Interview With Founder of The Valuable 500: Caroline Casey

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Caroline Casey is an award-winning social entrepreneur and founder of The Valuable 500 – a catalyst for an inclusion revolution that exists to position disability equally on the global business leadership agenda.

Committed to building a global movement on inclusive business for the 1.3 billion people in the world with a disability, over the past two decades, she has set up several organizations and initiatives centered on disability business inclusion.

Her latest initiative, The Valuable 500, is a movement to get 500 CEOs and brands to put disability inclusion on their leadership agendas. Launched at the World Economic Forum Annual Summit in 2019, Casey succeeded in bringing disability inclusion onto the main stage at DAVOS for the first time ever with the support of global business leaders.

The Valuable 500 is supported by a host of global leaders, including Sir Richard Branson, and Paul Polman, and global brands, including Virgin Media and Omnicom.

Caroline Casey is a TED speaker and has spoken to thousands of business leaders around the world.

She is also an Ashoka Fellow, Eisenhower Fellow, a past advisor for the Clinton Global Initiative, a One Young World Counsellor and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

Let’s all welcome her on TaskQue where she will be sharing valuable advice:

Q: Tell us why you opted to leave your career in management consulting and travel to India on an elephant? Tell us in detail how you started your career?

It was coming face to face with my disability in a whole new way, which led to me embarking on my India adventure. After two and a half years of working at Accenture and hiding my disability, I finally came out of the closet to the HR department and told them that I couldn’t see correctly, they sent me off to an eye specialist.

He asked me several questions, but one really stuck with me – “what did you want to be when you were little?”. It may surprise you, but I sat and thought – “well, how about Mowgli from the Jungle Book? Why not?”. I realized it was time for a change in my life, for something different.

I decided trekking across India on the back of an elephant, as an elephant handler, was the closest way I could follow in Mowgli’s footsteps. With Kanchi, my elephant, by my side, we trekked thousands of kilometers across India.

Raising enough to fund 6,000 cataract operations and becoming the first female Mahout (elephant handler) from the west in doing so.

Q: Tell us about the vision behind The Valuable 500 campaign. What did you achieve from it?

As John Amaechi said, “leaders make choices, and choices create cultures” – that is why The Valuable 500 focuses on engaging with the business leaders making the decisions.

The Valuable 500 movement is calling on 500 CEOs globally, of some of the world’s largest businesses, to commit to putting disability inclusion on their boardroom agenda for leadership action.

We believe that inclusive business means inclusive society, which is why we began with the business leaders.

It seeks to challenge ‘diversish’ attitudes towards disability in business – while 90 percent of companies now claim they are committed to diversity and inclusion, only 4 percent include disability in this definition.

And I am so proud to say that we are definitely achieving this vision – the Valuable 500 has gone from a campaign to a movement, and we have built a global collective of CEOs committed to disability inclusion.

We now have over 280 companies signed up, in 26 countries, covering 46 sectors, 11 million employees, and the combined revenue of members is now over €4 trillion.

We have given CEOs the confidence to commit to disability inclusion in leadership conversation – and now the next phase for the Valuable 500 will be activating this community to drive the change within their organizations and the business landscape more broadly.

Inclusive businesses make inclusive societies – that’s where our vision has grown from, to where it is today.

Q: You seem very active for the same cause as Debra Ruh is working. What hurdles did you face in getting disability inclusion globally?

Indeed – Debra Ruh is a friend and we work closely together along with many other expert organizations around the world.

I am convinced that business leadership, and going straight to the top, is the route to securing backing for the inclusion revolution.

However, it is not getting the CEO’s to acknowledge and act upon the importance of disability inclusion that is the biggest hurdle – the challenge for me has been getting in front of the CEOs to put the issue to them directly in the first place.

At one point, we had reached out to 2,000 businesses – and 200 CEOs had said yes. Yet what we find is that often, once you get the attention of the CEOs themselves and have a conversation with them, they say yes.

The biggest hurdles to clear are the ones caused by the red tape and official bureaucratic pathways in order to get to that point.

Q: What do you think are the most effective ways for a disabled person to stay productive? What do you like to suggest to people who are actually physically impaired?

We don’t need to fix disabled people – we need to fix the business system.

The most effective way for a person with disabilities to stay productive is to focus on businesses empowering that person to be able to contribute their skills and talent.

Reasonable accommodations, inclusive design and flexible working – these are some of the things businesses must ensure in order that people with disabilities are empowered.

The business community’s reaction to Covid-19 has demonstrated that these things are possible to put into place in an incredibly short amount of time – there are no more excuses.

Q: What organizations can do to promote disability inclusion worldwide and how they can be benefited by it?

To promote disability inclusion, businesses must no longer treat it as the poor relation of D&I. It must be given equal focus, and business leaders must talk about it with a willingness to act, from employee to customer and all that lies between.

It is also imperative that disability and the other strands of diversity and inclusion are not confined solely to the D&I agenda, but seen as integral to the sustainability agenda – it must be cross-functional throughout the business.

There’s also a bigger picture if we’re talking about productivity and disability inclusion – the productivity of our economies and societies. A disability-inclusive business can unlock the social and economic potential of 1.3 billion people living with disabilities.

And in doing so, achieve better commercial performance, drive sustainable growth, attract the best talent, differentiate and innovate.

A diversity of lived experience also brings immense value to business, in all manner of aspects.

For example, we will need to redesign and innovate our workplaces going forward after the Covid-19 outbreak, and for this, we will need the intelligence of those who have lived experiences of disabilities – those who know what human-centered design is needed.

The use of automatic doors, for example – something initially designed for those with disabilities will now be essential in reducing contact surfaces.

The 2019 Click-Away Pound Survey found that in 2019, businesses lost an estimated £17.1 billion due to people abandoning a retail website because of accessibility barriers.

This isn’t just about employment, but about the full value chain. Businesses need to ensure they are creating accessible spaces for customers and employees, from offices to shops and websites.

Q: How AI is changing the ecosystem for people with disabilities in order to improve their productivity in the workplace? What is the adaptation rate of AI for disability inclusion worldwide?

The tech industry can unlock a great deal of potential for empowering people with disabilities in the workplace – and we have seen a great response from this sector in embracing a commitment to disability inclusion by signing up to The Valuable 500 – from Microsoft to Airbnb.

Companies like Microsoft have invested heavily in AI for accessibility. Moves like this open up doors, allowing people with disabilities to access the same opportunities as those without.

Q: Everyone has some inspiration in the industry, would you like to mention people who have inspired you in your journey or contributed in any way to become who you are today.

I’ve, of course, already mentioned my elephant, Kanchi. My parents too. Growing up, they did not want me to be defined by labels and placed in a box on account of my disability.

Something which has strongly influenced my drive to ensure different is seen as the new normal.

Launching The Valuable 500 on the main stage at Davos in 2019 was a huge moment for me, and I was so lucky that Paul Polman, Jeff Dodds and Richard Branson supported my vision from the beginning – without their confidence, and that of the early supporters of the campaign, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

Q: Which tools and techniques do you recommend for better team collaboration and better productivity.

There is no catch-all answer – what works for one person and one team may not necessarily work as well for others, even those in similar situations, or with apparently comparable disabilities.

Using the tools of asking, listening and hearing what your team has to say on these matters is crucial. In this way, we can fully appreciate and cater to their diversity of lived experience.

Q: What advice would you like to give women entrepreneurs?

There are broader systems across society that need to change when it comes to gender equality, just as there are when it comes to disability inclusion. Once again, where business goes, society will follow.

You are allowed to be angry about that fight for equality and use that anger to make a stand for a leveled playing field for everyone – regardless of disabilities, gender, ethnicity, sexuality.

Q: TaskQue is a productivity enhancement tool that helps managers in task management and boosts productivity and transparency. What do you think about the future of such productivity enhancement tools? What more should they incorporate to help us become more efficient?

Accessibility and inclusivity must be front and center in the human-centered design of such tools.

From live-captioning to screen-reading software, if such productivity enhancement tools can incorporate the elements which open themselves up to use by a diverse community, they will be the ones which teams can fully engage with.

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