance-learning, and conference settings. It provides three consecutive job assignments at NIB, or an NIB- associated agency, in varied professional positions, offering hands-on management experience. The fellowship has been treading new waters and the success of the program proves the capabilities of people who are blind. Becoming a Leader

I remember my first week of the fellowship orientation in September 2003. I, and the other fellows, were anxious, excited, energetic and determined to prove our potential. Because we are all blind, we were nervously walking into objects, as well as each other, but by the end of the week we were like a well-oiled machine in perfect harmony. It is a good analogy for how the competencies we have developed throughout our fellowships drive our success; things may seem out of place for awhile, and then our road map (competency profiling) would lead us to our destination (success). I knew instantly that I was going to be part of a successful program when I witnessed the passion and determination of the NIB staff and the other fellows during fellowship orientation.

As I reported for work assignments at my designated rotations, I immediately became part of each organization's management team. NIB assured us that we would work in an atmosphere that would provide development opportunities and allow the fellow to perform, utilizing past experiences and education for a successful completion. Being part of the management team, I was given ample opportunity to express my point of view, leading and contributing to organizational functions. The level of the assigned projects required extensive past experience and education for successful completion. Projects or deliverables completed through my fellowship include the development of a marketing follow-up plan for trade shows and events, completion of a departmental budget approved by the executive financial committee and board of directors, facilitation of an employee workgroup to strengthen relationships between management and employees, and the development of new business opportunities for the agency to diversify and expand its products and services.

NIB continuously develops and improves the fellowship to assure fellows are given ample opportunities to develop business and communication skills through a variety of training and other learning opportunities. This complements the support given by the agencies to succeed in the fellowship. With all the tools necessary to succeed, the program measures the fellows' performance, and only those who are successful will graduate from the program.

The Fellowship for Leadership Development directly addresses the issue of increasing the pool of resources within the business leadership world with qualified people who are blind. Some may view the fellowship as an innovative program, but NIB views it as "overdue," explaining that it is imperative that we qualify individuals who are blind today to fulfill business leaders positions tomorrow. Today, I work side by side with all kinds of people, both blind and sighted, and I now feel confident to compete for a business leadership position.

I have already proven to myself that I can perform successfully in business, and I am certain that I will continue my success after my fellowship is completed this fall. In my opinion, NIB's approach to business leadership should be a model not only for the blindness community, but corporate America as well, to ensure that people who are blind can build careers of their own choosing.

For additional information regarding NIB's Business Leaders Program and the fellowship, please visit www.nib.org. NIB is now accepting applications for a new fellowship to begin in January 2006.

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