Francis Odongo walked to the podium. If he looked a little apprehensive, it was because he was about to ask 20 strangers to give him thousands of dollars.
Then he began speaking – and any nervousness vanished.
In his home country of Uganda, Odongo explained, children who are blind are stigmatized. “Some people believe (blindness) is a curse,” he said. As a result, many Ugandan children with visual impairments don’t finish school, and even fewer find paying jobs as adults.
But Odongo, a teacher of the visually impaired at Bishop Willis Demonstration School in Iganga, Uganda, said he had a plan to begin to solve this problem.
He wants to launch a vocational training program to teach job skills to students with visual impairments. Once students start earning an income, he said, “independent living and empowerment” will follow. But Odongo needs $8,220 in start-up funds to launch the program.
Welcome to “Shark Tank,” Perkins School for the Blind-style.
Odongo was one of nine educators from around the world who pitched projects to a roomful of charitable “investors” this week. Their goal was to get financing for programs to improve the lives of children who are blind and multiply disabled.
All nine are attending the Educational Leadership Program (ELP), Perkins International’s flagship teacher-training program. They’re on Perkins’ campus for up to nine months of advanced training and leadership development.
They’ll eventually return home with ambitious plans to improve their countries’ blindness education systems – but without the financial resources to implement those plans.
To solve that problem, Perkins President and CEO Dave Power supported the idea of holding a Shark Tank-style event, inspired by the ABC television show that puts would-be entrepreneurs in front of wealthy investors. At the Perkins event, however, attendees are investing in progress – not profit.
“It’s not truly an investment, in the sense you’re never going to get your capital back,” Power told investors in a meeting room in the Grousbeck Center for Students & Technology. “You’re going to get impact back.”
This year’s “Shark Tank” attracted 20 investors from the Boston area, including philanthropists, entrepreneurs and decision-makers from corporate charitable programs.
They heard a series of creative proposals designed to solve a global problem – the enormous number of children in developing countries who are denied access to a quality education because they’re blind.
“There are still places around the world that don’t have that understanding that children who are blind, deafblind or visually impaired with multiple disabilities can actually learn,” said Perkins International Executive Director Mike Delaney. “This is the context that our ELPs are returning to, and really bringing about change.”
The projects the ELP participants outlined were modest in dollar amounts, but impressive in ambition.
“Some of you may be wondering if we left zeros off the ends of these budgets,” Power told investors. “But you can go a long way in developing countries on short dollars.”
Ruqian Huang from China sought financial support for a first-of-its-kind itinerant teacher program in the Sichuan region. Traveling teachers would visit children at home who are unable to attend school, she said, or work with students in public schools that lack adequate services for children who are blind.
Huang, deputy director of the Sichuan Institute for Educational Research, asked for $11,200 to train 30 itinerant teachers, each of whom would share their knowledge with two additional teachers. Those teachers could reach 900 students with visual impairments in the program’s first year.
That’s just a small step, Huang acknowledged, in a region where more than half of children with visual impairments don’t attend school. Eventually, she said, “I would like every visually impaired child to have access to an education.”
Asma Shilpi from Bangladesh had the most unusual proposal – a smartphone app that could connect families with children with multiple disabilities to medical and developmental services.
Shilpi, a therapist at Dhaka Children’s Hospital, said the app and a related website would direct families to existing resources, and also give them instant access to information about how to support their child at home. An investment of $10,845 would pay the start-up costs – and potentially benefit tens of thousands of children in Bangladesh.
“If you could change your child’s quality of life through a mobile phone app, I think you’d do it in an instant,” she said. “I’m going to do that for the families who are really not reaching our services.”
Almost $50,000 pledged
By the end of the event, investors had pledged almost $50,000 to underwrite the proposed projects, plus an additional $2,500 to support the Educational Leadership Program.
The ELP presenters were proud of what they accomplished at the “Shark Tank,” said Marianne Riggio, ELP director – and are looking forward to turning their plans into progress.
“When I was meeting with them, I could feel the amazing feeling of personal empowerment and confidence that they can really go out and be agents of change in their country,” she said.
Other ELP presenters at the “Shark Tank” included Stalin Regan Devadoss (India), Edith Dosha (Tanzania), Benita Gonzalez Reyes (Dominican Republic), Thi Thu Thanh Pham (Vietnam), Mariam Shenoda (Egypt) and Sister Elizabeth Simeon (Kenya).
What You Can Do
Learn More about Perkins International’s mission to ensure that millions of children and young adults with visual impairment around the world receive a high-quality education that enriches their lives – and prepares them for an active role in their families, schools and communities.
Make a gift to help Perkins International continue delivering life-changing education programs to children and young adults with visual impairment who need it most, and continue training teachers and other blindness professionals from developing nations in our Educational Leadership Program.