By listening to others and envisioning possibilities, A. Gidget Hopf ’72 created ground-breaking opportunities for those with physical challenges.
By A. Gidget Hopf ’72
Getting a job upon graduation from Geneseo in 1972 was my number one goal. My husband John (Class of 1970), whom I met at Geneseo, and I were dead broke, and I was driven to earn a living in my chosen field of speech pathology.
Fortunately, I landed my first job out of college immediately at Willowbrook, a state institution on Staten Island for people with developmental disabilities. It became the first stepping stone to an incredibly gratifying and meaningful career working with people who have an array of physical and developmental challenges.
At Willowbrook, I became aware of the history of inequities, abuse and oppression of people with disabilities, and I began applying my knowledge and skills to promote independence and dignity for the young men and women with whom I worked.
We moved back to Geneseo, and over the course of 10 years, I was promoted into leadership roles in two organizations that serve people with disabilities before being selected as the president and CEO of the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ABVI) in Rochester.
While I had worked with people with many different barriers, I had not known many people who were blind. At ABVI, I learned first-hand how my fellow employees — more than 130 of whom were blind — felt stereotyped by society, excluded from job opportunities, embarrassed and humiliated by well-meaning people, and discriminated against, even within our own organization.
My desire to help bust stereotypes of people who are blind and create an exciting, energized workplace where everyone feels equal became my leadership road map.
In 1989, with a lot of hard work, ingenuity, perseverance and the social conscience of the 3M corporation, ABVI won a U.S. government contract to manufacture self-stick Post-it Notes for the federal government. This required people who are legally blind to use high-tech, industrial equipment that many people doubted they could manage.
I knew they could and they deserved the opportunity to prove it.
They did, many times over. Other business opportunities and contracts followed. Most notable is the establishment of a contact center where our team members serve as the customer service line for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as 2-1-1/Lifeline, a 24-hour crisis and suicide hotline. Thirty years later, ABVI’s manufacturing division is a world-class, ISO-certified workplace, where people of all abilities work side by side producing products and services for a wide array of customers — with great pride. Together, we have shown the world what people with vision loss are capable of.
The journey was not easy, especially in the beginning. Despite my experience and success, I learned that some of our employees were dissatisfied with their work environment, which included dissatisfaction with me as their leader. I needed to listen. It was difficult to discover that, despite the mission of the organization, we treated our blind employees as people who needed to be coddled or helped, not as equal members of the workforce. It was my team members who taught me what it means to be a transformational leader. I was able to hone my own leadership skills to include empathy, compassion and concern. I worked with a coach — and learned that leadership begins from the inside out.
We have to understand ourselves and have self-awareness about how we are perceived, what our blind spots are and, most importantly, how we affect other people so they can do their best. Leadership isn’t about doing, it’s about being. It isn’t about writing the rules but rather co-designing shared values. It’s tapping into the aspirations of everyone to create something special. It is challenging old assumptions and imagining something new and the possibilities that come with it. It is taking time to know people as individuals, to genuinely care about them and to create a work environment that supports their needs to develop, grow and succeed. It was when I realized all this that ABVI truly thrived. My mantra is:
Nothing changes until the leader changes; and when the leader changes, everything changes.
My leadership journey has lasted more than 33 years. Being a leader is a gift, one that enables you to positively impact the lives of so many people if you focus on being and not just doing. I am proud and thankful to know the lives I have affected and the difference I have helped make for individuals, their families and our community.
A. Gidget Hopf ’72, Ed.D., believes trans-formational leaders lift up individuals, teams and organizations. She has spent her career creating opportunities for those with barriers to self-sufficiency to be productive and live with dignity. She recently retired after nearly 34 years as president and CEO of Goodwill of the Finger Lakes and its affiliate, the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Rochester, N.Y. She is a coach, speaker and workshop facilitator on leadership.