I first met Henry “Hoby” Wedler in 2011 when he was an undergraduate at the University of California-Davis. At that time, he was double majoring in chemistry and United States history, earning degrees in both subjects before devoting full attention to graduate work in organic chemistry. By 2016, he had completed his dissertation and Ph.D. in that subject; and along the way, he earned numerous awards and accolades, including a White House Champion of Change Award, which I proudly nominated him for.
Hoby’s myriad accomplishments would be impressive to anyone without taking into account the fact that he has been totally blind since birth. He is well known in the disabilities and blindness advocacy world, and has served as a role model and mentor to countless individuals and organizations. Over the years, we became fast friends, and I’ve always been inspired by his infectious enthusiasm for life and penetrating vision beyond the limits of ordinary eyesight. I met up with him last month at the National Mall in Washington, DC, a few hours before he was slated to address a huge crowd rallying for the March for Science. We sat down for a spirited conversation around his views on higher education, its role in teaching students to think and express themselves, and his latest trajectory as a budding entrepreneur and business developer.
I’m interested in your views on how academics prepared you for life and the working world.
I think what we have to acknowledge in many ways is that while classroom education is eminently important in getting the facts down and teaching very specific skills, the biggest part of both my undergraduate – and, I would say, especially my graduate education – has been how it taught me to critically think and to solve problems, and to talk to people, and to write, and to communicate ideas.
The chemistry that I did was marvelous, but it was so much based on a very specific sector of information, so in some ways, it became a challenge to connect with the real world. But then after graduate school, I realized that this is all an exercise in critical thinking. And it really doesn’t matter what we study, as long as we engage the heck out of ourselves and come away with the ability to talk to people and to think critically.
At left, Kareem Dale, Former Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy and Hoby Wedler, recipient of the White House Champion of Change Award
Those activities are intimately related, are they not?
I think one big part of critical thinking is being able to get immersed in discourse, and truly being able to engage in conversation, which calls for deep listening. I gave a TEDx talk in November, which was a new challenge. One of the biggest things I learned from that whole experience is that people like and love to be listened to, but equally important, that people need to learn to listen more.
Do you think that capacity has been diminishing in our society?
Oh my god, it’s diminishing. And I often find the best way to grab someone and get them talking, whether it’s a controversial view or not, is to ask them a question about something that interests them. That’s my favorite thing in many instances: to ask people, “What fascinates you about such and such a topic? Tell me about you; tell me about what you’re doing.” Because that’s what gets people talking . . . especially millennials.
You and I have remarked to each other that many college students these days don’t engage or look you in the eye. And it can be hard to connect with someone who is wearing earbuds, constantly texting, and doing two or three things at the same time.
Well, when you’re doing two or three things at the same time, most often it’s a safe bet you can’t do any one of them very well. One thing I encourage is to ask millennials to tell you about themselves. What you’ll notice is some of them can’t do it so easily. They either don’t have the skills, or they don’t know enough about themselves to tell us about themselves. And it makes me sad. But it does bring you to opening a door with them at times.
Have you been thinking about how to galvanize that population?
One thing I’m working to implement in Petaluma (California) right now, at our city schools for K-12, are TED Talks for youth, or “Teddy Talks.” I think it will be really interesting to think about this in the junior college and college space also. And maybe in conjunction with the Better Angels group that ACTA is starting to partner with, or something in parallel with it . . . to think about putting together some sort of TED-like series, and get these kids really talking. That would be interesting for ACTA to take on, wouldn’t it?
Absolutely. Your education taught you not only to understand chemical equations but to think and write and engage. How is that playing out now?
I’ve started my own consulting firm, SENSPOINT, and it’s really interesting in that light. When you start your own company, whether you’re good at designing things, or art, or whatever you’re doing . . . to be successful in the society we live in, one thing you have to be good at is sales and talking to people. And especially listening to what people really need, and not just coughing up a spiel of what you think they might want to hear and what they might bite on.
Who are the end users and beneficiaries of SensePoint?
Anyone from the consumer who uses their smartphone and enjoys the user interface or even the texture of the glass, to basic consumers who want a good experience with products they use – not the negative characteristics of something not feeling right, sounding right, looking, smelling, or tasting right. They want it just to resonate. And we’re doing our best work when we help designers and people who are putting things to gether to understand the flaws and work them out in advance so the end user doesn’t have to experience them.
It’s not strictly the blind or people with disabilities who you have in mind, right?
Gosh, no, it’s the world. It’s making products universally accessible; making the world mild and approachable to everyone that uses it.
I love that!
That’s what we love to do, any way we can. Because the world should be mild. It shouldn’t be full of harshness and jagged peaks and points; it should be approachable. It should be easy to just sort of row and flow your way through.
My favorite way to work with this – and I don’t call it selling, I call it handholding – is basically sitting down with a potential client, saying “What do you need?” and exploring that thoroughly with them, wherever it may lead. So many business people, especially millennials, like to have a pat formula. “This is what we offer; this what we charge. Which package do you want, silver bombs or gold?” But it’s not at all about that.
Circling back to how higher education ignited these insights . . .
My education taught me this has nothing to do with science or history, which I studied. It has to do with finding people right where they are, what makes them tick, what makes them thrive, and meeting them there. Not undercutting or blowing over them, but meeting them right there and being able to harmonize with them.
I think that’s something that we only get to when we listen to all sides of a situation, and when we’re willing to listen to people who tell us that we’re wrong.
You know, whether we’re wrong or not is a subjective fear. That comes to us. But it’s about listening to those people who are willing to say, “You’re wrong.” And think about it and say “Why in their mind am I wrong?”
You earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, but you’re not going into the chemistry world. Yet it seems to me that somehow the skills you gained include discoveries about the chemistry of people, or looking at people as “chemical agents in the test tube of life.” Perhaps that sounds a little campy . . . but speaking more broadly, you came out of graduate work as a thinking person, someone who can engage with people and listen, generate empathy, discover their needs, and then come to creative solutions. All of that seems to be the true byproduct of your education.
Well, it’s funny, because I think you’re right, and no one’s ever distilled it like that for me, so thank you!
I made a point to acquire a general knowledge of chemistry and to be able to learn how to talk to people in general. It’s not about how much you know; it’s about how you can engage with people and turn those chemical reactions into something useful.
I talked to a really interesting engineering professor a couple of weeks ago, ironically on the airplane flying to an American Chemical Society meeting. He was from Stanford; we were both leaving out of San Francisco. We met randomly. And he said, “Look, when I’m hiring someone or looking for my next student, I don’t care how much they know about engineering. I don’t care so much what their test scores are. I care about whether they can talk to a room of people.”
And I think all this stuff is challenging to bring to the millennials and eventually Generation Z groups in the higher ed space. But I think the only way to do it is to get people talking and to get them listening to different viewpoints.