Unstoppable: How Chad Foster overcame blindness to become aVP at Red Hat
When children would tease me about my eyesight limitations in school, grit gave me the ability to fight back — physically and emotionally. It gave me the desire to prove others wrong. Grit fueled my unrelenting workouts, which allowed me to productively channel my frustration — using my anger to improve myself. When I had to relearn how to study at university, grit is what gave me the commitment and determination to keep on going. You see, I had always been a visual learner, but after going blind, my visual memory was of no use. I had to adapt, and relearn how to learn — using just my ears. I ended up making straight-As at university and even making the Dean’s List. Later when entering the workforce, I discovered that the technology that I needed to use a computer did not work with all types of enterprise software. In order to be able to do my job, to even enter my time into our corporate timesheet system, I would have to learn how to engineer my technology so that it would talk to the other software we used at work. Grit is what gave me the patience and drive to learn how to engineer software without being able to see the screen, and code the screen reading technology used by the blind to interoperate with the sighted world, even though I am blind myself. As a Business Management major with a concentration in Finance, I had zero experience with computers before losing my eyesight, but grit gave me the confidence that I could chart a path ahead. And after mastering my computer, grit was the foundation that allowed me to excel in the business world. To create innovative business architectures and pricing strategies that resulted in over $45 billion in contracts, industry-leading growth, and best-in-class margins amid tightening market conditions.
As a part of my series about “Grit: The Most Overlooked Ingredient of Success” I had the pleasure of interviewing Chad E. Foster. Can you imagine going blind as a teenager? When most people were preparing for the adventure of adult life, Chad E. Foster was watching the world he grew up with fade to black. But that didn’t stop him from becoming the first blind person to graduate from the Harvard Business School leadership program and climbing the corporate ladder as a successful Finance/Sales executive. He works at Red Hat, one of the most innovative Tech companies and the world’s largest open source software company. With determination, ambition, and drive, he created what Oracle said would be impossible. He gave hundreds of millions of people the ability to earn a living by becoming the first to create customer relationship software for the visually impaired. With speaking invites from London to Beijing, and the Atlanta Opera crafting a story inspired by his journey, Chad inspires people to overcome their own blind spots.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what events have drawn you to this specific career path
My life changed completely when I lost my sight. I started off with a set of life expectations based on my upbringing and abilities, however, after losing my eyesight while at university as a young adult, I was forced to reexamine my life and its meaning.
Many people are given the option to choose their path in life. They could be a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, or perhaps an athlete. Others, like myself, are left with fewer options due to extenuating circumstances, such as a life-changing disability. While in college, I decided to enter the business world because I thought it was flexible enough to allow me to pivot in any number of directions.
After going blind, I did not know what I could do — never mind what I wanted to do — and I had fewer options than most. Business was a broad enough field that, once I learned what was possible without eyesight, I would at least have options for professional fulfillment. And with the advent of the Internet and the booming technology landscape, there were a number of tools on the rise that could help me master the craft of information, which became my path to professional fulfillment.
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?
My parents took me to Duke University at the age of 3 when they noticed I was having problems navigating dark environments. It was there where they diagnosed me with Retinitis Pigmentosa, or RP for short. Growing up, the world became my walking cane, where I learned the limitations of my eyesight by bouncing off of things. I was a very active child, playing sports such as soccer, football, and basketball, however my eyesight did come with constraints.
I did not know what those constraints were until I started running into objects I could not see, frequently ending up in the ER. In fact, we were there so often that the hospital questioned both me and my parents to assess whether or not my parents were abusing me. Of course they were not abusive, but they let me live as actively as I could, while I still could.
You see, doctors always warned us that I could lose my eyesight. Given the nature of my eye disease, no one knew for sure if or when it would happen, but it was always called out as a distinct possibility. Hearing that as a child was not particularly useful — I still thought there is no way it will happen to me. Like most children, I felt I was invincible, even though there were clear and present warning signs indicating otherwise.
Children would tease me in school. Mental toughness became a necessary ingredient for survival. I would either have to toughen up mentally, or collapse under the barrage of insults and taunts. Fortunately, the many bumps and bruises I endured while learning about my blind spots gave me a natural foundation of grit, which served me well when life did not go as planned.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
None of us are fully responsible for the circumstances of our life, however, we must all be accountable for our life and its outcomes. Although my eye disease was not my fault — was not anyone’s fault — it was a part of my life that I had to confront. Making excuses, while emotionally comforting, does nothing to help us rise above our challenges. Those excuses do not change our reality. So, I ask, is it better to spend our energy looking for a legitimate reason to fail, or to summon the drive and determination to change our reality? Our willingness to accept our current circumstances is inversely proportional to our ability to create change. When we want to move through an obstacle, more than we want to watch TV, then we are on our way. When we want to achieve our goal, more than we want to sleep late, then we have a chance. When we want our objective, more than we want to breathe, then we will not be denied.
So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?
When children would tease me about my eyesight limitations in school, grit gave me the ability to fight back — physically and emotionally. It gave me the desire to prove others wrong.
Grit fueled my unrelenting workouts, which allowed me to productively channel my frustration — using my anger to improve myself.
When I had to relearn how to study at university, grit is what gave me the commitment and determination to keep on going. You see, I had always been a visual learner, but after going blind, my visual memory was of no use. I had to adapt, and relearn how to learn — using just my ears. I ended up making straight-As at university and even making the Dean’s List.
Later when entering the workforce, I discovered that the technology that I needed to use a computer did not work with all types of enterprise software. In order to be able to do my job, to even enter my time into our corporate timesheet system, I would have to learn how to engineer my technology so that it would talk to the other software we used at work. Grit is what gave me the patience and drive to learn how to engineer software without being able to see the screen, and code the screen reading technology used by the blind to interoperate with the sighted world, even though I am blind myself. As a Business Management major with a concentration in Finance, I had zero experience with computers before losing my eyesight, but grit gave me the confidence that I could chart a path ahead.
And after mastering my computer, grit was the foundation that allowed me to excel in the business world. To create innovative business architectures and pricing strategies that resulted in over $45 billion in contracts, industry-leading growth, and best-in-class margins amid tightening market conditions.
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)
- Tell Yourself the Right Stories
The facts of a situation are less important than the stories we tell ourselves about the situation. After losing my eyesight, I could have told myself a story about how I went blind because I have really bad luck. Instead, I chose to tell myself that I went blind because I am one of the few people on the planet with the strength and toughness to overcome it, and to use it as a platform to reach and inspire others. Both of these stories are correct. However, the second story frames my circumstances in a way that allows me to move forward. Without the right cognitive framing, all of our efforts come up short.
2. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Attempting supposedly impossible tasks are a marvelous way to build grit, but if we want to become mountain climbers, would we start with Mt. Everest? Starting with smaller tasks, regularly get outside of your comfort zone. Get comfortable with discomfort.
I buoy my grit by doing things that are not in my comfort zone. For example, I often travel for work. This leaves me in many places I’ve never been before — foreign countries, hotels, and cultures. I maintain my workout routine despite the inconvenience of doing so in strange hotels. Learning the layout of the hotel well enough to find the gym, understanding the machinery available to use, and being able to find unused machinery for a 5am morning workout is always a chore, but each and every time I do it I continue to harden my tenacity.
3. Attempt the Impossible
Nothing powers me more than hearing that something cannot be done. Who wants to achieve the ordinary? For me, hearing that something cannot be done is just the shot of adrenaline I need to relentlessly attack the task at hand.
After losing my eyesight, I learned how to engineer my screen reading software to do my job. Several years later I started helping government agencies and businesses make their software compatible for the blind. One time a former colleague from Accenture called me to see if I could help a customer of theirs who had an employee who was unable to do his job because of a problem between the customer relationship management (CRM) software and the screen reading software for the blind.
Both Oracle, the manufacturer of the CRM software, and the manufacturer of the screen reading software, thought it could not be done. I ended up building a software solution that allowed these two programs to talk to one another so this guy could do his job. Needless to say, both companies have referred me business since.
4. Grit Can Be Learned
My grit has increased significantly throughout the years. Overcoming the many challenges that have come my way prepared me to take on increasingly more difficult things. Grit, like effort, is entirely within our sphere of control. Many traits are given to us at birth. Our hair color, eye color, and the way we look.
Grit however, is a skill — a muscle — that we can strengthen over time by consistently seeking out supposedly impossible tasks, and, bit by bit, nurture our resolve, our grit, to adapt and overcome whatever life throws our way.
5. Excuses Are for Losers
It’s a harsh principle, but a true one. What is the difference between a legitimate reason to fail and an excuse? The outcomes are the same in either case. We can all find legitimate reasons to fail, but what purpose would that serve? How would that help us?
We may feel better about the fact that we are unable to achieve our goals, but our situation would not improve. How much are we willing to passively accept the sympathy of others, versus actively earning their respect?
If you were to debate the point that excuses are for losers, and win, the result would be the self-acknowledged hopelessness of the situation. In the waters of hopelessness there swims a monster that can swallow humanity whole. Instead of capitulating the hopelessness of my situation, I choose to believe that with enough effort, grit, discipline, and thought, I can outmaneuver the limitations of my blindness.
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?
My parents are the main reason I was able to navigate the journey of my life. They allowed me to live as full of a life as possible, trusting me to play sports, drive a car, and engage life fully for as long as I could.
And then when I went blind while attending university, my mother tirelessly read each and every one of my business books to audio cassette. Every day, my father would go to work while my mother was reading books to tape. He would return, and she would still be reading. When he woke up the next morning, there she was at the kitchen table, still reading my business books. Because of their sacrifice, there was no way I was willing to let them down. They had sacrificed too much.
Without their support, pulling me along — there is no way I would be where I’m at today. My father ingrained an incomparable work ethic in me at a young age, and made sure I knew that the world did not care whether or not I had a disability. The only people who genuinely cared about my problems were family. Because of that, I’d have to carve out my own place in the world regardless of my blindness.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I often find myself helping others through mentoring, leading my team at work, giving keynote presentations on stage, and soon, through the book I am writing to reach and inspire others. I’ve found that my “why” in life is to use my situation to help others deal with life’s many twists and turns.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My current project is writing a book, and I’m also speaking on stage much more often. I’m convinced that my “why” in life is to use my “gift” of going blind and of having learned so many valuable life lessons to reach and inspire others.
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. 🙂
I don’t know about “inspiring movements,” because the sort of change I advocate for is highly personal and individual in nature. But the heart of my message lies in this question: What stories do you tell yourself? The facts of a given situation are much less important than the stories we tell ourselves about it. How we choose to narrate circumstances to ourselves has a profoundly greater impact than the facts alone. I am living proof of that.
What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Grit and resilience are skills. They can and must be learned. It is our job as leaders to equip our teams to adapt and even thrive in change. The world is changing. Every industry on the planet is being transformed through digitization, and in a world where the only constant is change, people must be able to navigate these changes productively and successfully.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
If you never dare to be great, you will always be mediocre. We all have to take chances. We can live carefully, safely, and timidly, but if we want to do something extraordinary, we will have to take a few chances. This involves getting outside of our comfort zone. In order to make a difference in the world, we’ll have to take chances — and dare to be great!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I can be reached at:
- Twitter: @ChadEFoster
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chadfoster/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FindChadEFoster/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/FindChadEFoster/
- Website: https://chadefoster.com