One evening, I was watching “Girlboss,” a new comedy on television. I cracked up at the main character, Sophia, because she actually reminded me of…myself. She struggles to make a life in San Francisco after losing her job, trying to pay her rent and make ends meet. Just like me; I recently closed down my company and am trying to make ends meet. I won’t spoil the show for you, but there are many funny scenes in that show that hit home for me.
Just like Sophia, I am living by myself in a big city. I struggled to find a job, because I’m Deaf and despite my successful career, people were hesitant to hire me. I decided to take matters into my own hands, and launched Referrals by Robb — just like Sophia, who launched a fashion business on eBay.
Forming a company is an example of system development, which I studied in college. As the former founder and CEO of a hiking company, I worked with different individuals, who were all hearing. I am Deaf, and use American Sign Language (ASL). I had an assistant who was hearing. Whenever I shared my input, thoughts, and/or concerns, he often would dismiss me, even though he was not at the helm of the company. We would use instant messaging software to talk with each other, since his ASL was rudimentary and not easily understood, nor could he easily understand a fluent signer like me.
After understanding the complexities of audism, and accepting the fact that I could not change things, I decided to close the company. There were also other underlying reasons, but the primary reasons were simple.
First, I had the goal of seeing the company expand within five years. If it did not, I would change careers. Second, I believed that with modern-day accommodations such as video relay services and online messaging, people would be comfortable in communciating with Deaf people like me. This was not the case. For example, some companies were uncomfortable talking to me via video relay services.
Third, my assistant, who was hearing, blatantly overreached his position by using his hearing status as an advantage. I at first respected his opinions and input, especially given his older age and professed wisdom. However, now in retrospective, I realize I engaged in dysconscious audism — internalized attitudes that the hearing way is superior and better because I am Deaf. I was, simply put, steamrolled and bullied into thinking my expertise, knowledge, and skills were worthless because I was Deaf. Every time I asked my assistant, “What happened?” the answer I got was, “We have to work harder.” In reality, my mistake was putting all my trust in him to handle all calls, contacts, and so on. I should have had a check and balance system in place. It was a very difficult lesson for me, but one that will serve me well in my future endeavors.
After seven years, I was no longer interested in repeating this cycle, and I was miserably burned out. As a CEO, I didn’t even know who I was anymore. I felt as if I was wrong all the time, and I was embarrassed by my self-perceived weakness in allowing my staff to run the business without my discretion and final say. So I made a decision: I closed the company.
Although it was a very difficult decision, one that I still think about, I believe steadfastly that it was the right decision. As I watch Sophia learn from her experiences, I laugh not because it’s comical, but because I can absolutely relate and affirm what she experiences. I am grateful for the lessons I have learned, and I look forward to being a much stronger, more confident business owner this time around.