Speaker 1: Forward, forward, left, find the door.
Speaker 2: There are over four million working aged blind and visually impaired people in the United States, and over two million of these people are unemployed. This is a staggering statistic, but many people defy these odds and are happily and gainfully employed, and we wish to share their stories with the world.
Speaker 3: Hello, and welcome to Vision Towards Success. The podcast that highlights stories of career development and lived experience. This podcast is brought to you by the Polus Center for Social and Economic Development. In our program, we feature employment success stories from visually impaired individuals, for people with disabilities and their allies in hopes of showing just how smart, hardworking, and capable this diverse community is.
David Gonzalez: Welcome to Vision Toward Success. My name is [David Gonzalez 00:01:31] and with us today is our guest Hoby wedler, a PhD chemist, entrepreneur, and sensory expert. Now, we will hear from our interviewer [Chantel Zuzi 00:01:44] and our guest Hoby Wedler.
Chantel Zuzi: Hoby, thank you so much for being here. It's just really a privilege to have the opportunity to interview you today.
Hoby Wedler: Chantel, thank you so much. It's really an honor to be with you and to be able to chat and provide any feedback I can to your listeners, but most importantly, to meet a bunch of great people from the East Coast.
Chantel Zuzi: Can you tell us about yourself, where you grew up and where you went to school?
Hoby Wedler: Absolutely. So I was born completely blind and of course still am. I was raised in Petaluma, California, which is just north of San Francisco, about 40 miles. To create some context, Petaluma is at the Southern end of Sonoma County. And you might have heard of Sonoma County because if you enjoy wine or have heard about the wine industry, a lot of wine from California comes from Sonoma and Napa, which are counties right near each other. Sonoma is just west of Napa County. I grew up with two incredible parents and one incredible brother who is two years older than me. So really incredible opportunity to be raised by people who just understood me and what I could do in a really profound way and who embraced my independence so much. It was hard for my parents to deal with my blindness, I think for a little while, but with the help of a foundation called the Blind Babies Foundation, which is an independent nonprofit here in Northern California, they were able to raise me and feel totally comfortable and confident in what they did and how they worked with me.
I will say that when I was born for about 12 hours, my mom was really... Both my parents were really concerned. I don't know how are we going to work with a blind son, and this is going to be a lot of work. And my mom said, oh, I guess I better call my childhood friend who was also a great friend of my dad's and... Actually my mom's best friend from college is who this was. And she picked up the phone, dialed a friend, [Barb 00:04:01] and Barb's husband Steve answered the phone. And my mom's friend Barb on the back end could only hear Steve saying, "Oh no. Oh, wow. Oh, that's so hard. What are we going to do? Oh no." And Barb being the person she is, who wants to know the answer right away, grab the phone from her husband and said, "What's wrong. What's going on?"
And my mom said into the receiver, well, Hoby was born, but it looks like he's blind and probably won't gain his sight back. And Barb said, "Oh, what a relief blind we can deal with, based on the way Steve was talking, I thought he was dead." And the thing there is that she actually was raised by her father who was best friends with someone who was totally blind and independent and did all the work around their house and just was, he was the handyman and that was his thing. He was also a professor of psychology in Arizona and she just, blind was fine. Blind was no big deal to her because she was raised with a blind person close at hand who was super successful. So it's amazing how being around someone who is also blind can shatter our low expectations and just make us feel totally comfortable with blindness in general. So I think that's huge.
And that story is something I think about when I think about blindness and what, basically help my parents say, okay, we're just going to do this. There's nothing wrong with our son. We're going to be the best parents of a blind child we can possibly be. And boy, they were also tell you that I was in regular education all the way through my schooling. I attended public school. Elementary school was a school called Cherry Valley School, went there from kindergarten through sixth grade, and Petaluma Junior High and Petaluma High School had a great experience in the Petaluma education system. And then ended up going on to the University of California, Davis for both my undergraduate and graduate studies.
Chantel Zuzi: Thanks so much for sharing. I can really imagine having a blind child, that can be very intimidating, but really... I'm so glad that your parents got that courage and they were like, we can do this. Speaking of school, what assistive technology did you use in school?
Hoby Wedler: It's interesting, I used... In the beginning, I used a Perkins Braille Writer or Perkins Brailer, which I know was developed in your state in elementary school to write out papers that I would write. I would just write hard copies and then to do math problems, to write down my scientific findings, et cetera. And it wasn't really until probably fifth grade that I started using my first note taker, which was a braille and speak. And then in seventh grade I moved on to a Braille Light. I believe also a freedom scientific product later in high school, moved on to use a BrailleNote, and all the way through college I actually used a Braillenote PK, and now I'm using a HIMS Polaris after college. For my note taker, I learned to type when I was in, starting in probably fourth grade, my parents were... I grew up in the time...
I was born in 87, just a broad context. And the early 90s when I was going through school and growing up was a time when computers were just up and coming, so it was... The Perkins Brailer was still very much the fashionable thing to use, but I did learn to type pretty early on because my parents were progressive and my dad actually worked with computers for his job as a communications technician. So he was thought it was really important that my brother and I learn computers and learn to type, that was a great experience. And yeah, started using a laptop with JAWS for Windows in eighth grade, ninth grade, typed a lot of my own papers. I really became well versed in technology when I graduated high school and needed it to get through college.
That was when I was using my Braille note taker and my computer. Moved a little more towards my computer for most work that I would do. My note taker was literally what I would use in class to take notes and what I'd use as my calculator and all that, but used my computer for most things. When I went to graduate school and studied computational chemistry, it was all computer based and I did... I used 3D printing, which I consider an assistive technology there as well, might be more mainstream, but I used it in an assistive manner, for sure. And now as an entrepreneur, I'm all on my computer. That's what I do.
Chantel Zuzi: Wow. Did you know anyone who was blind or visually impaired in your college or in your community?
Hoby Wedler: I did. I knew quite a few people. It wasn't a huge thing for me to... It wasn't a big part of my upbringing that I exclusively hung out with people who were blind originally impaired, but I definitely knew some people my age who were blind, but also even while I was growing up, my mom's first cousin was actually married to [Mike May 00:09:40], who was a blind skier and a guy who gained a little bit of his sight back he's... You probably have heard of him in the blindness community. May have heard of him in the blindness community. He was actually a role model for me and my parents. So that was great. And then I did some work with National Federation of the Blind when I went to their first science camp where we actually... As a high school student, I worked with 11 other high school students to build, assemble and launch at 10 and a half foot rocket off of one of NASA's launch pads at Wallops Island, which is a space flight center.
So that was incredible. That was a real opportunity that got me in touch with a lot of blind folks who I stayed in touch with throughout college. Yes. Some blind folks came in and out of the university that I was at. I befriended some of them, and yeah it was... I definitely knew blind people, and a lot of them were role models as I grew up. What I would say is that observing blind scientists and engineers and whatnot in their workplace and working hard and getting things done was really inspiring to me, telling me that I could if I wanted to do the same type of stuff.
Chantel Zuzi: We all need that. We all need role models to look up for. Did you work during your time, when you were in college ? And how was it finding a job while being blind or visually impaired?
Hoby Wedler: It's a good question. I actually worked for myself even in college, I tutored chemistry. It's a little harder sometimes to show people that, Hey, I'm blind, but I can help you just as same as anyone else with your chemistry. We'll just talk about it and instead of looking at diagrams and me drawing stuff for you to see, we will just talk about things. All the way through my undergraduate work, I tutored chemistry, and would just go into classrooms. I started doing it for free actually, and said, Hey, if you need help with your chemistry, I'm starting this out. This is in general chemistry where I started the year after I took general chemistry. And yeah, I was just there and I would help.
I had my office out when I would tutor. I also would meet with people one on one and that let people know, okay, this guy can actually do what he says he can do. And then eventually I worked with some of those same students as they worked their way up into organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry. And then I charged per hour eventually because people knew what I could do, and they were convinced that it was worth it. We have to show people what we can do in a positive manner that they can follow and understand and connect with so that they will believe in us and hire us and trust that we will do the job that we say we can do. So, yeah, I think it's definitely something we have to work on as a society, but yeah, it's harder.
You have to fit a mold. What I would say is that, particularly at the nearing the end of my graduate tenure and after graduate school, I pretty much knew that I had a desire to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to work for myself, and I wanted to use business entities that I created to solve problems. I did apply at a few positions as a sensory person, and really as a translator between scientific researching development teams at some large food companies and their sales and more marketing teams that really communicated with the public and the consumer. It was a really productive thing to apply for, I didn't necessarily get those positions because people, again, didn't know what they'd need to do to accommodate me. And that's one of the things that I think is really unfortunate and something that I think about a lot and worry about, frankly, is that, I think that one of the reasons that it's harder to find employment when you're blind is that it's not necessarily that people question what we can do.
It's them being worried about what accommodations we are going to demand and what they're going to have to accommodate us with under the ADA. I think they're scared of that. And I just wish we could take away all that fear and say, just work with us. We will be trustworthy, great people, and we can do what we say we can do and if we need a hand with something, we will let you know and get the proper assistance that we need. So to me, it's really interesting the cycle and why people have a hard time maybe understanding what it means to have blind people on their staff. But I think we just have to show them that we work hard, we will let you know if and what we need, and there's really no problem.
The thing that I think is a bit problematic there is that people in the past have maybe ask for more than they need and threatened with lawsuits and this sort of thing. There are places where that stuff is needed, but I think that we need to be careful when we use those tools and play those cards, because I think they can scare people. They can make people really fearful. And I just want to be careful that we don't scare employers away from hiring us on and making us a part of their team. So answer your question, yes, finding work can be hard, but I love working for myself where I can just explain what works for me and get clients for my consulting company and start other companies where it's not a big deal or I can work.
Chantel Zuzi: Wow. Amazing. And why did you major in science? What inspired you to pursue becoming a scientist?
Hoby Wedler: Its good question. It was a desire to teach science that did it. I think most people, or a lot of people, I shouldn't say most, like a lot of people, I was really inspired by a high school science teacher. My chemistry teacher was an amazing, amazing teacher and just got me so excited about chemistry. It was an interesting experience though, because she was one of these people who to the whole class would talk so positively about chemistry. This is the science of life of atoms and molecules. This is the science of what you eat and what you breathe. This is really the science that makes the world what it is, you should be excited about this. And then she would lecture and we would take notes and then we'd go into the lab and put what we learned into practice.
And it was all great. She was also the one who would tell me, before and after school or during tutorial when I would get assistance from her, yeah, and I'd say, "Hey, I listen to you, I think I do want to study chemistry." Do you think this is the right path for me? She would say, [inaudible 00:17:20], there are going to be a lot of issues that come across and I don't know how this is going to work for you. Okay. That's really too bad and hard to hear. I thought, well, maybe chemistry isn't right. But I just loved it. I loved the material too much to let it go. And I said, I know I can convince her that it makes sense for me to stay in chemistry and go on and study chemistry in college.
By the way, wow... What I got into that chemistry class, I tested into honors chemistry, and she had had me as a physical... The instructor had me as a student in physical science when I was a freshman. And when I tested into honors chemistry and [inaudible 00:18:02] reaction was, oh, okay. How do we make this work? I worked with her to put together a plan where I would find an assistant who would be with me in the lab and help me take notes and that sort of thing. And we worked with the district office and found someone who took the class before me, the year before me, who was an excellent assistant and did a lot of work with me. It just made sense. It just worked out. So that was a great opportunity where she felt comfortable with me in the lab.
Anyway, that was a digression from the fact that I knew that I could convince her by the second semester that, Hey, this chemistry does make sense and chemistry doesn't have to be so visual. And then I figured it out, I figured out what I was going to do. And I went to her classroom, it was during... I still remember it was early in the morning before school started, when I went in and she literally was in her room getting ready and I said, "You always tell me that chemistry is a visual science, and it's going to be hard for me to study it, but I've got to tell you that nobody can see atoms. So I think chemistry is really a cerebral science, a science that we think about and we might use our eyesight just to understand when a few chemical changes may happen, but not for everything, because we can't see that much of electromagnetic spectrum."
So what else is happening beyond what we can see there's a lot, and I want to study chemistry. And she said, "Okay, you've got a really good point, none of us can see atoms and you may have an advantage there." So from that point forward, she became and still a is to this day, a 100% ally of mine and supporter of my goals and mission to succeed in chemistry. So that's been an incredible relationship. I always wanted to teach. I thought that I really wanted to teach chemistry. I didn't know that chemistry was going to be the right field for me, I basically wanted to teach. I wanted to be an academics and I wanted to give back as a teacher. I didn't really ever have a desire to be a career researcher, where I would study chemistry and have a research group and really be a researching professor.
I really wanted to be a teaching professor. That was always my goal. And I had the opportunity quite, frankly, of teaching some chemistry during graduate school. And parts of it were not as accessible as I thought. And I can talk about that in a bit, but that's what made me decide that I'm definitely chemist. I study chemistry, I think about chemistry, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I'm just not necessarily a... It's not what I do day to day now, I'm an entrepreneur, but I still use chemistry in my work.
Chantel Zuzi: And what would you tell someone who is visually impaired or blind and want to pursue science and have had so many negativity from people and they want to give up?
Hoby Wedler: I'd say you have to believe, you have to have a will that knows this is what you want. If you have that will, and you have that desire to push forward and succeed and do something to the best of your ability, you will be able to achieve that, you will absolutely be able to achieve. And you have to believe in yourself, really. I wrote an article about... Is entitled, five mindset to overcome challenges and raise expectations. And these are the mindsets that I took on while in school that allowed me to succeed in science, and also the ones that I use every day to drive myself and push myself forward as an entrepreneur, it's really about knowing that you can do it and putting your mind to the task and getting it done, getting it accomplished, whatever you set your mind to.
And if you want to be a scientist, if you want to study science and give back to the scientific community, you will absolutely be able to. That is first and foremost, you just need to push yourself and tell yourself that you'll be able to do it. And it be able to explain to people calmly and casually what you can do and why you want to be a scientist and what you're working on in order to become a scientist so that they have full understanding of you, what your goals are, and... If someone doesn't... The biggest pushback you're ever going to get from negativity, I don't think comes from people who are really discriminatory, saying, no, you're blind, you can't study science. It's just a lack of knowledge. It's a level of ignorance of what we have for tools available to us.
You're going to find yourself working with a lot of sighted assistance, you need to plan that out. Well, I did a lot of work with sided folks, as my lab assistant, as my reader and assistant academically, you'll have to work with people. And you'll have to ask people to read measurements from lab equipment, and you'll have to work with someone to [inaudible 00:23:33] probably, I'm not saying definitely you'll probably have to work with someone to prepare your lab reports and make them look pretty once the experiments are done, and you might need a hand reading the textbook and having figures described to you. But if you do it and you believe in yourself and you have a stubborn will, you can just push right through and get it done and feel really good about it. And I think that one of the things that's so important for blind scientists, or for anyone focusing on any career is, if you have the desire and the passion to do something, you can do it.
And if you have people telling you, you can't, if you want to do it bad enough, just figure out why they're not right. And explain to them that this is what you want to do, this is what makes sense for you, and just push forward with it. Just knowing, knowing your heart that this is what you want. And talk to people like me, talk to people around you who have done things that are similar and you will push forward and you will succeed.
Chantel Zuzi: Thank you so much. That's a great advice and I'm sure that's many will agree with me. How has it been for you to work as a scientist? Has that been a good experience? And what is the most favorite part of your job? And what is the least favorite part of your job?
Hoby Wedler: Yeah. That's a great question. Thank you for that. As I said before, my goal was to teach chemistry. That's what I wanted to do. And that's why I earned my PhD in chemistry. While in graduate school, I had the pleasure of teaching some chemistry classes, and my goal wasn't to teach advanced chemistry, I wanted to get people excited early on about science and about chemistry. So I wanted to walk into a full lecture hall of freshman chemistry students at 8:00 AM on a Monday morning during the fall semester, everybody is just gotten done with summer, they're not really feeling like being back at school or being at school for the first time if they're freshman, I wanted to walk into that classroom where 90 plus percent of the students don't even want to be there. It's not their core class they need to take for them...
It's not a class they want to be in, it's just a prerequisite for whatever their major that they are interested in requires. And I wanted to be go into those classrooms and turn chemistry from a boring, difficult, daunting subject into one of their most exciting classes and get a few of them to say... I wouldn't say all of them, but enough of them to say, wow, this is interesting. And think about maybe studying chemistry further, because I was impassioned by a great teacher and I wanted to do the same thing for students who I worked with, as well. I had the pleasure of teaching a couple of chemistry classes, freshman chemistry classes while in graduate school. I don't know if it's unfortunately, or just the fact of the matter, but students, I learned quite quickly don't speak chemistry anymore, they don't read the textbook before class, they want to see pretty picture and nice video animations of concepts.
So I was spending a lot of my time and money, frankly, working with assistants to put together these animations and pictures for them to look at. But then I would have to spend a great deal of time working with my assistants to memorize these presentations so that I could present them coherently and make sense to the students I was teaching, it wasn't really fun for me because I had to get so much assistance, students said that I spoke too much, I spoke too quickly and didn't use enough pictures, even though I was really trying to pictures. And it became a challenge for me, honestly, if I'm being totally honest to teach chemistry.
So that's why I really became an entrepreneur when I graduated with my degree in chemistry. I went into food and beverage, which is an industry that I had done some work in before, hopefully we can talk about that in a little bit, how I got involved with that, but I do a lot of scientific work as a sensory expert in the food and beverage space, and a little bit of chemistry in the product design space, as I design products to be truly appealing to all the senses. My favorite part of my job is working with people and getting them excited, I still give back in education sphere all the time.
I get so excited whether it's entrepreneurial or scientific, but my passion is getting people excited about things they didn't know they could be excited about. That is really my big goal and my passion. And that's what I love about my job. What is my least favorite part of my job, whether I'm a chemist or an entrepreneur, I don't love doing paperwork and keeping track of records, all the backend administrative work and bookkeeping and all that, is not what I love, but you have to do it to succeed.
Chantel Zuzi: Have you seen an increase in the need for more inclusiveness in the science world?
Hoby Wedler: Yeah. No, definitely. I think that every field benefits from more diversity, because I think diversity makes it easier for us to solve problems, but I also feel that when we're diverse we need to be more inclusive as well and welcome more people to the table. And yes, I think the scientific community always can benefit from more inclusion and bringing more unique sets of abilities to the table to think about science and ultimately solve problems.
I think that, really, if you just expect standard able bodied white men to be doing things, you do not get the same results as when you empower a lot of different groups to step into the laboratory and brush off their hands and get excited and get ready to get ready to think in a scientific space and in the scientific way. Yeah. I think there's always a need for more inclusion, but I also think that, particularly, academic universities these days are really being quite good at bringing that diversity to the forefront and inclusion to the forefront.
Chantel Zuzi: Where do you see science growing in the next 20 years? And do you see any new arrays of study that is needed?
Hoby Wedler: I absolutely see science growing in the next 20 years. One of the main areas that I think we're going to be exploring more and more is the area of space flight and how we interact in a microgravity environment. I think that a lot of people are going to be exploring this. You look at the big companies that sort of vision arrays, if you will, of our time today in... Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who have of course... Elon's companies and Amazon with Jeff Bezos and this sort of thing. And they're really thinking about space, that's a place they're going, they see a need for it clearly. And I think that over time, we're going to see a push for increased knowledge and awareness of that. And I do think getting people who are blind and visually impaired into space and learning how to navigate micro gravity environments is going to be a really interesting thing.
The Lighthouse for the Blind who I do a lot of work with right now is actually launching a space flight program to basically find out what the capabilities are of blind folks in microgravity. They're first taking an aircraft flight in a parabolic manner, also called the vomit comet if you will, that descends rapidly and basically allows its passengers to experience weightlessness, then taking that all to a suborbital flight and maybe even taking it to an orbital flight later. So they're really at the cutting edge and super innovative about everything they do. I think that's pretty incredible. And I think that's an area that we're going to need to explore more. I also think that chemistry is a growing and ever changing subject and particularly biochemistry. We're going to need to figure out ways to produce meat that don't involve animals that involve growing cells and reactors to protect the environment.
I think climate change is a huge deal. I know we can all see around us and feel around us that the environment is warming and we need to think about that. And it's 100% scientific why that's happening. I'm not making a political statement here, I'm really just stating facts. We need to step up and figure out why this is happening and what we can do in our own little way to address and solve those problems. I'm very inspired by the future of science, I'm very inspired by what the young minds that we have coming into the field. I think there's a lot we can do to basically push back the frontiers of science and create future opportunities and possibilities in the industry. I think that science needs more than ever now, more diverse opinions or opinions from different perspectives, and the blind and visually impaired perspective is absolutely one that needs to be at the forefront of what we do scientifically.
Chantel Zuzi: Absolutely. And do you work in that field currently? What do you do for work right now and how accessible is the industry that you work in at the moment?
Hoby Wedler: Yeah. I actually... What's great about my work is, I'm an entrepreneur, so I start companies and I work with those companies to grow and solve problems, ultimately. What I would say is that, what's nice about being an entrepreneur is that, being able to create my own job, I never worry about, okay, is this accessible? Am I being accommodated correctly? Because I create the position and I create what I need and the accommodations for it. Right at the end of my graduate studies, my graduate tenure, I went to a childhood friend who's actually my wife partner as well who is always wanted to work for himself, just like I've always wanted to work for myself. And we decided to start a business really, where I would be a sensory [inaudible 00:35:05] and a sensory designer.
So that's what I do is a lot of sensory strategy, sensory design consulting, food and beverage consulting in the flavor space, flavor, aroma, and texture. And I also do host a lot of experiences for folks to really experience, I started in wine actually, to experience wine differently, called tasting in the dark, which is a truly blindfolded wine experience. And now we do them in all sorts of industries, really allowing people to experience life in a great way when they temporarily have their eyesight removed. And that's a lot of fun to do that experiential work. I'm a consultant in the food industry and in the packaging and product design industry, really providing my thoughts about a lot of designers use their eyesight so much for the work that they do and forget about the other senses. So I help them think about those other senses.
I am doing a project with a food company right now that does make... They're a scientific company, can't say too much about them because of the NDA that I have, but I definitely am able to pair my science knowledge with my knowledge of the food and beverage industry and of marketing, which is a lot of fun. I also have a creative and marketing firm called Senspoint, which I founded in 2017, which is doing a lot of really exciting work right now as well. Finally, I have a seasonings brand with my business partner, and I started our own line of gourmet seasonings. And that is being launched later this week. So before Friday, that's called Hoby's Essentials and can be found @hoby, H-O-B-Y.com, which is also a great way for any of your listeners to get ahold of me.
So that's one thing that we're doing, and we're really figuring out the marketing plan there. And then the other one that's forthcoming, we're just raising funding for now is a canned [inaudible 00:37:11] ready to drink cocktail and wine company called Blind Truth Beverage. More to come on that, stay tuned for that, but that's coming as well. So I am an entrepreneur. I did study science and I do use science in my career, but as you can hear, I am definitely more in the food and beverage space and in the entrepreneurial space now. For me being an entrepreneur is not about money and power. And a lot of people hear about entrepreneurship, they think about, that must be based on money and power and starting companies and selling them for a lot of money and this sort of thing.
For me, it couldn't be further from the truth of what entrepreneurship is about. Entrepreneurship is about solving problems through creating businesses. And I just love to solve problems for people that help them live a more fulfilling and more exciting life, and frankly, more accessible life. So accessibility, diversity and inclusion are at the forefront of all of the work that I do as an entrepreneur and as a business owner. Like I said, I'll summarize that, I'm a consultant. I have my own consultancy called Hoby Wedler Consulting. I've got my spice company. I have a creative and marketing studio called Senspoint. And we're building a company called Blind Truth Beverage. And I don't know what's going to happen years to come after this. But I also, for my work do a lot of giving back.
So I'm the chairman of the board currently for the Earle Baum Center of the Blind, which is a training center, primarily for people who are fairly new to sight loss. And I also work on a local non profit that gives funds back to the schools, all the local area schools around me in Petaluma, called the Petaluma Educational Foundation. I do a lot of work, but I also give back as much as I can. How accessible is the work that I do? Well, it's quite accessible because I figure out what I want to do and I make it accessible. That's a lot of what I do. So it's fun. Yeah.
Chantel Zuzi: That's a good answer. You mentioned sensory, what role sensory played in your life and why do you think it is important to my maximize the experience of test and smell?
Hoby Wedler: I've always as a kid, I've loved understanding my surroundings through smell, through remembering what different areas as I'm, for instance, walking around my elementary school campus, smell like, and using that as a tool to help me get around. That's been really a part of my life, and I've always had a good pallet. And I spent a lot of time as a kid cooking, my parents would ask me to make them large pots of soup that they would freeze and take for their lunches when they were working. And I did a lot of that and had a really good time doing that, and really trained my pallet that way.
I just created a career out of it. Also I did a lot of... Growing up in Sonoma County where wine grapes are grown. I've always had a love and an appreciation for what I call hyper locality, things that are going on right around me, right in my backyard that are then... And wine making was one of those. It was people were harvesting grapes and turning them into wine and selling that wine all over the world basically. Those grapes came from right near where I live. I just thought that was great. So I took a few introductory wine making classes and wine appreciation classes at UC, Davis, University of California, Davis has a great wine program, and took some classes through them and ended up really getting into the culture of wine, understanding tasting wine, and how that works and utilizing my palette very strongly in that industry.
I did a lot of that and ended up in a career hosting these truly blind tastings for Francis Ford Coppola, who if you don't know, is a film maker, did that for several years, actually I was their winemaker of record for a few years. And just love the work that we do in all capacities. It's really exciting and I've always... And I'm just passionate about it. That's what I love doing. I did that for a living and that's what got me into this world of using my senses to really understand the world of sensory and help other people understand it. I think it's important to focus on taste and smell and touch as well, because these are senses that really do matter to our everyday life.
I think a lot of times in product design and flavor design, we don't think enough about how something really tastes and how something might interact with our senses that are not visual, because most people use statistics that I've seen tell me that most people use their eyesight to obtain 85 to 90% of information from their surroundings, which means they're using four perfectly good senses to only obtain 10 to 15% of the information from their surroundings. So we're always using our other senses, they're always turned on, they're always there, but I think that we don't often think that maybe the way a package smells or the way a new product that you buy smells or sounds when you open the packaging affects our, either positively or negatively, affects our appreciation of it. And the that's what I try to do, is to streamline all sensory aspects of products and foods and beverages to make them appealing to all our senses and not just our eyesight. I think that's the importance I think it plays. And I love doing it.
Chantel Zuzi: You also mentioned testing in the dark, which is a truly blindfolded one, would you talk about that a little bit?
Hoby Wedler: Sure. Yeah. When I came on with Francis Ford Coppola in 2011, it was because a friend actually introduced me to him, friend named Chris Downey [inaudible 00:43:50] who's a fellow blind person. He's a blind architect here in California, who I actually was able to work with and get to know at a program offered by the National Federation of the Blind in 2009. Yeah. I met Chris in 2009. In 2011, ironically, right concurrent with the end of my undergraduate tenure and start of my graduate tenure, Chris introduced me to Francis Ford Coppola's team and said, they're looking... Mr. Coppola experienced a wine or a food tasting experience in Asia that was under blindfold and maybe not led by blind people, and he wanted to make it a little more authentic at his winery.
He said, I want to do this, but I want it to be hosted by an actual blind person, and little did we know how far the program would go. By the way, Chris worked... He was a cited architect, now he is a blind architect. He did a lot of work with Mr. Coppola on his property in 2006. And that's when he got to know him... Chris got to know Mr. Coppola and yeah, I began working to innovate the experience. They really gave me the reign so to speak. And I was able to build a whole cohesive experience of smelling different aroma compounds that... Aroma samples that I prepare basically to sort of calibrate people and get their aromatic vocabulary going. So when they smell lemon, they remember and know, okay, this is what lemon smells like.
And if they smell that aroma more subtly in a wine, they can sort of identify it. So the aromas that I choose, they're representative, they're not everything by any means that we would taste in a wine, but I try to do between three and four aromas, sometimes more, sometimes fewer to really prime that aromatic vocabulary. Because I think that our... We talk about sensory, aromas and flavors, are just like colors. It's funny though is that we don't necessarily use our senses of smell and taste often enough to smell something and immediately identify exactly what it is. Children when they're born, they learn quickly what colors are. So if you were to hold up a pen in front of my four year old nephew who knows colors and it happens to be red, you say, Hey, [Reed 00:46:15], what color is this pen?
He will undoubtedly tell you, it's a red pen. but you know, talking about smell and taste, we're not often as strong with identifying those. I like to sort of show people that their senses of smell and taste and all this are just like eyesight, and the inputs are different things that are just vocabulary work [inaudible 00:46:40] and talk about what we smell, really deeply talk about all the different aspects, whether it's fruity or floral or grassy or leathery, or smells like spices or any anywhere in between or all of the above. And then we taste it and we work through different breathing techniques as we breathe through the wine and really understand it. And then finally at the end of it, we ask people, what color is this? And what varietal of grape do you think this was?
So I did this as a hospitality experience for Francis Ford Coppola for about a year. It started as a monthly experience, then went to every two weeks, then went to every week, then went to twice a week, and was like, well, this is really taking off. And the sales team got ahold of it and the national wine sales team brought me into the market with them for critical meetings that they would have and critical clients that they would work with. And it was a lot of fun. It was a great dea of fun to be their winemaker or wine educator of record for several years.
And what was nice about that is, I was a computational chemistry student in graduate school. And my advisor was very lenient and said, you need to learn what is the right career path for you. So he was very willing to let me travel and because I was a computational chemist, my laptop was also my laboratory. So if I could carry my laptop with me, I could usually solve most problem problems.
Chantel Zuzi: How has your life been affected by COVID 19?
Hoby Wedler: That's a good question. I think it's one that we all can answer, boy, I think all of our lives have been affected. I need to preserve my sense of smell and taste. I don't want to lose those. A lot of people who get COVID 19 lose them and they don't come back fully the same way they once were. I've been really careful and generally a healthy guy, but I've been locked down for a lot of this pandemic, really staying home and just being myself, just being home. I've had to do it. And that's just what it's been. I would say that a lot of my clients, a lot of my work slowed during the pandemic, a lot of it's coming back now, but a lot of what I do is in person.
So it's coming back now. We're able to keep building, but... A lot of my work slowed. When I would go out independently, I would find that people wouldn't say, Hey, you're within six feet of me, and then when I was way closer than that, they would get really nervous and worried because I was so close to them. So it's an interesting thing how people behave, how people work. I would say that all in all the pandemic was really positive, because it allowed me to really think about my business entities and what I do and make some restructuring decisions. The idea to start the spice brand and seasoning brand came out of the pandemic. Yeah. It really defined a lot of who I was and what my businesses would do. It was an opportunity to really think and really hunker down and make some big key decisions.
Chantel Zuzi: How has your life experience has changed your view of the world?
Hoby Wedler: Well, I don't know if it's changed my view of the world, because I don't know how my view of the world would be different without my life experience, because I've had my life experience. But what I would say is, being blind in a sighted world, you just realize the richness of life that we all have and how important it is to maintain that positive richness of the lives that we all live. I just love my life, I love the things I get to do, I just able to hold onto, and we all go through times of being a little more negative than maybe we should, but it's all about positive, positive mindset.
That is my goal. That is what I do. I feel like my life is my life is very positive. I have a positive, cautiously, optimistic view of the world moving forward. I hope that we make decisions to really help people thrive for long in the future.I'd like to consider myself who and how all that comes together. I don't know how my experience has shaped my view of the world, but I think that as a scientist and my goal is to give back to anyone who needs my help.
Chantel Zuzi: How did you overcome your obstacles as a blind or visually impaired person?
Hoby Wedler: It's about challenging ourselves in the right mindset and believing in ourselves to succeed. You know what? Chantel, it's oftentimes breaking really big problems into little bite size problems. So when I was entering graduate school, my first day of the PhD program, you might imagine what was going through my mind, this huge, difficult subject to tackle and understand and think about how am I going to get my PhD in organic chemistry, but you break into little problems. and I would stop myself, I'd say, "Hoby, stop." Sometimes I talk to myself and say, "Okay, stop. What's the first thing you need to do?" And I realized, okay, the first thing I need to do is succeed in the first classes I have to take, then I need to succeed in the next classes. And once courses are done, now, I need to really hunker down and do research, that first major summer of graduate school.
Okay. I've got some research findings, now what's the next thing I need to do? need to study and put all my focus into my qualifying exam. Okay. That's exactly what I did. Now I need to do more research. I passed that, and I need to do more research. what's the next big hurdle? That's the third year seminar, which is a talk that every graduate student has to give at UC, Davis to the department. Okay. I'll prepare, great. I'll give my third year seminar. This is going to work well, I did it, people enjoyed it. Now it's time to finalize research and write my dissertation.
So it's breaking a big problem or big challenge into a many bite size challenges that I can handle one at a time. And frankly, in my work as an entrepreneur, that's exactly what I do too. I'm thinking right now about building this whole brand of seasonings. If I were to try to do that in one day, it would be incredibly daunting, and it was daunting at the beginning. I thought it was going to be easier than it has been, but everything takes more time than you think. And you just take everything in stride, one step at a time, and you figure it out, and you just come to a conclusion.
Chantel Zuzi: Thank you so much for being here. It is really a privilege speaking with you today.
Hoby Wedler: Thank you, Chantel. Thank you for the great interview.
David Gonzalez: Welcome back to Vision Toward Success. My name is David Gonzalez, and with us today is our guest Hoby Wedler, a PhD chemist, entrepreneur and sensory expert. We had an opportunity to talk with Hoby after his interview and further explore how he empowers young learners to explore their disability identity. Oftentimes students serve as educators. If a young learner is aware of their accommodation needs and is able to bring solutions to the table. This resents disability in a positive light to educators who are unfamiliar with how to create an accessible learning experience. Having self-awareness also allows students to make the most of their learning experience. Hoby believes that rather than the stem industry needing to change as a whole, disabled students need a solid understanding of the skills they can develop.
Hoby Wedler: In my opinion, what we need to do is we need more understanding and accommodating of people who might look different, who might act different, who might speak differently. We just need to understand that they are bright minds in and of themselves. And we can't let our ignorance or our impressions of what we think they can do, and can't do, more importantly, influence their success and their ability. I didn't mention this, but I had a nonprofit for about six years called Accessible science, which I co-founded with some good friends of mine and also my academic and advisor and my brother. And the mission of Accessible Science was to teach annual chemistry camps to blind in Missouri Impaired High School, and fairly early or young college students.
And the point wasn't to make all of them decide they wanted to become chemists, although that would be nice if some of them went into chemistry, the goal... And some of them did go chemistry by the way. But the goal there was really to show students that they could do whatever it is they wanted, no matter how visual that career or that discipline they wanted to study might seem. It's really about coming to the table with a solution and a way to make this possible, sometimes we don't necessarily solution is. And yes, it does take longer to study these seemingly visual subjects as a blind person, but the more unique opinions that we have and the more diverse opinions that we have and perspectives that we have in stem, the better off we're going to be when solving problems and coming up with the next innovations. I don't blame people in stem who are able bodied and question whether people with disabilities can do things.
I often put it on the people with disabilities to say, Hey, this is what I can do, this is what I will do for you, and let's work together. A lot of the reason that I was successful through to the end of earning my PhD in chemistry or through to earning my PhD, I should say, is because I would tell people what I was capable of and they didn't doubt me, they just said, okay, that's... I got some pushback from a few people and there's always going to be [inaudible 00:57:06] out there and you just say, okay, work with the next person then. But for the most part, tell people what you can do. They say, okay, that sounds good, let's work together and things are possible.
But if you go in with an attitude of, oh, this person is not going to think I can do much. And I need to prove this, that, and the other and all that. Oftentimes that's going to backfire on you. And people are going to... If you put up a fight, their tendency is to fight back, but if you go in and calmly say, Hey, this is what I can do and this is what I will do. They are very understanding of that, typically, but I think a lot of it is teaching people what it is they can actually do.
David Gonzalez: Hoby's early education differed from that of most blind students, as his mother worked as a teacher of the visually impaired. Having a parent that understood blindness at this level instilled in him a very high standard for what he felt he could do, and the self confidence to advocate for it. While his mother introduced him to other blind students, as he went through school, he eventually connected with other blind and sighted students who he came to respect as role models.
Hoby Wedler: I should have also said that my mom actually was a TBI, And became a TBI when I was five years old, was going back to get her masters in special education. Anyway, before I was born and after I was born specialized in blindness education. So she worked with other blind students. She was never my TBI or orientation mobility specialist, but she definitely did that work for other students in the county where I grew up right here in Sonoma County, where I am sitting right now. And that was a very special thing to have someone who was a TBI and who could teach me a lot of things that... And maybe my TBIs didn't teach me or she could transcribe things to Braille easily and quickly, or in align my Braille into print.
That was great. But what it also meant is that she really wanted to, and tried to connect me to other blind people, kind of my age, maybe a few years older than me who could be sort of role models. And I hung out with them a little bit, but I always felt like, let me choose my friends. I mean, the person... I shouldn't necessarily have to spend time with this person just because they're blind. It felt a little bit forced sometimes, which is interesting. But then later on in my career, well, not later on in my career, later on in my grade schooling on up through high school, when I started interacting with the National Federation of the Blind, I realized, oh, there's a great deal of blind people that I totally can learn from and should learn from, and looked up to a lot of them.
But for me, it wasn't necessarily about... There are plenty of blind role models that I looked up to, but for me, my mentors came some from the blindness community, a lot from the sighted community. It wasn't... What am I trying to say? It's not that I didn't have blind mentors, but I would take advice from anyone who was willing to give me advice. And I never dealt with people telling me I couldn't do things. I think it was at a very young age, my parents instilled super high expectations of in me and I was never rude about telling people, oh, I can do this. Oh, you got to let me do this. You're discriminating against me. It was not like that. I can only over a few situations where I had to deal with real, what I call turkeys, that people that make it so that they would tell me, oh, you can't do this, you shouldn't do this. And mainly because they didn't want to take the time to explain it to me and work with me themselves.
David Gonzalez: Hoby, encourages each person to be themselves and live their lives on their terms. If you are your authentic self, people will respond to that. He embraces his blindness and doesn't regret a day in his life that he was born blind.
Hoby Wedler: As much as we can allow people to embrace their blindness and say, this is a part of you that is unique that you can actually use to your advantage. And I think the more that we can show either young blind people or blind seniors who are just losing their... Or seniors, I should say, who are just losing their eyesight, the more that we can show them, this is a part of you that actually can give you some opportunities that you maybe didn't even know possible. Try to make it a positive rather than, oh, you should, should meet these other people. Whatever makes sense on a case by case basis to instill that positivity as much as possible, I think is crucial.
Well, let me tell you, I feel lucky that I was born blind. I have not known the world as a sighted person. I've embraced it as a blind person. People ask me, would you ever want to get your sight back? And the answer is, no, I don't want to relearn the world. I love the world that I live in. It's a lot of fun. I love the life I live. I think it's exciting. And I think that everybody is life is exciting. It's about doing you in the best possible you possible.
David Gonzalez: Hoby has a natural love for education and thirst for knowledge and strives to instill that love for learning in his students. He enjoys helping other people find the same excite and learning about topics that interest him. This has served him well in his journey as a consultant and entrepreneur.
Hoby Wedler: How have academics changed my learning experience as a blind person? Well, I've realized the importance. I had understanding that I really liked knowing things, that I liked learning. And my academics showed me that, whether I'm talking to a blind or a sided person, I have the heart of a teacher. And I use that in my entrepreneurial ventures all the time. I teach people. I don't mean I'm the type of teacher that really is... I don't want to be the person standing up there saying, "Hey, I know more than you or anything like that."
I just want to be able to say, I want to show you something that maybe you didn't know you were excited about a while ago. Let's get you excited about that and if you're not excited, that's okay we don't have to talk about it, but getting people excited about things. And that's what I love about academics. It's all about learning. It's all about doing research in order to learn. I always had plan B and that always wanting to have plan B taught me so much about other fields and other things that I could think about.
David Gonzalez: We like to take the time to thank and acknowledge Hoby for being here with us today. You can reach Hoby Wedler @hoby.com, which is spelled H-O-B-Y.com. And you can also reach hobywedler [at] hobywedler.com, which is spelled H-O-B-Y@ H-O-B-YW-E-D-L-E-R.com. Thank you for tuning into Vision Towards Success with your host David Gonzalez and our guest Hoby Wedler. And now a blindness tip from Hoby Wedler.
Hoby Wedler: The advice that I would give anyone, regardless of whether they have a disability is, have high expectations in yourself. Once you start to believe, this is too hard for me, I shouldn't do this, this is other people's work, this isn't something for me. If you really want to do it, that's going to be a big problem, because then you're always not going to believe in yourself and not going to push yourself hard to accomplish your goals. So hold your head high, have super high expectations and take on challenges in the most positive, but most excited and animated way possible.
And also if you don't feel comfortable doing something or you don't want to do something for whatever the reason might be, don't hold yourself back and say, oh, shame on me that I don't want to go to space or that I don't want to go on a roller coaster. That's fine, it's your decision. You do you as well as you possibly can be, and be the best version of yourself that you can possibly be. And that is what will drive success. If you just say, I'm going to be the best blind person I can be, I'm going to be the best whatever I can possibly be, and you put your mind to it, and you actually do it, you will succeed, and you will be that great person. And I just think it's really exciting to think through that.
Speaker 3: Thank you for tuning into Vision Towards Success. This program has been recorded and produced by Elena Regan and David Gonzalez from the Trades Win audio podcast team in association with the Polus Center for Social and Economic Development. Funding for this program has been provided by the Libby Douvon Award from the Fielding Institute, the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and the Berry Savings Foundation. Additional episodes of this podcast can be found at www.poluscenter.org/tradeswin or wherever you get your podcasts.