John T.C. Yeh is president and founder of Viable, Inc., which develops visual communication access technologies that integrate video, data and voice. Founded in 2006, the company is headquartered in Rockville, Maryland, and presently employs approximately 80 persons, many of whom are deaf and hard of hearing or from minority populations.
Born deaf in Taiwan, Mr. Yeh came to America at age 15 and had to learn English and American Sign Language to continue his education. He graduated with a mathematics degree from Gallaudet College in 1971 and received a master’s degree in computer science from University of Maryland in 1973. After dozens of interviews Mr. Yeh found employers unwilling to hire him and concluded that the only way he could succeed in business was to start his own. He and his brothers decided to form a software engineering company but received loan rejection letters from every bank they went to. Perseverance paid off when Mr. Yeh applied for a loan through the Small Business Administration and was informed that three bank loan rejection letters were required to qualify; he only had to hand over that day’s mail. He got the loan and in 1979 Integrated Microcomputer Systems (IMS) became a reality, and went on to generate sales in the millions and employed 550 workers at its peak.
With Mr. Yeh as president, IMS took on clients such as the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Texas Instruments, and the National Institutes of Health. During these years, IMS and Mr. Yeh were recognized with numerous community and national awards for business and technical excellence, including the Norman Vincent Peale Foundation America’s Award, the Employer of the Year Award from the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, and Small Business Administration recognition. In 1989 and 1990 IMS won industry awards for high technology excellence from KPGM Peat Marwick and Arthur Young Inc. During Mr. Yeh’s 16 years as president of IMS, employment of the deaf consistently exceeded 10 percent of the workforce.
In 1995, he and his brothers sold the company. In the following years, Mr. Yeh explored several other business ventures before founding Viable Technologies in 2000, which provides real-time captioning service using remote technologies. In 2006, Viable Technologies became a subsidiary of Viable, Inc.
Mr. Yeh’s community involvement runs deep and encompasses service on national and local community and industry boards, including the Gallaudet University Board of Trustees and Board of Associates, the National Captioning Institute, the National Council on Disability, the National Asian Deaf Congress and the National Deaf Business Institute. He is a sought-after speaker on entrepreneurship and leadership.
He and his wife Mary have three grown children and two grandchildren.
Yeh: I chose that name for the company because it is the benefit we promise to our customers; that they make themselves viable as a result of our products and services. You will see that the dictionary definition says viability is the ability to live and to expand, and the word also carries the connotation of usability and feasibility.
As a result of having communication access, through use of our products and services, our customers achieve greater independence and grow into thriving contributors at home, at office, and in society.
Williams: As a deaf individual, do you believe it was tougher for you to start a business?
Yeh: Viable is a family-owned business and is self-financed, but to answer your question, yes. It was tough to start this business and it was even tougher back in 1979 when I formed a technology company with my brothers. We ran the company for 16 years before selling it, but before the company ever got off the ground I received more than a hundred rejection letters from banks and thought I might never live my dream of running my own business. How many times I was turned down for a loan back then because of my deafness, I will never know.
Williams: Who conceived the VPAD and how long did it take to get it to market?
Yeh: The VPAD was dreamt up by Jason Yeh, our Vice President of Technology and my son, and Larwan Berke, our Director of Engineering. Both are deaf and alumni of Gallaudet University. During their senior year they approached me with the idea of a better videophone. At the time, Viable was a company that focused on the provision of remote captioning services and business wasn’t exactly booming. I decided to change the business direction of the company and both Jason and Larwan came onboard. That was in 2006 and today we have a team of a dozen engineers, nearly all of which know sign language, and we have the VPAD.
Williams: What motivated you to get into the communication business?
Yeh: A better education and better opportunities for me and my deaf sister were the reasons why my parents took their six children and moved us all from Taiwan to Brazil to America. My life has been about overcoming communication barriers, which include learning English and American Sign Language and succeeding in business. When my brothers and I sold our first company, it wasn’t long before I wanted to start another business and I realized that my passions were technology and communication access. As I said already, Viable started out as a provider of remote captioning services.
Williams: Will you tell my readers how important communication is for deaf people?
Yeh: Communication access is what determines the quality of life a deaf or hard of hearing person will have. Our ability to receive an education, gain employment and stay competitive with current marketable skills all depends on our access to information. For people like me who use sign language, technologies that enable visual communication open a world of possibilities.
Williams: Will you use the VPAD?
Yeh: You could call me the original beta tester; I have been using the VPAD ever since the moment there was a working model.
Williams: How long did it take your company to develop the VPAD and what does VPAD mean?
Yeh: It has taken us two years to go from proof of concept to prototype to the product we have today. As for the name of our product, we joined together the words VP and Pad. The first part is a common abbreviation for videophone as fingerspelled by deaf and hard of hearing people, and the second part is because we thought consumers might see our videophone as a tablet. The clincher was that VPAD is a short name and therefore easy to remember.
Williams: Who financed the R&D costs for the VPAD?
Yeh: My family financed the entire development of the VPAD. It has been expensive, but it is both a business investment and an investment in our quality of life.
Williams: You are a visionary, and so what do you see as some of the future communication hurdles that deaf and hard of hearing people face?
Yeh: I envision progress in the areas of voice activation and recognition will keep deaf and hard of hearing people behind the curve. Captioning technology needs to see widespread adoption, there is an abundance of web content that is inaccessible to deaf and hard of hearing people like me.
Williams; Am I correct in assuming that the VPAD has a market other than for deaf people?
Yeh: Although we designed the VPAD primarily for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, we knew the device was an elegant videoconferencing solution and had wider market appeal. We launched the prototype at the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and our initial thoughts were affirmed when the launch attracted national and international distributors and suppliers and got the attention of dozens of journalists and bloggers. Whether that will translate into purchases remain to be seen, but we are optimistic.
Williams: As a visionary, do you see the time when communication devices for deaf people will be purchased in stores such as Best Buy or Radio Shack?
Yeh: I do, and it may be soon. This is the reason why we decided to launch the VPAD at the CES. We believe that AT and any other devices that utilize the principle of universal design also belong on the biggest stage there is, alongside the plasma TV sets and the latest peripherals.
Williams: Do you believe as many people do that cell phones are the computers of the future?
Yeh: No doubt that miniaturization and increased multi-functionality of existing technologies are trends of the future. For the deaf and hard of hearing, I foresee a day soon when communication tasks will be conducted via cell phones with robust videoconferencing capabilities but I don’t think they will necessarily displace computers. Apart from communication tasks, there will always be a demand for a machine that allows us to do other office work.