Transcript of Interview with Lori Samuels from NBC Universal
John Samuel 0:11
Hi, this is All Access with John Samuel. And this is a show where we share the stories of leaders, entrepreneurs, and advocates and how to improve the lives for people of all abilities. Today we have the pleasure of having Laurie Samuels, my dear friend, and also advisor, and no relation, but she’s also the accessibility director at NBC Universal, and I’m super excited to be sharing her story and how she got into accessibility and some of the cool things she’s doing now. So thank you, Lori.
Lori Samuels 0:43
Thanks john and great it’s great to be here.
John Samuel 0:45
Thank you so much. No, you know, Lori, you and I have had the opportunity to get to know each other over the past couple years now, and you know, I’d love to learn a little bit more about your, your background, I know you went to the very first high school in the country and I’d love to kind of hear how you got started there.
Lori Samuels 1:03
Sure. Well, I grew up in Boston in the 1960s and 70s so it’s been around for a while, and I went to the oldest public school in the country it was established in 1635. It was called Boston Latin School or is called that used to be an all-boys school in fact my oldest brother graduated in the last class that was all. male and. And then became a coed school is an exam school but a public school so you pass an exam in the sixth grade to get into the school and it grows seventh through 12th grade so my brothers and I, but all went to that school and graduated. Okay. Very cool.
John Samuel 1:45
So, after that, you know, after kind of finish up high school in the Boston area where did you go to college or what did you do afterward?
Lori Samuels 1:52
I went on to Boston University and math was my favorite subject in school, which I didn’t consider strange at the time, and my father actually encouraged me to switch my major from math to computer science, which I did. And, you know, programming languages and operating systems theory, and I actually really loved it all and did a lot of programming and coding. And I actually ended up getting my bachelor’s and my master’s degree in computer science in a four year time period so that was great I came out, kind of well prepared to get into the field.
John Samuel 2:30
That’s pretty impressive or, you know. So Lori, during like the time when you were going to college and grad school and computer science. You know what was it like being, you know, was there a lot of women in computer science at that time?
Lori Samuels 2:43
No, definitely not. You know I probably had a couple of girlfriends in the computer science department. And really, probably the rest were mostly guys. I happen to get along with everyone really well so I never had any issues. I never personally felt like I encountered anything that held me back gender wise. But, you know, so I’ve had a great experience all through my career in terms of working with both men and women but certainly in terms of numbers. The number of women in the field is a lot smaller percentage-wise and the thing that troubles me a bit about that is that it’s actually the percentages have actually gone down since you know, in the 1980s and it’s actually smaller percentages of women going into the field which is, which is discouraging.
John Samuel 3:37
Yeah, that’s really surprising. I had no idea that the numbers have been going down. Do you have any ideas on why you think so?
Lori Samuels 3:44
I’m really not sure what the root causes are for that. I would say you know it’s possible there seems to be some social pressures around girls not being encouraged to go into STEM careers. And, of course, there’s a lot of good initiatives to counter that pressure if that is one of the factors so you know I actually participate in. Some nonprofit organizations that focus on getting kids in, Deaf Kids Code, which is an awesome nonprofit organization that I’ve been working with for a while, is focused on getting the deaf community and deaf kids exposed to the possibility of having careers in science and technology. So I think lots of similar efforts are underway for girls as well.
John Samuel 4:34
That’s very cool. Yeah, I’d love to you know I know that you’ve got this connection with the deaf community working with Deaf Kids Code, but how did you get into the accessibility space in general or did you go in right after college?
Lori Samuels 4:50
Actually, that’s a great question. I think, you know, I consider myself a passionate ally of the disability community and I think that passion kind of came from my own personal experience my, I mentioned that my brothers and I went to Boston Latin School, we went to Boston Public Schools. My sister, who has cerebral palsy, was not actually even given that opportunity. So my sister Karen had to go to a different school, she didn’t get to go to public schools like the rest of us did. She went to a school and it’s actually a horrible name, so I’ll say it but, you know, just be aware that this was back in the 1960s. It was called the Industrial School for Crippled Children. That was the name of her school. And as bad as the name sounds, there were wonderful people who worked in the school and awesome teachers and we were very connected with the school as a family. And, you know, but I think I was always aware from a very young age that my sister faced many more obstacles and much more discrimination than my brothers and I experienced as we went about our way growing up in childhood and so that was, that was just part of just ingrained in my DNA as a child. My sister went on to get her associate’s degree her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree ultimately in social work and lives independently and worked in hospital administration. So she’s great. But, but every step of the way, there was always something that was in the way for her and we as a family always supported her very much and we tried to make sure our family was a kind and safe place for her to be, because she faced discrimination out in the world. So that, I think was my personal, initial connection to disability. And I also loved technology so it was fairly early in my career that I began to do some work. I actually moved out of Boston and over to San Francisco and was working for a company called Broderbund Software where they were building software products for the consumer market. And I, at that point, got interested in how we could make sure that those products worked for everyone, including kids who were now in the 1990s beginning to go to public schools, kids with disabilities who might need some different technology to make things work for them.
John Samuel 7:30
That’s very cool. That’s really interesting that you got started kind of really in the beginning of your career. Thinking about access for everyone. That’s really cool. So after that experience kind of where did you Where did that take you from there?
Lori Samuels 7:46
It was a really interesting time this was probably, 1993 to 1998, I was the director of engineering for Broderbund Software. At the time, the product that I worked on, primarily was a product called the print shop. But there were others as well and I started going to conferences like C Sun and Closing the Gap, and working with some companies that were building assistive technology like alternative kinds of keyboards and tracking devices that, in particular, was focused on the school and educational market. So I really tried to start bringing this awareness back into my engineering team and to the leadership in the company and they were fully supportive. It was really pre internet, it was pre WCAG and none of those standards existed at the time. But the idea that if you developed your software to meet certain standards, and not make assumptions that people could use a mouse or could see the screen that you would be more compatible with this assistive technology devices. And so that was the sort of advocacy. It’s been fascinating for me to see over the span of my career going from, you know, Broderbund and Microsoft were the only two mainstream companies that used to go to C SUN and these, these sort of disability-focused conferences. Back in the early 90s, and that of course has changed so tremendously and now there’s a focus on accessibility which is awesome. And I’ve gotten the opportunity for the past 10 years or so in my career to pretty much focus exclusively on accessibility which is really fantastic.
John Samuel 9:29
You know you mentioned the receptiveness of the organization to think about even before the guidelines are there, what do you think it was about the culture that allowed it for them?
Lori Samuels 9:42
It’s a great question. I would say that Broderbund was a consumer software company at the time was very focused on creating wonderful quality experiences for adults and children to enjoy in either in the classroom or at home. They were so committed to quality to a to really rich beautiful engaging software products. I think they just perceived accessibility as just part of that quality measure. And so, I think, I think that’s one of the ways that I do try to work with teams to look at it and say, you know, accessibility is the one a part of the way that we can measure quality – is everyone having a good experience with your product? Is everyone able to enjoy your website? Is it really usable?
John Samuel 10:36
That’s pretty awesome. That’s really cool to actually start your career in an organization that had that kind of culture because I think that needs to be a good foundation for where you’ve gone because I know you’ve worked with some big names in your career. You mentioned Microsoft and you worked in the accessibility space for 10 years. What are some of the major lessons you’ve learned through those kinds of experiences?
Lori Samuels 11:06
Let’s talk a little bit about kind of going back to when I was a technical program manager at Intuit. I basically volunteered to start up their corporate accessibility program at the time. This was in 2011. And so this was kind of my re-entry into accessibility from having done different things and taking a break to raise four kids and a few other things along the way. But in any case, when I was back in the workforce in 2011 I joined Intuit, which is also a, you know, is a fabulous company that’s very committed to Quality and Innovation and their products. And, again, because I was interested in accessibility I volunteered to start that and that was a great learning experience for me. We got the opportunity to work on many products. But the one that I probably feel most proud of is that we really leaned into working on was QuickBooks, which is a small business accounting software. It’s widely used by both small business owners and people who are like bookkeepers and accountants and etc. So, there had been a lot of asks from the blind community specifically around QuickBooks and we were able to just start an initiative and get executive support for that and just make a huge amount of progress and getting to the core features of that product to be accessible to people who were visually impaired. So we felt really good about that.
John Samuel 12:35
That’s very cool. There are a couple of things I want to follow up on. You mentioned you had that gap, raising the kids and going back in. How was that reentry back into the workplace?
Lori Samuels 12:46
Honestly, I was very nervous about it. At the time, very much felt a lack of confidence and going back and particularly because I had been in technology and, you know, there’s so much emphasis on staying current and technology and I think I undervalued the skills that I brought to the table at the time in terms of just organization and people skills and various other things that counted for a lot. For me personally it was a challenging time. Once I had gotten back into it for about a year or two, I certainly regained my sense of confidence, but it was a rough transition to reenter the workforce after some time away. But, but it worked. I’m glad it did.
John Samuel 13:44
Yeah, for sure. You mentioned that you volunteered to lead up this initiative. And, if I’m not mistaken isn’t Intuit what the Lean Startup book is about?
Lori Samuels 13:57
Yes it is. Cook is the founder. I actually knew Scott Cook personally and he’s great guy. And yes they’re very much about design catalysts and innovative thinking and lean startup. And they very much embraced that model and of really getting close to their customers and watching their behaviors and trying to use that information to develop deep customer empathy. So again, accessibility was really in line with their corporate core values and often is frankly, in most corporations that I’ve worked with on positive note, accessibility is very well aligned with. If not, you know, sort of an integral part of their core values but sometimes, again, the practice of it competes with some other business priorities . So it’s just important to have someone owning and driving it and helping the organization to make progress and do it better over time so that we’re making sure that everyone is included.
John Samuel 15:09
That’s awesome. I think, you know, one of the when it sounds like you’ve been really just blessed to be able to to work with a lot of customer-centric companies. Is that a true statement?
Lori Samuels 15:16
Yes, I would definitely say so. I think certainly Microsoft is another example of a company that just completely and thoroughly embraced accessibility in such a big and substantive way. For their CEO, Satya Nadella, to be speaking as frequently as he does and as passionately as he does about the importance of inclusive design and making sure that their products truly do empower every person on the planet to achieve more. That’s it. That is not just a slogan at Microsoft – they do live it and breathe in and it was wonderful to be part of that. I don’t want to paint a picture that says that I’ve never encountered obstacles along the way. Fortunately, I think the trend is in the right direction and I think that companies are beginning to also understand that embracing inclusive design, embracing disability inclusion and practicing it is actually really good for business too. There really is a solid business case for disability inclusion on so many levels.
John Samuel 16:45
That’s awesome. I love it. And now you’re the accessibility director at NBC Universal. It’s a whole different kind of customer business. How is accessibility coming into the entertainment space?
Lori Samuels 17:01
It’s exciting for me personally because this is a new industry. I have not been in media and entertainment before. I come, obviously, out of the tech sector. And so I understand software product development. I think from the experiences I’ve had so far in the last few months, the product teams are wonderful I’ve had great engagement with the website teams, the mobile app teams. One thing that’s new for me is learning about the apps that work on your smart TV at home and learning about that space on the technical side. It’s very interesting, there’s a lot of opportunity in entertainment for disability inclusion in on a different scale. Even more expanded ways, so you’re thinking about movies and TV and you know news stories and representation. I’m not as directly involved with that side of the business right now and we’re doing some of the fundamentals in accessibility. But I think it’s really fascinating that there is an opportunity to represent, and of course, we’re seeing a big issue now in terms of race, as well. But disability needs to be represented and not not in just the narrow ways that it has historically been in film and television.
John Samuel 18:32
Yeah, that’s very cool. When we think about accessibility I think it’s often about work. But I think entertainment and life is also a critical component we need to make sure that everyone has access to. And it’s really cool that you’re doing that.
Lori Samuels 18:46
Yeah, absolutely. And, of course, news is part of that as well. Information being accessible to everyone, especially in times like these where we have important information coming from public health and science and social justice causes. So it’s just it’s, it’s always critical to make sure that that information is accessible to everyone. You know, just as table stakes there.
John Samuel 19:11
But, you know, as we think about the future of accessibility, where some of the trends or things that you’re really excited.
Lori Samuels 19:18
I think there are some interesting trends going on. One of the trends that I was able to become aware of at Microsoft, in particular, is artificial intelligence and its role in potentially providing some of the solutions and innovations that can happen in the accessibility space and the disability space more generally. Applications, mobile apps like seeing AI, which uses the camera on the mobile device to recognize objects in the real world. To make for someone who’s visually impaired to be able to have a richer experience and be able to utilize that technology that’s just one example there are certainly lots of others. I know that Microsoft is investing in AI for good, AI for accessibility. There are some wonderful initiatives going on in that space. Another trend is just I think that companies, larger and enterprise, at least from what I can see, are really accepting. There’s not as much resistance as there used to be with accessibility. There was a lot of time spent justifying why it was important. And so I think that there’s less of that now. I think there’s an acceptance of, “Okay yes we need to do this.” That’s right. This is part of what we do and some companies might look at it through the lens of compliance like privacy, security, accessibility. You know you have to do all that stuff. But at least it’s becoming more table stakes.
The only thing that’s amazing to me is how much the accessibility community has grown as an industry. We have certifications now. We have people who do different specialties within accessibility. None of that was true 10 years ago so there’s been a huge growth.
There’s also, I think, a lot of commitment and passion coming from the next generation. In fact, one of the things that’s bubbling up as an idea right now is that there’ll be accessibility all during projects. There’s some mentorship that people of my generation might be able to provide to folks who are getting into this or exploring what they could do in accessibility. So we’re excited about that there’s some initiative underway with folks to try to stand up some something like a mentorship program.
John Samuel 21:44
That’s very cool. I know we don’t have a official mentor program, you and I, but you have been a guide for me throughout this whole journey of me getting into accessibility space and building our team and I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done for me and my journey. And for people who are interested in getting in touch with you. What’s the best way to get in touch with you.
Lori Samuels 22:11
I’m sure they can reach out to me my email is Lori dot Samuels at nbcuni.com. I’m happy to talk to folks and particularly people who are kind of interested in the field.
I’m just thankful for you to participate today and just be here, and I really appreciate everything you do.