Perkins’ brand-new President and CEO Dave Power in the Grousbeck Center. Photo Credit: Anna Miller
By Bill Winter
As Perkins’ brand-new President and CEO Dave Power sets off on an energetic walk across campus, it seems he has one foot in the past and one in the future.
Every few steps he notices some reminder of the school’s 185-year history or his family’s close connection to Perkins. A tactile globe Marilyn Monroe may have touched. The classroom where his son David attended the Deafblind Program.
But Power also sees hints of Perkins’ future. A sleek SMART Brailler® that exemplifies the spirit of innovation. The conference room where a task force works to build better futures for Perkins graduates.
It’s all in a day’s work for Power. Since taking over as president in May, it’s his job to navigate the path between Perkins’ illustrious yesterdays and its unfolding tomorrows.
“The reason Perkins has been around 185 years in part is because we keep reinventing what we do,” he says. “And now, as I come into this job, I’m thinking: What’s the next innovation that gets us to our 200th anniversary?”
As Power strides across campus this summer day, the sun paints warm splashes of color on the living history that surrounds him, from the sepia-tinted red of century-old brick buildings to the vibrant green of the grassy lawns.
The sun also illuminates Power’s first destination – the gleaming glass and burnished metal of the Grousbeck Center for Students & Technology.
Stepping into the Grousbeck Center is like stepping into the 21st century. It’s the centerpiece of Perkins’ push to integrate technology into every aspect of students’ lives. But what captures Power’s attention today is a glass-walled conference room. It’s where the Perkins Business Partnership met recently to start tackling one of the biggest challenges facing Perkins graduates – unemployment. According to statistics, 75 percent of adults with visual impairments are unemployed.
The group includes many of the state’s best-known companies and nonprofits. The vexing question they’re trying to answer, Power says, is: “Where are the jobs? And what are the barriers between those jobs and the talented people who can do those jobs?”
It’s part of Power’s push to improve Perkins’ transition program, which helps students lead successful, productive lives after they turn 22 and “age out” of the educational system. Along with literacy and innovation, it’s one of his three main priorities as president.
“Transition means two things,” he says. “What can we do to get students better prepared for life after 22? And what can we do to help graduates find jobs?”
The Perkins Business Partnership is just a first step, but it’s typical of Power’s approach to problem solving.
“The only way to innovate is with a human-centered approach,” he says. “Start with what the problem is – who are you serving and what is their problem? And then work back to what your solution should be.”
There’s a reason why Power sounds like a business executive when he speaks. Before taking Perkins’ top job, Power spent 25 years in leadership roles at high-tech companies like Sun Microsystems and Novera Software. He was the founder of Power Strategy, Inc., a consulting firm that helps mid-sized companies innovate and grow. In July, he published “The Curve Ahead,” a business book that explains how companies can sustain long-term growth by focusing on innovation.
“My career has been about wearing different hats,” he says. “Consultant, general manager, marketing guy, venture capitalist, educator and author.”
Traces of Power’s business background infuse his conversation, like when he mentions Perkins’ “portfolio of operating groups” – the School, Perkins International, Perkins Library, Perkins eLearning and Perkins Products – which he now oversees as president.
Although new to blindness education, Power isn’t new to Perkins. He served on Perkins’ Board of Trustees for more than a decade, and took a leadership role in developing Perkins’ eLearning program, which offers online training and professional development for blindness educators.
But Power has another, more personal, link to Perkins. It emerges after he takes a shortcut across the lawn to reach the Hilton Building, where the Deafblind Program is housed.
Power thinks back to 1987. That’s when he first came to Perkins with his wife to enroll his son David in the preschool program for infants. Except for a few years in public school, David, who is deafblind, would remain at Perkins until he graduated.
For Power, the Hilton Building is rich with memories. He points to David’s former classroom.
“We were generally down this corridor,” he says. “David was also upstairs, in different parts of the building. But this is the place where we mostly met with David in the classroom. He had teachers who knew him very well. We felt good about him here at the school.”
That experience as the parent of a Perkins student gives Power a unique perspective as president.
“It’s obviously helped me with connecting to the parents who come to campus,” he says. “It helped me to understand who we’re serving.”
At the Lower School, Power’s next stop, the hallway echoes with the footsteps of children attending Perkins’ summer program.
Power pauses at a classroom where students study braille. He’s had to get up to speed quickly on the revolutionary impact technology is having on braille – the tactile, raised-dot system of reading and writing created in 1829, the same year Perkins was founded.
“For a long time (regarding literacy), the answer was: learn braille,” he says. “What’s happened over time is other technologies have emerged, such as audio books, voice-recognition technology and mobile devices. Braille has run the risk of getting lost in the shuffle.”
Power says learning braille is still critical for people who are blind. “For working adults who are blind, braille is part of their literacy toolkit,” he says. But Perkins is expanding its definition of literacy, and has launched a “field research project” to study literacy in the 21st century.
“We’re interviewing adults who are blind and visually impaired,” he says. “We’re looking at a day in the life – seeing what their literacy needs are and what literacy tools they use.” The results of the study will guide future literacy initiatives.
Later, in the Perkins Products office, Power stands by desks where technicians give telephone support to people with visual impairments who purchase accessible equipment.
Popular products like magnifiers and refreshable braille displays line the wall, but it’s a SMART Brailler that catches his eye. To Power, it epitomizes Perkins’ tradition of educational creativity.
“We should be very proud of the SMART Brailler,” he says. “It’s taken our mechanical brailler and added information technology. A student can learn more, faster, because the lesson plans are built into the brailler.”
As president, Power wants to foster a culture that encourages innovation. One way to do that, he says, is by rewarding failure. Organizations that reward intelligent risk-taking – even at the cost of occasional failure – are the ones that find innovative new solutions to old problems.
“We have a mission to serve people who are blind, visually impaired and multi-handicapped, but if we keep doing it the same way, we will become less relevant over time,” he says. “Mission-driven organizations need to stay relevant. We have to make sure we’re always passing that test of high-impact and relevance.”
Power concludes his trip around campus at the Perkins Museum, a collection of historic artifacts and photos in the Howe Building. It’s the ideal place to reflect on the past – and future.
Power rests his hand on the tactile globe Helen Keller used to learn geography. After he became president, a student who attended Perkins in the 1950s and ’60s emailed him about some famous visitors who had touched that same globe.
“She told me how Teddy Kennedy came through here with (actress) Anne Bancroft and Marilyn Monroe,” he says. “So, it’s possible that Marilyn Monroe also had her hand on that globe.” He smiles and admits there’s no historic documentation of Monroe’s visit. But it’s fun to imagine.
Power has spent his first few months at Perkins hearing stories about the past and asking questions. He’s even installed a round table in his office to continue an “open, inclusive dialogue” about the future with the entire Perkins community.
“What you want to do is listen, to understand what everybody wants,” he says. “And then find the areas of common interest and alignment. How do we prioritize what we’re doing so we’re working on the most important things? How do we make sure we’re supporting each other? Setting priorities and getting people aligned is the number one job of a leader.”
Power leaves the museum and heads to his office. Perkins’ future is waiting, and every step takes him closer to it.
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