Chief Executive Officer at The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
In the fall of 2013, the board at the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AG Bell) retained DRG Search to conduct a search for their next CEO. The board was interested in finding an eloquent leader who could diversify the organization’s fundraising efforts and who could connect with a new generation of impacted families.
DRG identified Emilio Alonso-Mendoza, who was chosen to succeed Mr. Alexander Graham who had been AG Bell’s CEO for over 5 years. Mr. Alonso-Mendoza had a long history of leadership in the nonprofit sector, having served as the president and CEO of Take Stock in Children, the Catholic Community Foundation, the Children’s Home Society of Florida, and the National Parkinson Foundation, among others.
After almost six years as CEO, he still considers awareness to be the main challenge behind AG Bell’s mission. “The challenge is to get the right people on the bus to let the world know that a child who is born deaf or hard of hearing today can hear and talk and live a life without limits.”
In his interview with DRG, Alonso-Mendoza talks about his leadership style, what he encountered when he first began at AG Bell, and how he’s still passionate about what he does. “What I enjoy the most is that I know that I am working toward a greater good and knowing that through these efforts I will leave the world a little better than I found it.”
- What are some of the core principles and values that guide your work and define your approach to leadership?
To summarize my leadership style in one word would be ‘stewardship,’ a philosophy guided by three core principles defining my approach here at AG Bell.
First and foremost is what my mother instilled in me as a young child: serving others. At AG Bell, I have the amazing opportunity to empower others with the tools to succeed. I ensure everything AG Bell produces serves to educate parents about communication outcomes accessible for their children that ensure they can hear and talk as well as connect parents with appropriate resources depending on the outcome parents select for their children with hearing loss.
The second principle of my leadership style is delegation and mentoring. I am very much a team player. I cannot accomplish all my goals for AG Bell alone and therefore I rely on others to help realize my visions. When selecting my leadership, I look for mission-orientation, complementary abilities to my own, chemistry, and intellectual diversity. These, I believe, are vital elements to a good and effective team. AG Bell has already accomplished so much during my tenure and I thank my team for their work. A majority of our programmatic and developmental success is due to these individuals’ skill, tenacity, and faith to AG Bell’s mission. However, I don’t just see my teammates as mere delegates of my whim, but friends and mentees on whom I can impart wisdom and or guidance. I ensure they are recognized for their value and get from my leadership what I get from their work.
Related to the first two, my third principle is being a change-agent. This isn’t about my own legacy; this principle reflects my desire to produce positive transformation and leave something better than when I found it. I don’t adopt a mission without following this creed. At AG Bell, I ensure we reach out to as many people with hearing loss as possible and allow them to pursue a journey permitting them to hear and talk. The stories from parents explaining to me their ecstasy at hearing those first words of their child born with hearing loss actually fuels my efforts to replicate that change elsewhere. I focus this inwardly as well, mentoring and guiding AG Bell employees to be the best they can be in whatever they choose to do.
- What was your perception of the organization before joining AGBell and how has it changed over time?
I was attracted to the historic presence of the organization. Its very origins come from Dr. Alexander Graham Bell’s lifelong work in helping people with hearing loss function as integral members of society. Continuing his work with all the benefits of technology, with greater compassion and a greater understanding of how people learn, is a wonderful mission. I was impressed with the board’s commitment and personal involvement in the organization. Furthermore, I also believe that my background has given me the skills and knowledge that AG Bell needs to go from a good organization to a great one.
Over the past four years of meeting outstanding professionals in our field and the families we serve, I’ve come to understand how life-changing it is for a child to learn to hear and talk. The opportunities for them to study and work alongside people with typical hearing are far more prevalent than ever before. The vital key is ensuring that parents are aware of the options they have as early as possible in their child’s life – and if they choose for him to listen and speak, there must be qualified professionals by their side so that their child can catch up with his peers and begin his education in mainstream settings. Although the organization has always had at its core the mission of preparing those professionals with the most up-to-date information, the compassionate and supportive responsibility we have to families has become equally important. And it’s important not to stop when a child enters school, but to continue helping the child through transitions into middle and high school and eventually college and/or a career. That’s not something that only AG Bell must do; our entire society should be interested in helping these children achieve their potential so that they can participate and contribute as independent, self-reliant adults. Our work will continue to raise awareness of the options that families can choose and to support children from cradle to career.
- What was the first thing you did when you joined as CEO?
When I arrived in 2014, AG Bell was already a strong and renowned organization. It had a healthy balance sheet, an effective board of directors with field experience in hearing health, a historic reputation, and an extensive national presence in about 25 states. Although AG Bell was an established resource for parents in distress, it still faced competition for space among organizations focused on more prevalent medical issues. My first push as CEO at AG Bell was to increase our presence and public awareness. To do this, I focused on improving our marketing strategy with smart digital content, expanding our social media communication and connecting with spokespeople to raise the organization’s brand profile among the general public, health providers and educators. The goal is for parents to know about us before they have cause for anxiety and distress.
One of the most effective ways we have improved support for families is through the growth of our chapters. We invested in developing a structured plan with guidance from nationally known chapter experts, and then we worked the plan, growing our chapters from 25 to 41, with more on the way. We eliminated the cost of membership to families and people in their communities who want to get involved, and our membership has grown by more than 40%. This gives families and professionals the opportunity to talk to each other and learn from each other, which improves the service professionals can deliver while also ensuring that families have the information and support they need.
Additionally, I also worked on the organization’s fundraising. I worked to reduce AG Bell’s reliance on grants and open revenue streams from individuals and corporations to better ensure sustainability and continuity. Having the traditional support we did was helpful in allowing us to explore new avenues of support and improve the services we were providing to professionals and families. We must continue to excite people about our mission and give them the opportunity to participate in changing lives. One way we’ve been improving our knowledge and our reach has been by forging collaborative relationships and engaging our corporate funders to be more involved in working with teens and young adults. Funding the organization is valuable, but so is the contribution of time and knowledge. I’ve worked to offer people new ways to be involved – to serve on committees, write blogs and articles for our magazine, participate in one of our state chapters, mentor an intern, attend an event, and speak publically about the importance of helping children become literate and independent.
- How are you working with the board to develop new initiatives that use the latest technology that would give AGBell an edge into helping people who are deaf or hard of hearing?
Science and technology, I believe, can be a force for good. We are proud to hold very close relationships with our corporate sponsors who are never shy about sharing with us the latest technology helping people with hearing loss. Many of our board members, including those with hearing loss, are active in technology and scientific fields, so they provide valuable information on the most effective utilization of these technologies.
AG Bell is partnering with its corporate sponsors to produce 10-20 minute webinars where we introduce parents of children with newly identified hearing loss to the resources and information they need. These webinars first address a topic area of importance to the parents and then present information specific to the sponsor of the webinar.
A new initiative we recently launched is a hotline for caregivers of children who are newly identified as deaf or hard of hearing. Alongside the traditional phone call or email, users can also video conference with an AG Bell early intervention parent consultant who can listen to them and connect them with necessary resources. The video conference will also have CART live-captioning for callers who have hearing loss. This is a great opportunity for AG Bell to utilize new technologies to reach out and communicate with the world as well as learn so much more about what we can do to help people with hearing loss.
- Tell us about a new initiative/strategy/project at AGBell and what you envision it will do for the deaf and hard of hearing community (and or their families/caretakers)?
As technological advancements and cutting-edge research continue to push hearing technology to levels Dr. Bell couldn’t begin to imagine, our efforts to communicate and educate families about these scientific strides are paramount to their children fully benefiting from them to achieve independence and self-reliance.
To that end, we are proud to offer a strategic, corporate partnership opportunity to strong corporate supporters, entitled AG Bell’s Cradle to Career Initiative. Under this initiative, corporate partners gain recognition and opportunities to connect with the audiences and communities connected to AG Bell and to support strategic activities designed to promote listening and spoken language and support children with hearing loss on their journey to independent lives.
There are three pillars to the AG Bell Cradle to Career initiative: the new parent hotline I discussed in the last question, chapter expositions, and internships for young adults with hearing loss.
Chapter expos are great avenues to quickly disseminate information about AG Bell or the latest audiological news to families and professionals around the country. These events solidify AG Bell’s focus on the importance of community for support and the vital role parents play in their children’s development. They also offer our partners the opportunity to deliver hands-on training on hearing technology and to gather feedback from users of the technology to improve the products they are developing.
AG Bell is fully engaged in this development, and in bringing opportunities to young people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Our internships offer graduates of our Leadership Opportunities For Teens program (college undergraduate students) direct exposure to the manufacturing of hearing amplification equipment and introduce them to the manufacturing field. For the scientifically minded, we recently launched our STEM internship program placing promising students with hearing loss in laboratories where new research is being conducted at leading universities. So far AG Bell has seven university partners, including Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, MD, which this summer accepted five deaf or hard of hearing students and placed them in auditory research labs with professors who have hearing loss. These professors act as mentors for these students in the hopes of inspiring them to pursue STEM careers. The benefits of this program last beyond the internship, as already we’ve seen students in these programs enter graduate studies in the sciences, with several becoming professors and doctors who in turn mentor students with hearing loss.
We hope, through the Cradle to Career initiative, to embolden both parents and their children with hearing loss to be strong advocates throughout their lives. AG Bell chapters bring communities together, providing them with the information they can use to improve opportunities for children who learn to listen and speak. Who but parents know what is best for their children, and who but people with hearing loss know what’s best to help them achieve their potential?
About The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing: The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AG Bell) helps families, health care providers and education professionals understand childhood hearing loss and the importance of early diagnosis and intervention. Through advocacy, education and financial aid, AG Bell helps to ensure that every child and adult with hearing loss has the opportunity to listen, talk and live a life without limits. With chapters located in the United States, AG Bell International in Europe and a network of international affiliates, AG Bell supports its mission: Working Globally to Ensure That People Who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing can Hear and Talk.