The Gift of Insight

by Kat Meads

The Gift of Good Insight: Photo of Viji Dilip

Professional success.  How does one define it?

For Viji Dilip, ’95 MBA, CPA and once controller for multiple Silicon Valley start-ups, a doctor’s visit, an unexpected diagnosis, and the very real chance that she would go blind from a tumor pressing on her optic nerve combined to reshape her career goals and work priorities. And in that reevaluation, “pocketing loads of money,” in her phrase, no longer counted as a primary motivation.

“It was 2003. I was working at a start-up,” recalls Dilip. “Once the tumor was discovered, I went in to tell my boss that I was scheduled for brain surgery and that I’d be back in three weeks. He said: ‘You’re not joking, are you?’ It was just so sudden. The doctors couldn’t give me more than a couple of days to get ready. They had to get me into surgery and get it done.”

The surgery went well. Dilip emerged with her eyesight intact. But the experience changed her perspective “on the way I looked at life,” she admits. “I said to myself what if? After that close brush with blindness, I decided I didn’t want to do anything more with accounting. I wanted to give back to society, to help people who didn’t have vision with their education so that they could become economically and socially independent.”

A different career track

A native of India, Dilip received a BA in accounting from Madras University and, with her husband, made the move to the Bay Area. She was still in SJSU’s MBA program when Hewlett-Packard recruited her and jump-started her financial career in Silicon Valley. She took a year off to have a baby and returned to the workforce in 1997—but not to HP.

“I started chasing start-ups,” she says. “The dot com business was booming then.”

After leaving HP she headed up the finance and accounting divisions for a string of newbie companies, including Vivace Networks, acquired by Tellabs in 2003, and Net6, acquired by Citrix in 2004. After her brain surgery, when she quit Net6 to pursue “something totally different,” Dilip says she intentionally “started small. First I volunteered for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic in Palo Alto. Then, in 2005, I started volunteering for Bookshare, also headquartered in Palo Alto.”

Bookshare’s mission

A subscription-based, online library of digital books for people with print disabilities, Bookshare is part of Benetech, a company founded by former rocket scientist Jim Fruchterman. Also the founder of Arkenstone, a world leader in the production of reading machines for the blind, Pruchterman started Benetech in 2000 explicitly to solve social needs with technological innovation. In addition to the Bookshare program, Benetech sponsors programs in literacy, human rights and environmental conservation.

The 1996 Chafee amendment to U.S. copyright law allowing copyrighted books to be scanned and shared in digital formats for print-disabled readers means Bookshare doesn’t need to “talk to individual U.S. publishers,” Dilip explains. “Anyone with a print disability can pick up a book and have it converted to a format that he or she can use.”

Bookshare’s library now contains more than 60,000 books and 150 periodicals that can be converted to Braille, large print or synthetic speech. A community of volunteers scanned in the initial titles, most of which were novels. More recently, Bookshare has expanded its educational titles in conjunction with a $32 million grant from the US. Department of Education to offer Bookshare as a free service for all K-12 students.

Going international

An estimated 10 million people in the U.S. are unable to read a traditional printed book because of a disability. Worldwide, that number is far, far greater. From the beginning of her association with Bookshare, Dilip was thinking beyond U.S. borders.

“Because I’m from India, I started looking at the situation of the print-disabled people in that country, and I found there was a huge gap. India was a good 20 to 30 years behind the United States in terms of assistive technology for the blind,” she reports.

Even as a volunteer, she remembers constantly “bugging” Fruchterman about the need to expand internationally. “Then one day Jim called me in to say: ‘Okay, Viji, I’ve just got a grant from the Newcomb Foundation to take Bookshare international. Do you want to head that up?’ and I said, ‘Okay, Jim.’ So that’s how l became international program coordinator in 2007.”

Dilip works with organizations in Canada and the United Kingdom as well as in India, where Bookshare employs what Dilip describes as a “ground team” of four. In countries other than the U.S., procuring titles can be a slow and complicated process.

“In underdeveloped countries, the biggest problem we face is that copyright issues have not been addressed by government in the local area,” she says. “We get around those issues by talking to publishers on a one-on-one basis and gaining their permission.”

Thus far, 15 Indian publishers have agreed to share their titles, and others in the country—both publishers and authors—are coming forward to offer their books. Dilip’s first major coup in that regard was partnering with Seasons Publishing, based in Chennai, India. “Our next big win was Sahitya Akademy,” she says, a firm that publishes award-winning titles in 15 local languages.

To date, Bookshare offers texts in English, French, German and Spanish. Dilip and the engineers at Benetech expect to add Hindi and Tamil to that list by year’s end and other non-European languages soon thereafter. The additions will “make a huge difference in places like India where a huge portion of the population uses the local languages to continue their education,” Dilip says.

In efforts to improve Bookshare’s reach and effectiveness, Dilip collaborates with other international organizations, including the International Council for the Education of the Visually Impaired and Sight Savers.

“Those organizations already know the lay of the land, the people, where the technology exists and what can be easily secured,” Dilip explains, “so we partner with them.”

A good day’s work

With her Indian marketing team in place, Dilip has cut back on the multiple annual trips she used to make to her home country and concentrates instead on coordinating operations from her Palo Alto office. Her day starts early—6:30 a.m. or 7—with telephone calls to the Far East, Korea, India and the U.K.

Throughout the day, she works with the collection development and membership departments, vetting membership requests, all of which require proof of disability.

“I receive interesting requests from U.S. citizens who are situated in other countries—diplomats, people in the military—whose children are attending American international schools and following an individualized education plan based on an American curriculum while their parents are stationed abroad for a year or two,” she says. “I just recently set up accounts for American children with print disabilities attending a school in Sudan.”

And is Dilip, CPA turned International Program Coordinator, pleased with her career shift?

Absolutely.

“Receiving a phone call from a parent who says, ‘Thank you so much! My child can actually continue his education now!’ Or a call saying, ‘My kid is now able to read. His studies have picked up and he’s doing really well.’ That,” says Dilip, “is very, very satisfying.”