Learning Series | Corporate Volunteering With Be My Eyes

July 28, 2022

Ben (00:03): Thank you so much for joining us. I'm so excited about this interview. We're welcoming very special guest. His name's Will Butler with Be My Eyes. He's the CXO at Be My Eyes. Now some of you may be familiar with Be My Eyes, but it's a free mobile app and it has one really big goal. And that's to make the world more accessible for blind and low vision people. And the app really does a good job connecting blind and low vision individuals with volunteers like myself and companies from all over the world through a live video call. I've been someone that's gone to participate in these volunteer experiences at the corporate level. And it's pretty amazing. For example, I help someone navigate to find the bus stop, for example, and then I helped someone choose an outfit for that day or read part of a recipe.
Ben (00:45): And so doing these calls has been really special because I've had that human connection and that ability to volunteer in a really easy way, that makes a huge difference in someone's life. And so we're so excited that Will's here on the call to join us and share a little bit about his background, how special be my eyes is as well as talk to us a little bit about what a corporate volunteer experience looks like with Be My Eyes and what a dedicated day looks like, where volunteers are getting calls and supporting folks that are, have low vision or need sight support. And so Will, we appreciate you being here. Thank you so much. And maybe to kick things off for our listeners and our viewers, maybe share a little bit about, you know, your background and how you got into this work, and then we can dive into the, be my eyes piece.
Will (01:29): Sure. Thanks for having me Ben. And I'm, I'm really glad to hear that you've been answering calls and there really is sort of like no, no match for having that experience yourself. It's, it's, it's an exciting moment in, in anyone's day. Yeah, so, so myself, I I from California and I was trained as a journalist and then around the age of about 19, I became legally blind through a series of retinal detachment surgeries. And it's really when you legally blind or totally blind, or even just start developing low vision it's, it's a total mystery as to how you're going to adapt how you're going to adapt the, the, the way you live your life to do the things you want to do. But it really all boils down to an access to information problem.
Will (02:26): And whether it's you are using a white cane to explore your environment or using a dog to guide you to the places you're trying to get to or using an app, like be my eyes we're just trying to connect blind and low vision people with the information that they need so that they can make the decisions that they need to make about their life. So, yeah, I was, I was I was one of those people who, who spent many, many years sort of like not plugged in with blind community, not plugged in with skills. And that can be like a very lonely and isolating time. But then as soon as you get your hands on one of these adaptive tools, everything changes and suddenly you realize that there's solutions out there. So we try to put those solutions in people's hands and for our blind community, it's a hundred percent free.
Ben (03:23): Will, how did you discover be my eyes or what was that point in time? Where be my eyes came into your life?
Will (03:29): Well I was working at the time I had just started working at a non-profit that served blind and low vision folks in San Francisco called the lighthouse for the blind. And there was this buzz, there was all this buzz going on around 2015 because it was, it was just right around the time when people were starting to video chat on their smartphones. And these Danish guys showed up on our, on our doorstep in San Francisco and said, Hey, we created this app. And so I, I started working with the Be My Eyes team and advising and helping them out very early on in the process. And I'd like to think, you know, even before I was working at Be My Eyes, full-time, I, I kind of helped them, you know, guide the product and how they interact with the community. So I've really watched this community grow from a big community at first to now the biggest global blind community on any app,
Ben (04:29): Give us some numbers. Well, like how big are, is the number of people that are using this that are getting support? Like, what does that look like?
Will (04:35): Hundreds of thousands of, of blind and low vision people are getting help on this app. We're approaching half a million over 5 million volunteers which is like, you know, for references like bigger, you know, as big as like the salvation army, right? It's, it's just a massive, massive group of volunteers. We're definitely the biggest in terms of a micro volunteering community. And our app is running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, connecting people who need visual assistance with people who can offer it.
Ben (05:06): Yeah, it's amazing. And what blows me away is that there's that many people that have become individual volunteers that are aware of Be My Eyes and raised a hand going, I want to support. And I was one of those people, right. I was like an individual volunteer. And then I did for my very first time, this corporate volunteer experience that we have. And maybe while you can talk a little bit about that difference, cuz it was a very con there's a big contrast and difference between like the corporate volunteer experience, the number of calls I was getting during that day. And also just that ability to learn from you about what people that are have low vision or a blind are going through and like what some of those challenges are like in having the ability to like ask you some of those questions during that volunteer experience for our company. And so maybe if you could share a little bit about, you know, how this is different and what the experience looks like, that'd be super helpful for our listeners.
Will (05:55): Absolutely. Yeah. Our, our corporate volunteering or employee engagement experiences are, are, I think one of, sort of, one of the best kept secrets here be my eyes. They rose out of demand really, of, of groups coming to us say, we want to do more. We want to learn more about the platform we, we, we want to help however we can. And so what, what the essentially, when you, when you become just a regular individual volunteer on, be my eyes, you're joining this massive global queue, right? You're, you're signing up to be helpful when, when possible you don't know when you're going to get the calls and when they do come in, you might be busy. So that ends up resulting in, you know, our individual volunteers, only getting calls every couple of months on average. If they're lucky some folks go even a year without getting a call because of the nature of the randomness of it with the corporate volunteering, you actually get to pick a dedicated day when we can really guarantee that you will get a call.
Will (06:54): And it's just a matter of prioritizing your group in the queue. These are real be my eyes calls. We're not rigging them in any sort of way. These are real individuals that are in need of assistance. It's just that we're putting your group in the front and allowing you to get those calls during a certain window. So you're going to be able to sit, you know, whether you're a remote team hybrid or you know, entirely virtual or in person, you're going to be able to sit there, give the assistance, volunteer some of your time. It's not a huge lift. It's just, like you said, a matter of picking up that call, you know, explaining to someone what they're looking at. You might do that a few times in the day and really, you know, bond with your colleagues and talk to people who you work with or, or the people who are in your group about what you did.
Will (07:49): And it opens up all these conversations about, you know, what accessibility barriers did you, you know, help someone overcome? I didn't realize that I didn't even consider that this might be something that people with disabilities are encountering on a daily basis. Wow. I didn't even think about how our product might might intersect with a use case like this. It's caused me to think differently about inclusion. There's like a whole sort of wonderful set of conversations that can be opened from, from these calls. And then of course there's an educational aspect to it too, which is a, a, which I can explain a little bit about how our team will come and, and give a, a presentation and a training as well.
Ben (08:33): Yeah. Dive into that, that training a little bit too well, and just, I think, you know, as someone that's gone through it just the, the empathy that was generated, I've never, you know, put myself in the shoes of someone that's that struggled with that as a fully sided person. And I think just walking away, you know, with a lot more empathy towards people that have those situations and how they tackle those situations. And I think that, you know, coming through the learnings in that kickoff experience with you all, and then going through the training about how to best serve these folks, when I do get the calls was pretty amazing. So if you could touch on that a little bit and what makes that special be great.
Will (09:08): Yeah, I think I think that like, it's easy to have sympathy for people who are blind. But it, it's harder to have an understanding of what they're, you know, of what they're actually going through and how to be best of assistance. So what we do is we simply like bring our team in for experts on blindness and low vision and accessibility. And first and foremost, you know, get people excited, give you the founding story. It, be my eyes. Talk about, you know, introduce you to our, our founder who, you know, is visually impaired, tell his story and talk about why be my eyes will started in the first place. We're really mission focused company. People really respond to, you know, companies with a purpose. And then from there we really sort of try to demystify blindness and vision impairment and, and not make it so scary.
Will (10:07): You know, re make people realize that someone with low vision is just like you trying to accomplish the same things you're trying to accomplish in your day. They just need a pair of eyes occasionally or just a, a bit of visual information. So we try to destigmatize it a little bit so that when people who are volunteering pick up that phone they're not nervous. They they're able to just simply execute. And the fact of the matter is when game time comes it's, we have such a high satisfaction rating. Volunteers are always great and always rise to the occasion, no matter what the task is, but we do provide a certain level, you know, basic level of training about, you know, here's, here's, here's how you do it. Here's, here's what you do. If you get confused and we can, you know, provide a few materials as well, that kind of help you under, like, if you really want to be an overachiever, you can have a cheat cheat there to remind you of what the best way is to be, be might as volunteer. But the, the fact of the matter is it's an extremely simple way to volunteer. It's very intuitive. You're just looking at your phone screen and speaking aloud what you see, and that's, that's the whole task, but it will, it will leave you and your group feeling incredibly accomplished. And also like you've done something tangible, some do, some really provided some direct service to individuals who might be halfway across the world.
Ben (11:28): Yeah. The training was, was really helpful for me. Just simple things. I even think of like, what if I get on the phone and I can't solve the challenge that they have, right. Or the, the, the question that they're asking me, like, what do I do in those situations? So just like those basic things of that I wasn't thinking about in that training was really helpful for us. And to double click on something else you mentioned, what was just the connection I was having with my team members as people were getting calls. And so, like we were at our office, at least we're in a hybrid environment. So half of our company is in office, the other half's remote. And so people, you know, in our slack were like, posting just took a call. This is what the call was about. And everyone would like celebrate the call.
Ben (12:08): And then it was cool. I'm in our warehouse and the people that are sitting next to me, I could hear them getting calls and like would listen to them, answer those calls. And then that we'd all talk about the call they just had. And that was really special too. So like I, myself personally, I, I took like, you know, four calls which I felt was pretty amazing. That was a lot of calls that day. But I got to hear from other people about like, you know, 15 to 20 different calls. And I got to hear like five of those calls from other people take place. And so that, that connection that's taking place in office and remote with people sharing, and those conversations were really amazing piece of this. And having that all happen in one day, like something that's, that's really special. So I applaud you all for figuring that out. Cause it's pretty, it was a, I, I have very special experience for me.
Will (12:55): Yeah. I mean, look, it's really hard to organize a group volunteering activity. Even if all your people are in one place, right. And now with different schedules hybrid work environments, some people come in on certain days, it's extremely difficult to figure out how to make something that works. That works no matter where everyone is, no matter what time zone people are in no matter what language they speak, right. This is, this is a really unique virtual opportunity to volunteer that works, you know, even if you are also in person and the things you're helping people with are, you know, relatively mundane most of the time they're not private matters. Our users aren't using them for, you know, private things. It's, it's, it's simple tasks like reading labels and troubleshooting products, but it can have a big, big impact on, on your work no matter where you work.
Ben (13:49): Yeah, absolutely. And a, a final question for you while I'm curious, do you have a favorite call that you've done? Is there a favorite story you have of someone or maybe it's yourself or somebody else that's taken one of these calls?
Will (14:01): Oh man. There's so many great. I mean, we, we talk a lot about the example of, you know, people, people using it to, you know, submit job application, you know, find the submit button on the job application website. There's nothing more satisfying than that. The example I love is, is a guy who heard a noise in his backyard and he called to be my eyes volunteer. And the be my eyes volunteer, looked in his backyard for him and said, I don't see anything back there. It's just your dog. And the guy said, I don't have a dog
Ben (14:33): <Laugh>.
Will (14:34): And, and so he, he said, well, there's a dog in your rock yard. And he said, the guy said, does he look friendly? He said, oh yeah, he's wagging his tail and sitting there. So together they safely, you know, approached the dog and the volunteer helped the blind gentleman read the, the tags on the dog's collar. And the blind guy was actually able to return the dog to its owner which is just like to me, awesome. Because as a blind person myself, I am not going to go approach a dog and, and least of all approach a drug, find its owner, you know, read the tags on its call. These are things that like no AI is prepared to do just yet. Right. So I loved hearing that example and I can, I can imagine that both, both parties in that instance felt really awesome at the end of that experience.
Ben (15:26): Love that such a good story. And I know there's, there's so many others like that. Well, what are we not telling folks? Is there any other information we need to convey? During our time together?
Will (15:37): I mean, the fact of the matter is like, there's be, my eyes is, is a massive global community and we serve, there's a huge need to be served. So we're, like I said, we're running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So whenever your group wants to jump on and, you know, give your team a, an experience, they won't forget, even if it's just a, you know, a short window of time we can accommodate that. We can drop you in the queue. We can come and give an awesome training. And and I think like it, it's a real morale booster for teams of, of any size really. So I would encourage people to, to get involved and and, you know, reach out to us and, and try something new.
Ben (16:19): Well, thank you will for the, the work that you're doing and, and making a huge difference in so many lives. And for folks that have questions, we're going to make sure we provide your contact information for folks that are interested in becoming a volunteer or having their corporate group volunteer reach out to us directly. We'll also have information on our website about the, be my eyes program and hopefully more companies and more volunteers step up so we can create more amazing stories like the ones that will sharing. And it's an incredible experience. I can, you know, speak on it firsthand. So thank you will so much for taking the time out of your day to be here, to teach us a little bit about how special this experience is. And hopefully we'll have more people volunteering and I, myself, I know I'm going to keep trying to take as many of those calls as I possibly can, cuz it's pretty special.
Will (17:01): Thank you, Ben. Thanks for having me on. It's always great to.

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Andy VandenBerg
Andy VandenBerg is the co-founder and COO of WeHero where he works closely with hundreds of companies to help them reach their social impact goals. Andy speaks actively about the importance of aligning strategy with social responsibility and how companies can pursue both purpose and profit. Andy’s past experience includes private equity and family office investing. If he’s not in front of his computer, you can find him in the Pacific Ocean or Lake Michigan.
Ben Sampson
Ben Sampson is the co-founder and CEO of WeHero where he works closely with hundreds of companies to help them reach their social impact goals. Ben speaks actively about corporate social responsibility, volunteerism, sustainability, and how companies united with activism drive powerful change. Ben’s past experience includes leading product teams, building startups, and studying sustainable business strategy at Harvard. In his free time, he’s an avid outdoor enthusiast focused on skiing, surfing, and mountain biking.

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