Marietta business executive Chad E. Foster says he’s successful and happy — not despite being blind but because of it.
“Most people spend their entire lives trying to figure out how to be happy, something I learned early,” said the now 44-year-old married father of two. “Happiness is not a feeling or emotion. Happiness is a decision each of us makes every single day when we wake up.”
Foster was only three when he started having trouble seeing at night. His parents took him to Duke University Hospital, where he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic and degenerative eye disease.
By his late teens and early 20s, Foster had to accept that he would never drive again, never see another sunset or his family.
“It was really a difficult period for me trying to figure out what I was going to do and what my life was going to look like moving forward,” he said.
After some near-death injuries, Foster went to Michigan to train for a month with a seeing-eye dog. There, he met people who were not only blind but also dealing with mental impairments, kidney failure, even deafness.
The experience helped change the trajectory of his life.
“Being exposed to these courageous people taught me life’s most valuable lesson: Life without obstacles removes opportunities for growth,” Foster said. “We have to choose to deliberately frame our perception, or we allow the circumstances of life to determine our happiness.”
With that knowledge, he said he “stopped playing the victim.”
He changed his major at the University of Tennessee from medicine to business administration and — after having to relearn how to learn without the benefit of eyesight — he sailed through with straight A’s.
A job offer from a Fortune 500 company was waiting for him at graduation. He’s been climbing the corporate ladder ever since, securing more than $45 billion in technology contracts for current and former employers. He’s also written computer code that’s helping make the tech world more user-friendly for the blind.
Foster is currently a finance executive at Red Hat, the world’s largest open-source software company.
In 2015, his bosses sent him to Harvard Business School’s leadership program, where he earned the distinction of being the program’s first blind graduate.
That experience turned into another life-changer for Foster. He was chosen by his classmates as a graduation speaker and drew a standing ovation with a poignant and humor-laced address.
“If you are looking at going blind, trust me, now is the time — with all the technology, GPS and smartphones,” he said as the audience roared.
Tomer Zvulun, artistic director for The Atlanta Opera, attended the leadership program with Foster and was in the audience when he gave his remarks.
“His speech was so moving, so human, and all-inclusive,” Zvulun said. “His point was none of us is born with complete autonomy and control of our lives. We all have to deal with circumstances.”
Foster’s speech was so inspiring that it prompted Zvulun to commission an opera slated to premier in 2022.
It also motivated Foster to be more intentional about “using his gift of blindness” by giving motivational speeches to leadership and sales teams and by writing a book about his life that is due out next year.
“If you were to offer me the ability to see – with the caveat that I couldn’t help other people – I don’t think I’d take it,” he said.
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