Congratulations Ather Sharif!

Recipient of our Excellence in Entrepreneurial Leadership Award Established In Honor of Michael W. Ferro Jr.

Headshot of Ather, who is Asian, smiling, wearing a navy suit and checkered bowtie. He is wearing thick clear-framed glasses.

Earlier this year, ADA 25 Advancing Leadership announced a new award: the Excellence in Entrepreneurial Leadership Award Established In Honor of Michael W. Ferro Jr, established with support from Advancing Leadership Member and Board Member John Tuhey, who wanted to recognize his mentor’s commitment to the advancement of people with disabilities, particularly in the area of entrepreneurial leadership.

After a rigorous and robust application, interview, and selection process, we are honored to announce that we have selected Advancing Leadership Member Ather Sharif as the recipient of our first Excellence in Entrepreneurial Leadership Award Established In Honor of Michael W. Ferro Jr.! Ather will receive a grant toward attendance at a conference or training essential to his entrepreneurial development, as well as access to entrepreneurial mentors.

“Ather exemplifies the exact qualities we wanted to recognize and honor with this award: the intersection of innovation and disability. On behalf of the committee, we are so pleased to make this award and help support Ather’s audacious idea to make the web accessible and adaptable for all users.”

— John Tuhey.

Ather is a Ph.D. student at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, focusing broadly on the area of Human-Computer Interaction and specifically on the intersection of Personalization and Accessibility. He is also a Software Engineer at Comcast, and Founder of EvoXLabs, an initiative dedicated to bridging the gap between technology and people with disabilities. Through EvoXLabs, Ather has mentored multiple students with disabilities through internships focused on accessibility and pioneered several programs such as the evoHaX Hackathon and The Accessible World conference, to make this world a more accessible place.

“My goal is to make the world a more accessible place through technology. With support of this award, I am working to convert my dream into reality.”

— Ather Sharif.

In order for you all to get to know Ather and his initiative, EvoXLabs, a little better, we asked him to participate in a Q + A. Enjoy!

Tell us a little about EvoXLabs.

EvoXLabs is a grassroots initiative dedicated to bridging the gap between technology and people with disabilities. We organize hackathons and conferences focused on accessible and assistive technology, and provide internship opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in research projects that are aimed towards improving the state of web accessibility. We bring together civic hackers, subject matter experts, students, professionals in academia and industry, and community members to work together and develop technological solutions to real-world web accessibility problems.

How’d you come up with the name?

Ah, I get asked this question so many times and I feel like I always disappoint people with the answer. The name really just stemmed from a silly thought, but I think the process might be worth talking about. To me, there were two main considerations: (1) I wanted a name that would be better for SEO optimization, for example, if someone went on Google and searched for the name EvoXLabs, it’d be the first result that would pop up (and it does, yay!), and (2) I didn’t want a name that had the word “ability” in it. I feel like everything related to accessibility has that word and not that it doesn’t have its own importance, I would really like to normalize having unorthodox names for accessibility focused initiatives and organizations

Ather looks off to the side pensively. He is wearing a gray suit and dark tie, and has black framed glasses.

How are inclusion and equity incorporated into your goals?

One of the primary reasons why EvoXLabs exists today is to level the playing field and make the web more inclusive and equitable for people with disabilities. It’s foundationally rooted in the mindset that everyone has a unique set of abilities and perspectives, and that technology should always be created utilizing those unique abilities and perspectives so it could target a much broader population than it does today. That’s why we want to achieve our goals by bringing together diverse minds, honoring their experiences, perspectives, and unique identity whether that’s in terms of abilities, gender, sex, race, or ethnicity.

You will receive a grant towards a professional development opportunity of your choosing through our award. What opportunity do you hope to pursue and what do you expect to gain from it?

I am truly humbled to be the inaugural recipient of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Award and am really excited about the grant. I think one of the most important things for any initiative like EvoXLabs, is to build a network and introduce people to the concept of accessibility, and how it isn’t just a “social good”/”charity” idea. To do so, it’s crucial to learn how to effectively pitch ideas, how to get buy-in from organizations and individuals. I believe that leadership conferences offer both of those things — to help build leadership and communication skills and to network and connect with other people. I would like to use the grant towards attending such conferences, and am, again, really fortunate to have the grant to pursue such opportunities.

Growing your own business is very rewarding, but not without its headaches. Tell us about a challenge you’ve faced.

I do think most startups face a set of quite similar challenges. But for any initiative that aims to create a social impact and attempt to solve a “wicked” problem, the struggle is, unfortunately, “too real.” It’s easier to give talks about accessibility and motivate/inspire people, which might only live for a short time than to get true and long-lived buy-in from individuals, and especially organizations. How do we tell people that accessibility is important? That it’s not just for a small subset of the world’s population that benefits from it but everyone and all people with varying abilities? I’ve had people come to me and say, “oh, I run a business of contact lenses, which obviously has no benefits to blind folks, so why should I make my website accessible.” It’s challenging to educate people on such issues and really show them that their commitment and support towards accessibility-focused initiatives, like EvoXLabs, is still “profitable.” But, you know, that’s the battle I’ve picked for myself, and it’s challenging, and exhausting at times, but the benefits, when we start to see them, are worth every bit of the effort.

A group of four people smiling in a casual setting. Ather is in the center, his arms crossed amiably.

You’re obviously into technology — what app should we all download ASAP?

If you ever get a chance to go through my phone, you’ll find it to have a very bare minimum set of apps. I’m a minimalist that way. So, I’m probably not the best person to answer that question. But I do want to tell people about this app called “Seeing AI,” which is designed for the blind and low vision community, and just playing with it and trying out the features can give one a lot of perspectives. It helps one understand how technology can benefit people with disabilities — worth noting that technology isn’t “the” answer but a “part” of the answer. But more importantly, it helps one get a little bit more familiar with the world of people with disabilities, with the hope that they can be better allies.

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Nearly 1 in 4 Americans has a disability, yet individuals with disabilities are vastly underrepresented in professional and civic leadership roles. Disability Lead imagines a Chicago region where everyone has access to lead with power and influence.

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