American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: The World of Work      WORKING IN REAL TIME

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Structured Discovery in the World of Business

by Mausam Mehta

Mausam Mehta and her guide dog, Mandy, stand in front of the Oculus in Lower Manhattan. From the Editor: For many job-seekers, securing an internship is an important step toward employment. Even when a job opens up, blind workers must be creative and flexible. In this article Mausam Mehta explains how she secured an internship that led to a full-time job and talks about meeting challenges in the workplace. All views expressed in this article are those of Mausam Mehta and not those of her employer.

I have been involved with the NFB ever since I was in high school. I attended the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB) in 2017, and I was an active member of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS). From the NFB I absorbed the philosophy that I can live the life I want, no matter what obstacles might get in my way.

I attended the University of Virginia with the idea of getting a degree in business administration. Within the university there is an upper-division program, the McIntyre School of Commerce. I applied to McIntyre during my sophomore year, and that spring I was thrilled to learn that I had been accepted.
Then COVID hit, and the whole university shut down. When I started at McIntyre, all of my classes were virtual.

Through NABS I had worked to promote the AIM HIGH Bill, a piece of legislation to ensure that postsecondary classroom materials are fully accessible to blind and low-vision students. The bill hasn't yet passed, and I can testify that the need for access is tremendous! Even before I started at McIntyre, I ran into massive barriers with my accounting course. I ended up spending ten to fifteen hours a week with a teaching assistant in order to access all of the materials I needed. I hope the professors learned a thing or two that may benefit future blind students!

I'm very interested in the intersection between technology and people, and I entered the McIntyre program with a concentration on information technology. A great thing about business is that when you identify a problem you can also work on a solution. A lot of my coursework focused on data analytics, which involved problem solving and brainstorming. Things change so fast in this field that solutions are always a couple of generations behind the need.

One of my toughest classes was on project management. This class required students to collaborate by moving "sticky notes" around on a digital whiteboard. JAWS was simply no match for that challenge! If I relied on my access technology there was no way I could keep up with my classmates and participate fully in discussions.

I did a lot of soul searching to figure out ways I could be useful to my team. I realized that I could do research and generate ideas as well as anyone else could. The issue for me was sharing my ideas with my peers. Rather than struggling with my inadequate technology, I could ask a teammate to post my ideas. It wasn't as easy as it might sound. I had to learn to be assertive and to speak up, which meant I really had to believe that my ideas were worthwhile. I also had to assert myself to make sure that my teammates and professor knew which ideas were mine, even though someone else posted them. 

As blind students we have to be proactive throughout our education. Even in elementary school we have to ask for verbal descriptions and hands-on learning opportunities. By the time we get to college we know what we need, and we can explain what will serve us best. We have the same amount of time available as our sighted classmates do to get our work done, so we have to use it wisely.

After junior year students at McIntyre were expected to do a summer internship. The internship usually set the direction the student will take in the following year and beyond. All through my junior year I applied for every internship I could find. I was terrified about being rejected or getting stuck with an internship I wouldn't enjoy. Besides the obstacles created by my blindness, in terms of access barriers and employers' attitudes, I felt that my experience had been limited because of COVID restrictions. I applied for more than fifty positions in finance, marketing, technology, and even copywriting. Week by week, month by month I saw my classmates being selected for internships, while I was turned down by one program after another. The pressure was almost indescribable.

I applied for an internship with American Express in October, and after months of silence I assumed they weren't interested in me. Then, in May, their marketing team invited me for an interview. I had applied through their standard portal and also through a nonprofit called Strive for College. I had been involved with Strive for College when I was in high school, but I hadn't followed them much during college. Now Strive for College provided my interview opportunity.

I had two virtual interviews with American Express through Webex. I disclosed my blindness during the interview process, and they seemed very open to working with me. To my joy I received an offer within two days! I would be working with the digital labs team, which is an innovations think tank for American Express. The team does a lot of work on the development of new products. Without hesitation I accepted the offer.

The internship started in June, just weeks after my classes ended. I worked virtually from my home in Staunton, Virginia. I loved the culture of the company, but at first I encountered some technology barriers. For my first two weeks on the job I didn't have JAWS on my work computer. The company had to approve the software, and it was a complicated process. They didn’t have the resources in place to accommodate me. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the accessibility team that installed JAWS for American Express is based in London! American Express knew about JAWS from the user perspective, trying to make their website accessible to the public, but they weren't familiar with its use by employees.
My internship lasted for ten weeks, and I spent the first two weeks struggling to get JAWS up and running.

After that I had to make up for lost time! I followed the intern curriculum to the letter, attended all the meetings, and worked hard on my assigned project. Halfway through the summer I had a very candid conversation with my manager. He acknowledged that the infrastructure was not accessible. I needed to reference a lot of graphical materials, and I was not adding value through my work. His frankness could have been devastating, but he took my struggles in a positive direction. He felt I could make unique contributions to the company if I did a project about onboarding accessibility.

I really didn't want to confine myself to accessibility issues! I have great respect for professionals in the field of access technology, but that wasn't the work I wanted to do! Nevertheless, I realized I had to be strategic about my career. If I made a significant contribution, I might prove my value and get a job offer.

Finally I made a compromise. I decided to keep working on my original project, looking at it in terms of universal design. I explored project pillars with several different teams, figuring out how to leverage existing technology to make products useful to diverse audiences. I thought about ways to optimize features that were already in place. For example, a person might scan a check with an app in order to make a deposit. The app could include an audio feature to let the user know whether the check is fully visible to the camera.
In the end I felt very good about the project. Apparently American Express did, too. On the last day of my internship the company made me a job offer!

I didn't rush into my decision to accept the American Express offer. They gave me until November 1 to respond, and I used the time to file other job applications. I dragged out the decision for months, but finally, on October 31, I accepted the offer from American Express.

American Express offered me a hybrid position where I would work part of the time from their office in New York City. 

Moving to Manhattan was quite an adventure! I needed to find an apartment I could afford, and I had to prove to the landlord that my credit was sound. I also needed to find a roommate who could share the rent. My job started in August 2022, and I scrambled to get everything settled by my first day.

As I worked to establish credit, I discovered a wonderful option called a secure card. You give the credit card company a relatively small deposit. You don't need credit to apply; you just have to give them some money up front. You can borrow against that deposit, and if you make your payments on time you get your deposit back within a year.

Searching for a roommate was another challenge. Each time I connected with a new prospect I had to start all over again, explaining my price range, discussing where I wanted to live, exchanging information about our schedules and habits. Sometimes people seemed interested, and then they disappeared. Maybe they were scared off by my blindness. Maybe they didn't want to live with a guide dog. Maybe other factors were involved that had nothing to do with me personally. Finally I found a roommate who was very compatible. That was a relief!

I started my new job in late August, working remotely because I still hadn't found an apartment. Finally, in September, I found a place that was reasonably priced (by New York standards!) and close to the subway. My uncle offered to be a guarantor, but to my delight I discovered that I had already established a good credit rating with my secure card. I was ready to begin my new life! I moved into my apartment in New York on October 10, 2022.

My job title at American Express is Associate Product Manager for Digital Labs. Currently my team is working to develop an instrument to help clients assess their carbon footprint. The product launched early in 2023, and my teammates and I work on bugs that emerge. We're always thinking about new features that might be valuable. 

I still find some aspects of product management to be hard because of accessibility issues. Some basic institutional tools remain inaccessible. At first I felt afraid to speak up during meetings, to say, "Please read your screen aloud," or "Please send me that document as an attachment." I worried that I might be assessed poorly if I didn't add value to my team. 

Finally my manager took me aside and gave me some crucial feedback. He told me I needed to become more proactive. He said he wanted me to seek out opportunities rather than waiting for my manager to give me things to do. I should figure out where I wanted to be and how I could best use my talents to get there.
I took his message to heart. I've been pleasantly surprised by how welcoming my colleagues have been when I tell them about my interests and goals. This journey is about recognizing my own value, knowing I have something worthwhile to offer. Each day I try to remember that I was hired because I have talent. My output on the job may not look the same as everyone else's, but I know that I add the same value.

Working in the business world reminds me of the structured discovery techniques I learned in travel classes at CCB. Through structured discovery I built a mental map, using every piece of information at my disposal. I learned to gather more information when it was needed. In my work each day I’m constantly asking questions and building upon the knowledge I gain. With all those resources in place, I get myself to wherever I need to go. 

If you would like to contact Mausam Mehta, you can reach her at [email protected].

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