Former Chief Business Officer at American Foundation for the Blind, current part-time Project Manager and Doctoral Student Kelly Bleach has focused her career on applying forward-thinking management practices to the nonprofit sector, including 25 years at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), where she served as Chief Business Officer. In addition to overseeing business operations, such as finance and technology, she was extensively involved in strategic planning and implementation for AFB’s programs as a member of the senior leadership team. Kelly retired from AFB in 2018 to practice research in the blindness field. She is also Treasurer/Secretary of the Board of the Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey.
Kelly holds a B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Florida, a M.S. in Computer Information Systems from the University of Phoenix, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University. Since 1921, the American Foundation for the Blind has been a leader in expanding possibilities for the nearly 25 million Americans living with vision loss. A national nonprofit, AFB stands at the forefront of evidence-based advocacy, breaking down societal barriers, and promoting broad systemic change. Like Helen Keller, AFB's most famous ambassador, the organization is committed to creating a more equitable world for people with disabilities.
How did you get into the industry?
I happened to land at a nonprofit organization as my first job after college. A couple of the executives there were great mentors and gave me numerous opportunities to learn and take on additional responsibilities. When the organization’s headquarters moved out of state, one of the senior executives who had stayed in the New York area offered me a position with his new organization. He was later responsible for referring me to several consulting opportunities as well, including a project at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). When an opening unexpectedly came up, I accepted the position there and am now celebrating 25 years.
Any emerging industry trends?
I consider my industry to be human services, specifically in the field of blindness and visual impairment, with the mission to remove barriers and advance change to create a world of no limits. The time is ripe for pursuing systemic change, due to a number of factors. Initially, companies and agencies were being legislated and sued into leveling the playing field for people with vision loss. That put the issue on their radar. Now, corporate responsibility programs are gaining status and people are beginning to see and understand the value of diversity and inclusiveness—in schools, businesses, communities. There is still a long way to go, but it’s gaining momentum.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
Human Services is a challenging business, as there are many worthy causes competing for a limited pool of resources. In the field of blindness and vision loss, the aging population is a factor that will directly affect significantly more people in the near future. Technology is a game-changer for people who are visually impaired. It can be a frustrating barrier, for instance, when a website or a payment terminal isn’t designed to be accessible. It can also be leveraged to reduce barriers, and the creative use of technologies like speech and tactile controls, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality is making big strides.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
Having supported a workforce with a significant number of visually impaired employees, I have dealt firsthand with some of the challenges and successes. At AFB, we’re focusing on creating and curating research to identify the biggest challenges and best practices and to evaluate and propagate innovative solutions, particularly in education, employment, and aging. I’ve recently changed focus within my organization away from strictly business services, to pursuing a Ph.D. program that I hope will contribute to the knowledge in the field through the lens of a scholar practitioner.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
AFB’s mission includes significantly improving the workforce participation rate among people who are blind, which persistently hovers around 35% compared to about 70% for people without disabilities. AFB was recently named a Central Nonprofit Agency (CNA) under the AbilityOne program, one of the nation's largest sources of employment for people who are blind or have significant disabilities. AFB will have the opportunity to partner with nonprofits, government agencies, and corporations to identify innovative ways to maximize the power of the Javits–Wagner–O'Day Act, the law requiring federal agencies to purchase specified supplies and services from nonprofit agencies employing people who are blind or who have significant disabilities. As a CNA, AFB's primary focus will be giving people with visual impairments new career development opportunities in the fast-growing industries of financial services, healthcare, and information technology, and to create pathways to mainstream, integrated employment in the public and private sectors.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
As a member of the senior leadership team, I have been involved in developing and facilitating our strategic direction. A new President & CEO came onboard just over two years ago. He had formerly been a member of our board, so was already familiar with the organization’s strengths and challenges. We embarked on a deep-dive into how AFB could leverage its unique position in the field to accelerate change to create a world of no limits. A new strategic focus meant we also needed to move away from some programs that were well-established and important to the field. We were fortunate to have good partners that were willing and able to become the stewards of those programs. I led the process to find the best new homes and worked through myriad logistics to transition those programs and free resources for the new initiatives. Even when there is a bright future ahead, it is hard to let go, so it was a complex task at times.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
The most difficult obstacle I faced was the time I realized I needed to leave or recommit. After working at AFB for ten years, in Human Resources, I saw that there would come a point in my future where it would be harder to make a change to another organization. I was getting a little bored in my position because I had gotten to the point where the changes and impact I could influence from my position felt less substantial. Yet, I really loved working at AFB. An opportunity arose that would take me in a completely different direction, but within my same organization—Information Technology. Tech is always changing, so it never gets stale. It required a combination of taking a risk by moving to the unfamiliar plus going back to school to become good at it. That was when I recommitted. Since then, I’ve taken on additional challenges and moved into other areas that were outside my comfort zone. But I learned that I can make my opportunities by taking some risk and working hard.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
In the recent past, our services and products had been geared directly to people who are visually impaired, their families, and professionals who serve them. We realized, though, that AFB has a unique position in the field. By bringing together partners from nonprofit, government, and business, we can leverage data on what works to create systems change for people with visual impairments. This means opportunities for a good education, meaningful work, and a fulfilling life.
How do you motivate others?
There are a couple of ways I motivate others. One is to get into the trenches and work together as a group, as in “we’re all in this together.” Another is to be clear about “why” a decision is made or a project is happening, and to keep it front and center. I’m pretty good about the first, as that comes naturally to me. I need to remind myself to keep communicating sometimes, as it’s easy to get caught up in the doing.
Career advice to those in your industry?
You can figure it out, you can learn it—don’t be afraid to try it. But also be sure it’s something you would like to do.
What do I do best?
Focus and flow, like an orchestra conductor. I can almost imagine myself waving the baton—send this email here, that task goes there… I can have a lot on my plate, so it’s key to managing my time efficiently.
What makes me the best version of myself?
I benefited throughout my career from mentors, and I enjoy doing the same. It’s especially satisfying to watch the next generations growing into their futures, and I want to support that any way I can. It may be a colleague, or it may be a personal connection. Interestingly, by identifying and encouraging people in the workplace, I’ve had the opportunity to move forward myself because someone had developed the readiness to take on my previous responsibilities.
What are my aspirations?
I recently went back to school to pursue a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change. I’ve been a practitioner of business and technology within the human services space, and I hope to leverage that combination with research that intersects those areas. My B.S. and M.S were very technical, and I’m enjoying the opportunity to explore topics that focus more on human behavior.
My Biggest Success?
My greatest accomplishment is having raised three daughters to be strong, independent, caring, and mission-driven. It wasn’t especially easy sometimes, but I am so proud of them. I’m constantly amazed by how much I learn from them; they challenge me to think differently and explore new interests.
My Most Challenging Moment?
I was sure I would go back to work full-time when my first child was born, but as the day approached, I couldn’t do it. I had a long commute which meant extended time away from home. It was a big decision professionally and financially, and it meant delaying things we wanted like finishing my graduate degree and buying a house, but my husband was supportive. Fortunately, my company allowed me to work 1-2 days a week, and I continued to work part-time over many years, in different organizations. Even part-time work with a long commute is a challenge. But it kept me current in the field while allowing me some flexibility in my personal life. The experience taught me there are ways to work it out, some that you don’t see right away.
“Not all who wander are lost.” I get bored easily, so tend to embrace change, whether it’s introducing new technologies in the workplace, or traveling, or going back to school. And I’ve seen my daughters and their friends, nieces and nephews, zig-zagging as they try to figure out where they’re going in life. I want them to know, that’s ok.
My Favorite People/Role Models?
There are a couple of people I immediately think of, one a colleague and one a family member, who handle life with such grace. They don’t complain, even at times they have every right to. It’s joy and peace to know them, and a way of being I can only aspire to.
My Favorite Places/Destinations?
Anywhere new is my favorite place. I have a habit of walking and walking, to see what’s around the next corner. Before I know it, I’m many miles and hours from where I started. It’s very hard to stop.
My Favorite Products/Objects?
Between business and personal travel, I’m away from home more days than I’m there. I’ve never been tied to places or things, maybe because I grew up traveling, sometimes for months at a time. I’ve acquired plenty of objects over the years, but I’m looking forward to giving most of them away. I always say I was happiest when everything I owned was in one box and one suitcase.
My Current Passions?
My current passions are reading for research and reading for fun. Most of the books and articles assigned in my Ph.D. program are fascinating, and it’s easy to follow the research trail “down the rabbit hole” for days. I’ve also discovered the Overdrive app, which allows me to download audiobooks (and ebooks) from the library. Now, when I’m eating lunch or walking or driving, I’m listening to a wide variety of great books. I finish about one a week.