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Social Impact Tech: Jon Gray of CaptionMate On How Their Technology Will Make An Important Positive Impact

An Interview With Jilea Hemmings

Unwavering Determination — At some point you and/or your team will hit a wall and think that there is no path forward. You will want to quit as that would be easier than moving forward but sheer determination is needed to get you through. This happened to our team several times and fortunately we had each other to fall back on and help lift each other up when things got difficult.

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jon Gray.

As the Business Manager for CaptionMate, Jon is responsible for the company’s product development, sales and strategy. With over 18 years experience developing products for individuals with hearing loss, Jon has served in a variety of roles including; CSO for Bellman & Symfon, Director of Sales for Clarity Products LLC. and Senior Product Manager for Plantronics where he successfully brought one of the first IPCTS (Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service) phones to market. With a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Science (B.A.Sc) from Florida State University, Jon has been successful bringing new technologies to the disability community by building partnerships from local grassroots community organizations all the way up to state and federal agencies.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida with a love of the beach and everything outdoors. I had a crazy fascination with nature and discovering new places and things. As a child I knew my father had hearing loss as he would constantly ask you to repeat yourself, talk louder than anyone else in the room and always had the TV on full blast. In hindsight, the interesting thing was that we never saw this as a disability or an issue, it was just part of life growing up in our house. It was not until sometime after college that I started noticing a ringing in my ears, later to be diagnosed as tinnitus with hearing loss, that I realized that I had inherited this from my father. Like many young adults, I thought I was invincible and simply ignored it and found ways to compensate. When I went to work as Outreach Manager for the State of Florida’s equipment distribution program, a group that provides direct service for disabilities, I became exposed to Deaf culture, ASL (American Sign Language) as well as individuals with profound hearing loss. I learned that what I was experiencing, and my father had experienced, was nothing to ignore. I became aware that although hearing loss might be referred to as the “invisible disability” the effects can be devastating, including depression, anxiety, paranoia, and in some cases direct links to dementia. The good news was that I was now able to provide direct support and resources to people that needed it. As time went on, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to move to the manufacturing side of the industry. How ideas ultimately became products was absolutely fascinating to me. Best of all, it really meant that I could use that childhood curiosity to develop new products and technology to help people.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I’m not sure that I can pick just one thing to be the “most interesting story’’ but what I can say is that I’ve been very fortunate to do a lot of traveling during my career. One fascinating thing I have found is that no matter where in the world you happen to be and no matter what the language barrier, people somehow find a way to communicate. You can go to a different country where you don’t speak the language and you go so far off the beaten path you don’t have a cell phone signal or internet technology to assist you and surprisingly enough you can meet someone and still find a way to communicate with them. There might be a lot of gesturing or bonding over a meal or even drawing pictures but regardless of what or how the communication happens it seems to be a universal skill that we all have even if we don’t speak the exact same language.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I got my first job in the industry, I worked for a man named James Forstall. James is totally deaf in one ear and has profound hearing loss in the other and uses a combination of sign language and a powerful hearing aid to communicate. James taught me everything I know about hearing loss, Deaf culture, and American Sign Language.

During the first few weeks on the job James took me to a conference and there were literally thousands of people, all with different disabilities. He quickly noticed that I was overwhelmed and told me something which I have never forgotten. He said, “the difference between a ‘Disability’ and an ‘Ability’ is the person’s attitude”.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is…..“get busy living or get busy dying” — Stephen King

Hearing loss obviously affects individuals of all ages but age-related hearing loss is disproportionately much higher. Because of this I have spent many hours working with seniors in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Many seniors living in these facilities quickly become depressed as they feel their quality of life is declining and that they have lost their independence.

One day I was visiting a nursing home and noticed this small group of ladies laughing and having a good time off to one side of a large social hall. They really stood out because everyone else in the room was very quiet and visibly not happy to be there. So, I went over to talk to the ladies to find out what was so funny. After talking to them for a few minutes one of the ladies smiled and told me that, “you can come here to die,” and she pointed to the other residents in the room, “or you can come here and continue to enjoy what life has to offer.” In that moment I realized that those ladies understood something that the others did not. They figured out that it did not matter where they were or what was happening, they were going to enjoy life to the fullest.

That experience had a profound effect on me. We all get caught up in the day-to-day craziness of life. It could be a bad day at work or a family issue or whatever the stressor of the moment happens to be. It’s easy to forget that no matter how bad something might seem in that exact moment, it’s just a small point in time and it’s how you react to it that will determine your future path. So, no matter what is happening in your life, there is always the choice to “get busy living or you can get busy dying”. In my opinion, the living part seems more fun.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Open-Mindedness — While in college I double majored Biology and Anthropology. Anthropology is the study of people and their cultures and one of the first things they teach you when studying other cultures is a term called “ethnocentrism”. This is a fancy word that means not judging others based on your own beliefs. Judging people, without knowing them or anything about them, is an easy but dangerous thing to do as it frequently leads to the wrong conclusions.

For example, many hard of hearing individuals face discrimination simply because they do not voice well for themselves. People often listen to hard of hearing individuals talk and immediately think that this person must have some type of learning disability, or perhaps is not intelligent simply based on how they vocalize. (Speech and hearing are linked and when you cannot hear yourself, it makes speaking that much harder. To experience this just place your fingers in your ears and try talking for a moment). By keeping an open mind and not prejudging people it allows you to gather all the facts, understand the situation and make informed decisions.

Honesty — Many people with hearing loss are in denial and don’t want to admit that they have a problem. When I meet these types of people, I have found that being brutally honest with them is the only way. I have to explain that hearing loss is a disability and that it not only affects them but the people around them and that using technology to assist them isn’t such a bad thing. This tends to get their attention and my experience has been that no matter what you are doing, and no matter what the situation, people respect being told the truth even when it is something they don’t want to hear.

Persistence — I have always been a persistent person but become even more so when someone tells me that something can’t be done. I love a challenge. But with all things in life, eventually you hit roadblocks and have to decide if you want to quit and walk the other way or continue to push forward even though it might be difficult. I know an individual who is Deaf and Blind or what we call dual sensory. Stop and think about that for a moment, not being able to hear or see. It’s intense. Anyway, this guy would leave his home, navigate the public transit system just to volunteer his time every month and he did it alone with his guide dog and no help from anyone else. This guy is fearless but also incredibly persistent. He never let his disability slow him down for one moment and whatever life has thrown at him he just forges ahead. Super impressive.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive social impact on our society. To begin, what problems are you aiming to solve?

CaptionMate helps solve the problem of telephone communication for people with hearing loss. If you can’t communicate with others, you start to become socially isolated and then begin to feel as if you are losing your independence as you rely on others to communicate for you.

The impact of this technology is wide-ranging and may not be fully understood for some time but what is known is that it provides people with independence. Since hearing loss is known to be directly connected to many other medical issues such as dementia, anxiety, and depression the hope is that this technology will lead to people living happier and healthier lives.

How do you think your technology can address this?

This technology will ultimately address side effects caused by hearing loss by being readily available to the masses and being easy to use. CaptionMate’s use of ASR (Automatic Speech Recognition) coupled with AI (Artificial Intelligence) has really brought captioning into the 21st century. It used to be that a bulky, special phone would have to be professionally installed for a person to receive captions on a live phone call. But now as traditional home and office phones continue to be replaced by smartphones it lets us package advanced technology such as CaptionMate into an app allowing people to have it at their fingertips. The more accessible the technology is, the more people will use it and therefore ultimately benefit from it. Individuals who are isolated and face communication barriers now become connected. People who are dependent now can function independently. The more this assistive technology allows people to bridge their disability the more they can stay mentally sharp and stave off issues such as depression and dementia.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

After dealing with hearing loss in both my personal and professional life for so many years I really became frustrated by the real lack of innovation that was happening in the industry. All of this incredible technology was becoming available, yet none of it was being used to help people with hearing loss communicate over the phone. The few companies that were providing accessibility solutions in this channel were complacent and something needed to be done. With that said, I have to give credit where credit is due. My passion about this cause was equally shared by a small group of friends who really made it possible. I don’t think any of us on our own could have accomplished what we did on our own but, together, we were able to build something incredible which is now having a tremendous effect on people’s lives in ways we probably still don’t fully understand.

How do you think this might change the world?

I believe that this technology will continue to expand over the next 5 to 10 years and become more and more ubiquitous. Instead of this technology being seen as just for hard of hearing individuals, it will become a technology that is to be used by anyone who makes phone calls and is concerned with preserving their hearing health and mental health.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

One very important issue that the CaptionMate team has been focused on since day one is consumer privacy because of all of the concerns surrounding AI-based technologies. For example, when you look at AI tech such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Live transcribe, or Apple’s Siri they all have powerful speech engines with AI, which is amazing and performs incredible tasks but at the same time they are also causing consumers to question the security of their personal information.

Is my phone or Alexa listening to me?

Are these devices storing my information somewhere and if so where?

Is my information safe?

Is my information being sold or shared?

These are all valid questions and concerns that the CaptionMate team felt passionate about addressing with our app and feel will need continued attention as this technology as a whole continues to advance and expand into other areas of our daily lives.

With that said, CaptionMate took deliberate steps to ensure that the consumer would always have total privacy. We intentionally made sure that the consumers captioning transcription from the call was never stored anywhere except the customer’s own phone/device so they had access to it but we never did. We also set up very strict privacy policies which included guidelines to never sell any consumer data or information.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)

To create technology that will have a positive social impact most people will tell you that you need the preverbal the five W’s….Why, What, Who, When and Where. And although the W’s are extremely important and will eventually need to be answered, my experience is that the following items are essential for success.

  1. A few good people — You will need a good core group of people around you sooner or later; you can’t do it alone forever. Nobody is an expert on everything and eventually you will need to scale and grow. Diverse people bring diverse ideas and dedicated people are what drive any project. With CaptionMate we started with a core group of four people. Each of us had an expertise in a different area but we all shared the same vision.
  2. Money — Unfortunately, everything costs money and funding will become an issue sooner or later so try and secure as much funding as possible. With CaptionMate, our small team was fortunate that we were all already working for a company named Clarity that had 50 years of experience manufacturing products for individuals with hearing loss, so we were able to create this technology as an internal company project which made things financially viable.
  3. Unwavering Determination — At some point you and/or your team will hit a wall and think that there is no path forward. You will want to quit as that would be easier than moving forward but sheer determination is needed to get you through. This happened to our team several times and fortunately we had each other to fall back on and help lift each other up when things got difficult.
  4. Celebrate — Sometimes you just have to laugh and enjoy yourself. Work hard and play hard. Take time to celebrate the small victories along the way. You can try doing a team lunch or even pop open a bottle of champagne. Whatever works for you take the time to smile and enjoy the fruits of your labor along the way.
  5. Empathy — Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. You will need empathy for your team, family members that put up with your crazy work hours, possible customers that you interact with, investors, etc, etc, etc. Empathy is just a super important thing to have in life and critical if you ever want to make a social impact. Many years ago a mentor of mine gave me a small piece of paper that had the word empathy and its definition on it. To this day, I still keep that piece of paper in my wallet so that I never forget how important it is.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Dreamers and doers are what spark innovation and there are so many things in our society that need to be addressed from disabilities to climate change. Don’t ever let someone tell you that something isn’t possible and control your future. If not you, then who?

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I think it would be really fun to have lunch with Oprah. Why? because it’s Oprah.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

We love to post on social media. You can find us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn!

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

About the Interviewer: Jilea Hemmings is a staunch believer in the power of entrepreneurship. A successful career revamping Fortune 500 companies was not enough for her entrepreneurial spirit, so Jilea began focusing her passion in startups. She has successfully built 6 startups to date. Her passion for entrepreneurship continues to flourish with the development of Stretchy Hair Care, focusing on relieving the pain associated with detangling and styling natural black hair. For far too long, people with tender heads have suffered in pain. Until now.

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Jilea Hemmings

Jilea Hemmings

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Founder Nourish + Bloom Market | Stretchy Hair Care I Author I Speaker I Eshe Consulting I Advocate For Diversity In Beauty