As part of my series about “companies and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Soukup. Chris is Chief Executive Officer of CSD. A 2001 graduate of Gallaudet University, Chris has held diverse and progressively responsible positions thoughout the organization. He began his journey with CSD working in a community-based role in the mid-1990’s. Since 2005, he has been a member of CSD’s executive leadership team, and in 2014, he was appointed by the CSD Board of Directors to lead and support this growing company as Chief Executive Officer. Serving as a senior company spokesperson, he has represented CSD at a plethora of events throughout North America including domestic and international conferences relating to the Deaf, community-based public forums, educational panels and instructional workshops, and other public engagements. Over the past several years he has served on a number of prominent committees and advisory boards that support issues interfacing with the Deaf community including the Federal Communication Commission’s Consumer Advisory Committee and the USBLN Disability Equality Index Advisory Committee.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The mission and work of CSD has been a part of my life’s journey from the beginning. I come from a deaf family and have been deaf since birth. My grandfather owned a farm in central South Dakota. One summer a terrible storm destroyed the farm and he went to the back to secure a loan in order to rebuild. The bank refused to give him a loan, believing that a deaf person could not successfully own and operate a farm. My grandfather passed away a short time after that when my father was 12 years old.
The family struggled financially after my grandfather passed away and my father was unable to pursue a college education leaving school after one semester. After that, Dad ended up working at a meat processing plant in Sioux Falls, SD. It was dangerous work but it paid well and for deaf people without the privilege of an education and access to opportunities, it was a way to support their families. One day, a group of deaf workers were sharing grievances about a lack of access to communication and information with their employer. They talked about the need for an organization that could both advocate for improved access and actually provide services direly needed by the community. This is where the idea for CSD was born. A few months later, with a $15,000 grant from the State of South Dakota, CSD opened its doors in November 1975.
I have been fortunate to be able to bear witness to the growth of CSD through the years into what we are today. From early on in its history, CSD has sought to represent the talent and passion that exists within our community. For me, it is home and the work that we do is so germane to the quality of life for my family and the community that I care about deeply.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I was young, one of my uncles (who is deaf) started his own business providing lawn care and snow removal services. The business operated successfully for many years until it was sold. During this time, the business hired many deaf people. Several workers stayed with my uncle for many years and learned to operate complex equipment and were promoted and given the opportunity to run a crew and be responsible for a schedule. My uncle was not well known outside of the state, but he was and continues to be deeply respected at home because of the years he spent mentoring young workers and contributing to local deaf organizations. His story is one of many in our community. We have come to realize that deaf business owners want to hire deaf workers, use deaf contractors and vendors, contribute back and sponsor organizations and activities. With his story and countless others in mind, CSD launched a social venture fund in 2017 and have begun to make angel investments that support deaf people who aspire to own their own business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I naturally gravitate to big picture topics and love to speak about transformation and change within the deaf and disability communities. I had several experiences earlier in my career where I was asked to support an event and would fill the air with grandiose ideas only to find that my audience was interested in topics and concerns that were much closer to home. For example, I spoke to a group of sign language interpreters that worked with CSD about our vision for the future and when I was done talking, they began to ask questions that were more operational in nature….scheduling conflicts, communication gaps, and other challenges that were causing frustration for the group In attendance. I failed to anticipate why they were attending and made the mistake of assuming it was to see me speak about great big ideas. I would encounter similar challenges at community events and even in business meetings when presenting to prospective customers. It took me a while to learn how to effectively frame the work I was doing and my company was doing in a manner that my audience (whomever they happened to be) could connect with and relate to.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
CSD is a constellation of companies that provide products, programs, and services that are designed to create opportunities for deaf people to succeed. Our reach is in the millions and our impact over four decades is substantial. We believe that success, however one chooses to define it, fosters change in public perception about who deaf people are and what they are capable of contributing to society. We also believe that disability is diversity and that deaf identities should be valued and celebrated as a condition of being that adds color and texture to our world.
Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
Many of the services that we provide are confidential or involve handling information that is confidential and our community is small so even stories with vague descriptions can often be traced back to a person. This is a hard one to answer with specificity. We have a program in Minnesota that works with deaf immigrants to help them acquire language and other basic skills essential to becoming citizens, finding jobs, and being able to provide for their families. For a number of years, CSD operated an alcohol and substance abuse program and helped a number of struggling deaf individuals get into and transition out of recovery programs. CSD operates call centers around the world that support telecommunications relay service programs. This is part of a historic partnership with Sprint that has endured for more than 25 years. In this span of time, CSD and Sprint have processed billions of minutes of relay to facilitate phone communication between deaf and non-deaf people.
Some of my favorite stories have to do with the introduction of video relay in the early 2000’s. Prior to video relay, deaf people used text channels to communicate with voice callers. For many deaf people whose native language is ASL, communicating by text is a cumbersome process that is slow and easily misunderstood. Video Relay introduced opportunities for deaf people to communicate with the world through a sign language interpreter via video conference. The facilitation is faster and more accurate for the vast majority of ASL users. CSD launched this service at an international conference in Washington DC in 2002. Tens of thousands of deaf people from around the world were able to call home to their families and communicate in sign, many for the first time in their lives. The first few years after the service was launched, it was not unusual to see people in tears at the conclusion of their first video relay call. CSD was the first to provide this service on a national scale.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Children with disabilities need to have access to and an opportunity to interact with peers and adults like themselves. No child should ever feel broken or not proud of who they are. Unfortunately, 90% of deaf children are mainstreamed and often spend a great part of their lives trying and failing to make themselves normal. The earlier we can address and celebrate their identities and connect them with role models, the better aligned they will be for personal development and success in life. Invest in and protect funding for programs and resources that support our kids in the mainstream.
- Support employment initiatives for the deaf and disability populations. 70% of deaf people are either unemployed or underemployed. Our workforce participation rate according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics is abysmal and a fraction of the rates for people who do not identify with a disability.
- Support efforts to promote entrepreneurship within the deaf and disability communities. Entrepreneurship is powerful because it creates opportunity for wealth for marginalized populations and, since business owners who are deaf or have another disability recognize the talent and value of our community, they are more likely to hire from this community as their businesses grow. The success of entrepreneurs pushes our work further into the mainstream view and contributes to a new perspective of people with disabilities.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
One definition of leadership that I agree with refers to the act of awakening the internal motivations of the people we support and aligning that with a goal or outcome. While leaders are also teachers, largely the true effort is activating people and teams in ways that are meaningful. This is a way to describe what a leader does, but doesn’t really capture the essence of what a leader is. The best leaders are the ones that create more leaders and they do this by cultivating space and creating opportunities for the people they support to grow.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Leadership requires competency in dealing with white space. There are infinite resources all around us…books that cover every conceivable business topic that one can conjure, but ultimately and often leaders interact with and make decisions that pertain to situations where there is no clear blueprint for success. Decision making, however calculated and well informed, involves an element of risk that one has to get comfortable with.
- Life is constant change and the pace of change in our world from innovation continues to intensify. I have learned that success requires a learning mindset and leaders must continuously endeavor to refresh and expand their knowledge about topics that intersect with the work they do. An important realization for me was that there are lessons all around us and in front of us every day if we are paying attention and listening with an open mind.
- Authenticity begins from within. A lot has been written about “authentic” leadership, but I feel that being an authentic leader begins with self-understanding. When I first began to advance professionally, I felt the need to conform with conventional definitions of leadership even when it felt artificial and forced. Over time I learned that leaders come in all shapes and sizes. Ultimately it is a process of figuring out who you are and the brand of leadership that reflects the best parts of what you have to offer other people. When your leadership brand aligns with who you are as a person…that is authentic and that is what captivates and inspires the people you support.
- Find a rhythm early and amplify. Leaders set the cadence for their teams in the same way that a drummer sets the tempo for a band. The ability to invoke a sense of urgency when it is needed and to adjust and balance for busy and quiet periods to keep energy levels and motivations at a high level is so crucial to performance. A team that moves from one fire drill to the next will burn out quickly regardless of circumstance.
- Culture is everything. A company’s values are just words on a page if it isn’t backed up with clear action. Leaders make decisions that produce actions that define what a team or a company is or does. Choices become the culture. Learning to be cognizant of the impact of decisions holistically on an organization is tremendously important. CSD underwent a substantial and deliberate change in the way we worked and the way we thought about our work which in turn transformed our company culture.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. ?
Labels are dangerous and there are numerous examples of how labels encourage pre-conception and discrimination. I would like to see us move beyond labels and recognize that we are all…all of us…multidimensional and truly unique. The less we assume about a person, the more open we are to learning about who they are. Specifically in relation to the deaf and disability populations, recognizing that one size does not fit all when it comes to adaptions promotes necessary dialogue on an individual-by-individual basis as to how relationships at home, in school, in the workplace, and in public spaces are supported.