Wells Fargo SVP Kathy Martinez: “We all use accommodations at work, the more people with disabilities we have working in our midst, the less special my tools will be”

Please remember, we all use accommodations at work. The ones most people use are standard operating practice so they are not considered special. The more people with disabilities we have working in our midst, the less special my tools will be. People will begin to see them as just another way to do business.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathy Martinez, senior vice president and head of Disability and Accessibility Strategy at Wells Fargo. She was nominated by the President in 2009 to serve as the assistant secretary of the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Kathy is blind, Latina and identifies as LGBT.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what events have drawn you to this specific career path?

When I was growing up, many blind people I met did not have careers and were not expected to seek career opportunities. As I went through school, attitudes for people who were blind changed and opportunities began to expand. Meanwhile, my family had high expectations for my sister Peggy, who is blind, and me. My parents worked very hard, but didn’t have a lot of money and struggled to support our family. I observed how, at times, they were disrespected for being Latino and having accents.

As a young child, I wanted to be able to contribute to my family and help my parents. I knew I would work as soon as I could. In my early 20s I realized that the best way for people with disabilities to get ahead was through employment and access to money. Many of the blind people I knew growing up were trapped on government benefits and did not have the same type of family support that my sister and I had. I became aware of the emerging disability rights movement in the late 70s and found a home for my passion of getting people like me off benefits and onto payroll. I began to work at disability nonprofit organizations advocating for people with disabilities to have access to transportation, education and employment. That led to securing consultant work with businesses to assist them in creating a welcoming environment for people with disabilities, and to help people with diverse abilities access postsecondary education and job training programs. This would create a qualified pipeline for the businesses who wanted to hire us.

In 2009, I was appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate to serve as the Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Office of Disability Employment Policy. That was an amazing time because we really built momentum for businesses. We collaborated on solutions related to recruitment, onboarding, the accommodations process, and issues around employees who became disabled during their work life. We kept track of the companies that took hiring people with disabilities seriously and encouraged people with diverse abilities to self-identify. When more people identified as having a disability, the accepting culture generated a positive momentum. First, the expectation factor grew when people with disabilities became successful in companies, more were hired and disclosed their disabilities. This in turn forced companies to increase their focus on accessibility and create a comprehensive accommodations process.

When it was time for me to move on, I wanted to work in the private sector and was interested in working for a financial institution to assist making products and services accessible to people with disabilities. Accessible products and services provide the community the opportunity to pursue its dream of becoming financially successful.

Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

Like most other minorities, people with disabilities are often met with low expectations and little promise. I was and am no exception. As a young, blind Latina, I was often dismissed. When I graduated from high school, I was placed into a job at a lock factory by a very well-meaning counselor from the California Department of Rehabilitation. He never considered that I might be successful in college. It took a lot of effort for them to reopen my case. They closed it and labeled the work of the counselor a success because he had placed me in a low-level factory job despite no advancement opportunities. After a year or so, I decided to leave factory work and go to college. It took me 13 years to graduate.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

My drive comes from observing my parents’ tenacity and grit to support a large family. As I grew up, I found mentors — both men and women — who were extremely influential in shaping my interest in economic empowerment for people with disabilities. They encouraged me not to give up based on moments when I felt that it might be impossible to make significant change in people’s attitudes.

So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?

I noticed that when a company hired people with disabilities and made people feel safe identifying, there was a shift in expectations, perceptions and attitudes toward people with disabilities. That gave me hope!

So, how are things going today?

First, I love my job. I really like being a part of an ever-growing team whose purpose is to weave disability awareness and accessibility into our culture and workplace. This effort is a marathon not a sprint, and creating positive change is both difficult, fun and inspiring.

I love developing people’s acumen in this area and watching them grow and become very powerful advocates for inclusion for all — including those of us with disabilities. I love when people understand that disability is indeed part of the diversity agenda.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)

1. Use adversity as an advantage. When I saw people mistreat my mom because she cleaned houses, I vowed never to do that. I used her example to carry on and not let mean comments get me down.

2. Have your work be what you love, if at all possible. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to work in an area for which I have a passion.

3. Stay hungry for new information and training.

4. Constantly encourage feedback from colleagues and friends, and carefully consider their constructive criticism.

5. Realize that you are not indispensable.

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 you when things were tough? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people who have helped me along the way. When I was 16 years old, I was selected to be a part of an international exchange program that allowed young students to stay with a couple Japanese families over eight weeks in Japan. When my host families found out that I was blind, they asked me not to come. I was crushed, but my mentors didn’t give up. The next year they found two families that would take me. That trip completely changed my life. My love for travel and other cultures was sparked, and my work in the international arena began.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I hope that my work has allowed people, disabled and nondisabled, to strive for more opportunities and freedom. When society is accessible, we can go places and access information more easily. This allows us to better connect and share experiences. Accessibility helps us realize that we have much more in common than we would have ever known as opposed to if we were segregated due to a lack of access to ramps and/or information. Also, while I’m aware that you can’t legislate attitude, I believe I’ve helped change attitudes of the general public, which has allowed people to join the workforce, earn an income, and contribute to their communities.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Last year, Wells Fargo launched the Enterprise Accessibility Program Office. This initiative allows us to take a more holistic approach to our accessibility goals. We are seeing benefits, such as lowering costs by weaving in accessibility of our products from the design and development stage, rather than later in the system development life cycle. Our products, such as our mobile app and Control Tower financial management tool, are easily accessible and our customers love it.

What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?

What has worked for me is believing in people and their interest in making the world a better place.

Encourage creativity and understand that there are many ways to accomplish a task. I use a screen reader that reads all my emails and documents aloud, and I use braille and a notetaking device. Most people consider those accommodations. However, the only reason they are considered accommodations is because they are not considered standard operating tools.

Please remember, we all use accommodations at work. The ones most people use are standard operating practice so they are not considered special. The more people with disabilities we have working in our midst, the less special my tools will be. People will begin to see them as just another way to do business.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The way we’ve always done things is just that — the way we’ve always done things. If we design buildings, technology and general processes with the diversity of people in mind, we will provide the largest opportunity to the most people.

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

One of my favorite life lessons is that people can change. My father was an alcoholic until I was 15 years old. He hit a low and decided to quit drinking. I saw a man who had no self-confidence and was very unhealthy turn his life around. He became a man who gained confidence, had self-respect and pride, and he lived sober for 30 more years. His ability to become sober made everyone in our family want to improve themselves.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am on LinkedIn.