Remarks at the Learning Ally National Achievement Awards

Below are the introductory remarks I made at the Learning Ally National Achievement Awards last Saturday. First I introduced a video about the awards, then I spoke about Learning Ally’s progress in technology and community building.


Thank you Dee and Scott.
Unfortunately, I never met the women who endowed these awards, Mary Oenslager and Marion Huber. But I wish they could stand with me, look out over this audience, and reflect on how these awards have grown and blossomed,and how Learning Ally has grown and blossomed with them.

They are both amazing stories of transformative philanthropy that I want to share with you tonight. Mary Oenslager and Marion Huber saw the outstanding accomplishments of students who overcame immense challenges to succeed academically and personally and saw their potential to be role models for other students on a similar path.

Their story, the story of these Awards, I will delegate to a video.But while you are learning about the awards, pay attention to a quick montage of audiobook technologies, including those in use in the 1950s through 1990s. There will be a quiz on that later.

So, in the spirit of 20th century audio technology, please “roll the tape”.

[5 minute video on Huber and Oenslager and the history of RFB&D/Learning Ally]

You are in for a real treat – when I’m done with you.

I find it such a privilege to meet and hear from our award winners.  They will give you vivid and moving first person accounts of their journeys.  So for my part I’d like to address the remainder of my remarks to the other people in this room – our outstanding management team and this community they have built called Learning Ally.

I would really like to give you a sense of degree of difficulty of what they’ve done, and the impact they’ve had. Forgive me if I bring the perspective and mindset of my day job as an investor. I get excited about good investments, like this one you are making in Learning Ally.

Did you see the reel-to-reel tape deck and the cassettes in the video?  Those first two audiobook formate changes took 40 years. Since then Learning Ally’s product cycle has gotten shorter and shorter.

When I joined the board ten years ago we were just moving to CDs and digital files. Now, among other things, we have rolled out:

  • cloud-based libraries synced across apple and android applications,
  • that connect teachers to their students’ progress,
  • and sync text and refreshable Braille to human voice.
  • And instead of a few months to complete a book in a studio, we can do it in two weeks with a virtual community of readers working at home.

Making large investments in a time of such rapid change is not a picnic.

For example, consider that those books and cloud-based services are all traveling on 40 million miles of fiber optic cable laid, rather optimistically, by dozens of telecommunications companies in the 1990s. Before they built the infrastructure that made all this data movement possible, coast-to-coast phone calls cost as much as a dollar a minute. Remember that? Today there’s limitless global skyping, and the Learning Ally bookshelf. In fact,my breakfast companion this morning was texting to her husband at Base Camp 2 on Mt. Everest.

Did you know that 23 of those telecom companies went bust or otherwise disappeared from 2002-2004?

This has been the kind of environment where it’s good to be a consumer, but dangerous to be a provider.  Learning Ally has invested in that kind of environment. And technology was just the beginning. In 2007, our funding environment also turned completely topsy-turvy.

Talk about degree of difficulty.

And that’s why I am so incredibly proud of our CEO of five years Andrew Friedman, Connie Murphy, our amazing Development Officer and now Cynthia Hamburger, Learning Ally’s terrific new Chief Information Officer, for negotiating these treacherous waters. We also have our own presidential appointee, George Kersher, to thank for keeping us in the middle of the evolving world of technological standards.

All those updates in our audiobook product alone would be a major accomplishment….

but wait, they didn’t stop there, there’s more!

All these changes have also brought a plethora of new options for our members. I hope you’ve had a chance to visit with the YES group, who’ve been demonstrating many of these technologies, such as screen readers, commercial audiobooks, synthetic voice and even image-based text recognition. This morning my new young friend from YES, John McCoy demonstrated his Voicestream text-to-speech app for me. He uses it to LISTEN to assignments and handouts from his teachers. Like John, I’m pumped that our members have more cost-effective options for learning-through-listening than ever before. But only those who know they need it, know how to get it and know how to use it are getting pumped like me and John.

For young students, availability is only half the battle.

So Learning Ally’s management team is innovating to solve that problem as well.  It all started with a presentation our EVP Jim Halliday gave to the board a few years ago called “The Parent Journey”, in which we learned how parents get from recognition to adaptation.

This inspired similar research for Teachers and Volunteers

Using both new technologies and old-fashioned advocacy we engaged in some of the most robust community-building Learning Ally has ever done

We hired people like Deb Linum, our new head of community engagement, and invested to build up that all-important support network around our current and potential members. What my board colleague and LA member SK Shin likes to call “God’s Special People”.

I’d like to read for you some feedback from God’s Special People, to give you a sense of the impact these efforts have had.

One of our volunteer readers said

“…the new Virtual Community Model has been a real “game-changer” for me as a volunteer ……the whole experience gave me a lot of satisfaction, knowing that, in just one volunteering session, I can now do an entire chapter or more of work that our members will use and appreciate.”

We reach out to educators through

  • professional development workshops
  • helping with
  • recognizing students that read differently,
  • How to use all these new tools, and integrate members into the mainstream classroom.
  • and We’ve built Companion technologies to our Audiobooks such as Teacher Ally

An assistive technology specialist wrote to us to say:

“The changes that have gone on within Learning Ally this year have revolutionized my practice …”

And a teacher in the Denver Public School System:

“Learning Ally gives students the courage to access parts of the curriculum that otherwise would be difficult for them. I have students who would never have been able to consider an honors or AP class, who are now doing so with great success.”

Our progress in the parent community is almost ‘viral’, thanks to Deb and Diane and their colleagues. We run

  • online webinars from experts
  • peer support programs such as Ask-A-Parent
  • They’ve successfully lobbied state legislatures to recognize, for the first time, dyslexia as a condition requiring accomodations.
  • They run a virtual community for parents to seek advice, comfort and guidance as they help their kids and navigate their own school systems.

In fact, Thursday night, a Mom coping with her struggling third grader checked in on Learning Ally’s’ Facebook page. One of our winners, Eddie Maza, chimed in to offer help, advice and comfort.

I want to close with four quotes from parents:

“I am new to the world of dyslexia and this has given me a real jumping off point. Thank you for helping me help my daughter.”

“I LOVE the webinars. I’ll definitely attend all I can and watch the rest. Dyslexia is a very isolating issue for parents – it’s great to have a support network out there! …. It’s invaluable to us.”

“I just wanted to say that for the first time for as long as I can remember my son is enjoying a book. It nearly brings tears to my eyes.”

“The Specialist was so knowledgeable and having been where I am, was able to share the experience. She made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”

No. She is not alone anymore. There are 300 of us right here.

Look around you at the Learning Ally community. All of you here, our donors, volunteers, readers, educators and our outstanding management team and staff at Learning Ally. You all are here, just like Marion Huber and Mary Oenslager, engaged in transformational philanthropy.
This is a bittersweet night for me, as this is my sixth and final year as Chair of the National Board for Learning Ally. What a fantastic board member journey you’ve given me.

Thank you for your dedication, your support, and most of all your fellowship. I am honored to have worked with you for the last decade

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