While we’re getting ready for season 2 of the Penny Forward podcast, we’re rerunning some of our most popular episodes. This week, Byron Lee tells us how he found the right job, the right home, and started a business with a little help from his friends. Check out Byron's web site at https://www.superblink.org The Penny Forward podcast is about blind people building bright futures one penny at a time. Subscribe using your favorite podcast app, ask your smart speaker to play the podcast, “Penny Forward”, check out the Penny Forward YouTube channel, or visit pennyforward.com
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Male Announcer: Welcome to the Penny Forward podcast. Penny Forward is a community of people who are blind, their families, and friends who share an interest in financial independence. Join us now, as we meet people like us, who are working toward their own success.
Chris: My guest today is Byron Lee. Byron has been a close friend of mine for many, many years, and he's really accomplished a lot, especially in the last five. I'm really proud of him, and he's on today to tell us his story. Byron, thanks for being here.
Byron: Well thanks for having me, Chris. I'm really excited about being on your show.
Chris: Well, I am too. I think you have a great story. And let's just dive right into it, shall we? What was your life like, let's say right after high school? Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
Byron: I did. So I actually had a really interesting experience in high school. I was working with vocational rehab as I was finishing up high school and transitioning into college age, and I told my vocational rehab counselor that I had two main passions in life, and that one of them was broadcasting, working with audio, doing the whole radio thing, and the other was working with blind kids, or just blind people in general. Helping them with technology, or something like that. I was asking the vocational rehab counselor, "Based on your experience, which is the best path to take?" And their response was, "Well, you clearly don't know what you want to do with your life, so we're gonna have you go to community college and take a career decisions class." And of course, I was young at the time, and not really aware of my rights as a blind person, and not aware of the fact that I can advocate for myself, and say, "No. I gave you two things that I want to do, and I'm asking for your advice." And it's within their right to say, "Well, it's not my job to give you advice," and then just have me make my decision, right? But they didn't do that. They just kind of went, "You don't know what you want to do with your life, so here. Here's a college course you can take." The original plan was that I was gonna go to community college, and then eventually go to some university and get some kind of degree either in broadcasting or in TVI working with the visually impaired. And that ended up not happening because I moved across state lines for love. And so I was in a position where I was on social security, and I didn't have a job, and I didn't really have a clear path in life anymore, because the path that I had laid out for myself in high school had kind of gotten disrupted by other things. And so I had done some odd jobs like washing dishes at a restaurant, and doing some freelance work with helping people with technology in their homes, and doing some audio stuff with ACB Radio. That's kind of my early life in a nutshell. And that's kind of the time that I met you.
Chris: So, then what happened?
Byron: Well, you and I were at a ham radio convention. We were rooming together, and I was talking to you about how I felt like I was directionless. And I didn't know what to do. I wanted to work with blind people or get into radio, or do something. I wanted to have a job. ‘Cause I was tired of meeting other blind people, or sighted people, and having them ask me, "So what do you do?" And me go, "Um, well, I'm on social security, but I volunteer for this radio station." And I really wanted to get off my butt, and get off of social security, and start working. And so I reached out to the vocational rehab system in Illinois, where I was living at the time, and said, "Hey. I really would like to get into maybe like an adjusting to blindness course or something," and also, like I felt like I could have used some help with some of my mobility training, and I wanted to really bone up on my Jaws skills, and things like that. So I felt like going to a blindness center was the appropriate thing to do at the time. ‘cause I had no other prospects. I ended up going to ICRE Wood in Chicago. I ended up leaving Icre Wood after about three to six months, somewhere in there, and I was directionless again. And I didn't know what I was gonna do. I got a phone call from a lady named Camiel Caferelli, who owns an organization called "Horizons For the Blind." And she was having a weekender's event, which was a Chicago blind social group. I was asked to give a presentation at the Weekenders about how to shop and sell things on ebay. A friend of Camiel's named Leanne, who I was actually living with at the time, had recommended me as a speaker for her event. And I asked her if there were any positions available at Horizons, and she said "Well, let me get back to you on that." And I didn't hear back from her for about four months, but in that time, she started a project called directionsforme.org, which was a website where you could look up the directions for food products or medical products or whatever. You could find out the callories, you could find out the ingredients, you could find out if there were any allergins, all of the packaging instructional information that you would find on the side of a box or a can would be on this website. directionsforme.org. And so then they were suddenly in need of someone who was a techy. And so I got a phone call, she had looked at my resume, and she was interested in having me come in for an interview, and so I started working at Horizons for the Blind in late 2009, and I worked there until mid 2016.
Chris: That was kind of a big change in your life too, wasn't it?
Byron: Oh definitely. Because like I said, I was doing a lot of volunteer work, and I was doing a lot of freelance technology work, but I was essentially directionless. I didn't have a job, and I was really depressed about it. I was just really wanting to be able to tell people, "Oh, I work at bla bla bla" when they asked me. And instead, I had to tell them, "I'm on social security." And it made me feel really low, because I felt like I was lesser than when I was in a group of my peers. And so to finally have a job was just amazing. And one of the benefits to this job was that there was a low income housing facility right down the street from Horizons. Somebody somewhere was looking out for me, because I actually managed to get into this apartment complex, and it was the first time I ever lived on my own. Up until then, I had always had roommates. And so this was the first time I ever had my own four walls. And I remember the first day I ... (Chuckle.) The first day I ever went into my new apartment, I sat on the floor, and I stroked the carpet, and I said "It's mine." (Laugh.) It was such a cool feeling.
Chris: So, you were there from 2009 until 2016 you said?
Byron: Yeah. And I did a lot of stuff for them. so like I did the directionsforme website, I also worked on their regular website, the horizons-blind.org website, I helped them with their blog, I also did things like the UPS desk, I worked on their phone system, I did their audio equipment for their staff meetings and weekender events, I was the one that would always set up the speakers and all that, so I had a lot of responsibilities at Horizons.
Chris: Did you ever feel like you were not qualified or that you didn't know how to do those jobs?
Byron: Yeah. Definitely. There were times when we were working on building things, and sometimes I doubted my ability, and sometimes I would have to really go on a google learning binge to really understand what they were ... They would ask me to do things like, "Can you make these PDF'S accessible?" So I had to go and learn everything there was to know about PDFUA. There were definitely times where I felt like I didn't know what I was doing. I had a pretty good amount of support there, but there were definitely times when I'm like, "What am I doing?"
Chris: When you left, how did that change the way you felt about yourself from when you started?
Byron: When I got to Horizons, I felt kind of underqualified and not sure if I was employable. (Chuckle.) You know, I just ... I'd spent so much time out of the work force that I wasn't sure if I was gonna cut it in an office environment. And then when I left Horizons, I felt much more sure of myself and confident in my skills. Enough so that I was able to get to the point where I had applied for a much more prominent job position.
Chris: Talk about that.
Byron: So in 2016, I went to the American Counsel of the Blind national convention, and you and I went to the Blind Information Technology Specialists' luncheon. And we had gotten sat down right next to David Tanner, who was your old computer instructor from high school. Is that correct?
Chris: He was actually my sister's.
Chris: Yeah. He was actually my sister's, and I had worked with him a little bit as an instructor after high school at a couple of summer programs. So we were acquainted with each other, but not particularly well.
Byron: Right. So you guys at least kind of had a little bit of a repore, so when you started talking with him, he kind of opened right up and started talking about this job that he was filling in for. It wasn't his main gig, you know, he mostly works, most of the time, his full time job is to work with people who want to get jobs, or who are working, and they need computer training or they need to have something assessed for accessibility or whatever. So he was filling in for senior services unit, training seniors on how to use their technology, until they could find someone to hire on a permanent basis. So he was going on about how he's going into people's homes, and he's training them how to use technology, and my ears keep perking up. You know, I'm like, "This sounds awesome. This sounds like it's right up my alley." But Chris, you were asking all kinds of questions about it. So I'm thinking, "Oh, Chris wants the job. Well, I'm just gonna back off. It sounds like it's right up my alley, but I'm just gonna back off and let him go for it. cause he's taken the initiative, he probably wants the job, so I'm just gonna back off." And then right after you're finished asking Dave all your questions, you say, "Byron, you should apply for this job. You'd be awesome at it." (Laugh.)
Chris: Yes I did. (Laugh.) And then what happened?
Chris: Well you told me, "As soon as this luncheon is over, you should call State Services for the Blind in Minnesota. You should call them and just ask to speak with the manager of that department about the job." And so I did. I called Ed Letcher, he's my boss, and I said "Hey, I just found out about this job from David Tanner, I'm really interested, I'd really like to meet with you guys and see if I would be a good fit." I got a phone interview, they liked what they heard, and so I scheduled an in person interview, and I went over night from Chicago to St. Paul, and I had my interview. I actually got to do a mock training with someone, so one of my co-workers wore these vision simulators where it would make them feel like they had glocoma, or macular degeneration, or some other eye condition, so they would blur their vision, and they sat in front of an iPad, and the goal was, "How do I forward an E-mail to another person, and how do I reply to an E-mail?" And so we were working with the iPad. The reason I got hired was, Ed told me, "You got chosen because the way you trained your student was that you didn't touch the iPad at all. You took a strictly verbal stance on the training, and you walked them through everything verbally." And if I did have to explain where something was physically on the screen, I didn't point at it and say "right here," I would describe where it was on the screen. So I would say, "On the lower left hand corner." Or, "On the right hand side, about an inch from the bottom of the screen." And then they would feel for it, and then they would find it. And so he really liked that I would describe things and not grab the iPad and try to show them how to do it myself. That was the big reason why I got hired.
Chris: We'll hear the conclusion of this interview in a moment, but first, a brief word from our sponsor.
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Chris: So, talk about the process of, now that you're hired, moving from Illinois to Minnesota and starting a job.
Byron: They were willing to reimburse me my moving costs, but I would need to go there and start first. And then they would pay me back. So I ended up starting a go fund me to help raise money for the move. I also had a couple of good friends that were willing to donate large amounts of money, and I paid them back, so between some friends, who kind of gave me large chunks of money, and other people who donated to my Go Fund me, I was able to raise the money to move. And then Chris over here, … (Chuckle.) Chris and his wife Kelly were kind enough to let me stay with them for awhile while I waited for my apartment to become available, so I had a place to stay for the short term, and they also helped me move into my apartment. So I ended up getting a pod where they drop it off in front of your house, you fill it up, and then they come back and get it, and drive it to where you're gonna be. But it was scarey because I was leaving a very comfortable situation. My income was low, but I had subsidized housing. I was kind of used to, or comfortable with, my station as it were, and this new job was a big unknown. I had never really spent a whole lot of time in Minneapolis. I had visited it a couple of times, but I didn't know if I was gonna like living there. I had you and Kelly as friends, and I had Michael and a few other people as friends, but I didn't really know if I was gonna make friends there or not. And so it was scarey. But I knew that I wanted to make more money, and that I wanted to work towards eventually owning my own home, and so I made the jump, and I moved to Minnesota, and I've been here for almost five years now.
Chris: And you did end up owning your own home, didn't you?
Byron: I did. So we end up jumping forward a couple years. So I lived in an apartment, a nice little one-bedroom apartment, right next to a gas station, right next to a train station, right outside of a bus stop. I lived there for a couple of years. It was great, but the apartment was getting a little cramped. And I was getting a lot of stuff. You know, making more money sometimes means acquiring more stuff. And also just having afeeling of wanting to be able to spread out more. I wanted to be able to have guests. You know, I just wanted to expand and have more. But anyway, eventually I moved into my own house. I ended up working on getting my credit score to a position where I was eligible for a first time home buyer loan. I worked with a realter and a financial company to secure the loan, and to find the house, and Chris and Kelly looked at a couple of places. I had narrowed it down to a couple of places and they had looked at them too, so I could get kind of a second opinion. And I finally settled in on a place that makes me pretty happy. It's actually a suite house. I have a full size basement with an office, I have a main floor with a living room and a kitchen, and then I have two bedrooms and a bathroom. So it's awesome. I've really enjoyed owning my own home.
Chris: You talked about what it was like to walk into your first apartment for the first time. What was it like to walk in to your home, your first home, for the first time?
Byron: Oh, it was awesome. Like I said, when I walked into my apartment, I walked in, I sat on the floor and I stroked the carpet and I said "It's mine." Well, when I owned the house, like it was my house. I wasn't renting it from anyone. I felt an even deeper sort of bond to the house, or connection to it. You know, I walked in, I kind of touched the walls, and I'm like, "I can do whatever I want. I can tear this wall down. Or I can hang stuff off of it. I can paint it. This is my house. And aside from the rules that I have to obey with my home owners' association as far as the outside goes, you know, if I want to paint the walls plaid, well, that's my prerogative and I can do that. (Laugh.) If I want to hurt my resale value, I can do that. So, yeah. I love owning my own house. I definitely don't like some of the aspects of owning a home that are a bit of a pain in the butt, like replacing breaking devices or appliances, but I'll tell you what. When an oven breaks, or when a washer breaks, and both of those broke this month. When you get a new appliance, holy crap is it exciting!
Chris: Talk more about the breaking appliances.
Byron: So, I had a really old oven from the eighties. And it worked for about a year. And then one night, we were making a meat loaf, and it just wouldn't fire. I had somebody come take a look at it. I have what's called a home warranty, and so what that means is, if an appliance breaks, ... you pay a certain amount per month or per year, and if an appliance breaks, they will come out and repair it. If they can't repair it, then they will assess whether or not they can cover buying you a new one. Well, my oven broke. And so I had somebody come out and fiddle around with it, and he said, "Well, this oven's really old. We're just gonna put in for a new one." Well, they couldn't find a serial number on that oven anywhere. And I went through issues with management, trying to get them to get me a new oven, I went through the gammot. They were just basically not having it. They were not giving me a new oven. And one thing that happened is while that guy was in there looking for the serial number, he must have knocked something loose off the ... There must have been some soot on the burner or something, because all of a sudden the oven started working again. So I got another like 6 months out of it. It was getting really unreliable, so I finally just bit the bullet and bought my own oven. So that was a big hit. Because I wasn't expecting to have to buy a new oven 'cause I had a home warranty. And so I figured any appliances that need replacing should be covered, but for whatever reason, that one wasn't. The washer broke, there was an appliance number on it, there was plenty of documentation on that washer, they were able to replace it, so I ended up actually opting to get a check. Because I wanted a washer sooner than they could deliver one. And so I said "Just send me a check, and I'll buy the washer out of pocket and then I'll just reimburse myself with the check." And so the check should be coming in about a week or two now.
Chris: So what's coming up next for you?
Byron: I will tell you, there is actually a new venture that I have just started, that I'm really excited about. I have this little company that I've started called Superblink. You might have heard commercials for it on this podcast. Essentially it is an audio editing and consultation company. So if you've got a podcast or a radio show, or a radio station, and you want imaging for it, like ID'S and bumpers and stuff, I can help you guys make that happen. Chris Peterson with "Penny Forward," and Roy Samuelson with the "Know Your Narrator" podcast are among my first couple of customers, and I'm hoping to get more.
Chris: Well that's great. Well Byron, thank you so much for telling your story. Before we go, what advice would you give to other people that are maybe not as far along as you are?
Byron: I would say fake it until you make it. Sometimes just having confidence in yourself, and knowing that no matter what the obstacle is, if you believe that you can do it, and you have confidence in yourself that you can do it, then the rest will fall into place. Don't worry so much about the tiny details of, "Well what if this breaks? Or what if that dies? Or what if I'm not good enough? Or what if people don't believe in me? What if people don't want to work with me?" You're never gonna know if your idea, or your business, or your job prospect is gonna actually work out unless you get off your butt and do it. So don't make the mistake that I made of sitting around for too long doubting yourself. Because once I got out there and just started applying for stuff, and just started trying for things, stuff actually worked out. Like people liked me as a person, or liked my work ethic, or liked my way of training, and were willing to hire me despite the little voices in my head that were telling me, "You're not good enough."
Chris: That's great advice. Thanks again for being here, Byron.
Byron: Well thanks, Man. I really appreciate it. Now I'm gonna go edit this, so I'll talk to you later.
Chris: I hope you have enjoyed this week's interview, and will join us again next time. But before you go, when you reach the end of a pay period, do you have no money left over, and wonder where it all went? Might be time to write it down. "Budget" is a very strong word, that evokes very strong feelings for a lot of people. And I'm not suggesting that you make a budget that limits what you spend. I am suggesting, however, that you write down all of the bills that you need to pay to meet your basic needs. I want to repeat that again because it's very important. Write down the amounts of all of the bills that you need to pay, to meet your basic needs. Subtract that from the amount of money that you make each month. There should be a difference. If there's not a difference, then you may need to consider making some major changes in your life in order to make sure that there is a difference. If, however, there is a difference, then it's important to think very hard about how you spend that money. Do you buy cigarettes? Do you go out to eat two or three times a week? Do you spend money on lots of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and Paramount plus that you hardly ever watch? Maybe you can cut a few of those things out, and put some of that money into savings. Over a very long period of time, little tiny bits of money put into savings will help you to accumulate wealth. And, accumulating wealth helps us to weather hard times, take advantage of rare opportunities, and more powerfully support causes that we deeply care about.
Chris: That concludes this episode of the Penny Forward podcast. Penny Forward is a community of people who are blind, their families, and friends, who share an interest in financial independence. Join us, and we will work together to avoid financial obstacles and target our goals. To learn more, visit
Until next time, I’m Chris Peterson. Thanks for listening.