When Tony Cancelosi’s father was in his seventies, he lost his eyesight. Like many of the 300 million other people living with visual impairments or blindness in the world today, he was devastated. Like those 300 million people, however, he did not have to go through it alone. As President and CEO of Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind (CLB), Tony Cancelosi is committed to making sure these individuals know that, though the world may have gone dark, light remains.
“When people receive the bad news that they’re going blind, it’s easy to isolate themselves from the rest of the world and fall into depression,” he affirms. “It’s my hope that we make it less easy to do that by reaching out with the aim to resurrect them back into society where they belong.”
CLB was founded on May 17, 1900, with the primary purpose of creating job opportunities for visually impaired and blind individuals. Society had begun to realize that, within their own family and their own community, people were losing their sight but not their intellectual capacity to think and to interact with others. In those days, CLB focused on career opportunities that ranged from making brooms to caning chairs, and individuals were equipped with the skills they needed to make and then sell those products. As time passed and more people began losing their sight due to obesity, diabetes, genetics, and the aging population, the organization swelled. Today, 14 million people are living in the United States with visual impairment or blindness, and though 9 million of them are of a working age, between 18 and 68 years old, over 50 percent of them are unemployed.
Thanks to technological advancements, however, this is changing. More products are being created to allow these individuals to lead independent, normal lives, and CLB is embracing those innovations to press the limits of what we used to think was possible. Today, the organization runs eight government contracts with individuals working at Andrews Air Force Base, handling sophisticated incoming and outgoing communications with the help of specialized computer technology, earphones, and communications links. “A person who is visually impaired or blind still retains all the creativity, mind, and spirit of someone with perfect vision, and we help them to maximize that potential in the workplace,” Tony explains.
As a regional agency connected to 89 other agencies around the country, CLB is local in scope but with worldwide affiliation. At present, it has a $5 million budget and a team of around 85 employees. “Our vision is independence for the people we assist,” Tony affirms. “Employment relies on an individual’s ability to be independent—to grocery shop, cook, and ride the metro—which is why we weave these skills into our training.”
Tony came to CLB in 2005, when the organization found itself approaching a time of change in which its internal controls could be adjusted to maximize its profitability for resources to serve its constituency. The enterprise realized it needed to change the demographics of the organization such that it could reach deeper into potential government contracts, utilize more technology, create more partnerships, and identify more corporate donors and sponsorships. Amidst the evolution, the CLB team needed a new President and CEO—someone who had corporate experience, a familiarity with technology, experience working with people with disabilities, and a strategy that could really connect them to the corporate world, the government world, and the community.
When the opportunity arose, Tony had just sold a company and was helping a friend buy and sell companies as well. Previously, he served as Chairman of the board of a large nonprofit, worked with Vietnam veterans for years, and participated on the board for the International Center for the Disabled, so as a corporate executive, he had substantial involvement with people with disabilities. “Donors, corporate givers, foundations, and government contracts are challenging nonprofits today to operate more like a business,” he explains. Though many applied for the opportunity to lead CLB in this endeavor, Tony was named the best man for the job.
He accepted the position at CLB not for its shine, but for its tarnish. “It needed financial improvement and new Board Members,” Tony remembers. “It needed to be revitalized, and I’ve always rooted for the underdog. I love taking an antique and giving it new life. And when I look at the 200,000 visually impaired or blind people in this region, I saw that it was a large market share that we could truly build and expand the enterprise to serve. I started to look at what kind of impact I could make, and it was enormous.”
Growing up in South Philadelphia where the Rocky movies were filmed, impact was always something in the forefront of his mind. As a typical Italian family, the Cancelosis lived on the same street along with Tony’s grandparents, uncles, and aunts. “With the Catholic Church and the Italian market nearby, it was like growing up in Italy,” he laughs. When his grandfather came to America, he started a small farm in New Jersey, and his grandparents instilled in the family important values such as love, compassion, and generosity. “For instance, my father would come home with tons of vegetables and would give them all away to the neighbors,” Tony remembers. “Likewise, my mother would always make meals for other people. It was a ‘giving back’ environment, building a passion for helping others that might need you.”
When Tony was eight, the family moved to a new neighborhood, and without the Italian influences, it was like entering another world. His first job was selling Philadelphia’s famous pretzels to customers in different tailors’ shops around the area. His father wanted him to become a bricklayer, which he tried for one summer and decided it was not the future for him. “I would also help unload crates of strawberries and honeydew melons off my father’s truck to stay in shape,” he laughs. “My father was a professional fighter in his younger years, and I was a Joe Lewis Golden Glove Boxer, which taught me the discipline to train and work hard. It’s a discipline that has stayed with me over the years.”
Tony attended college on scholarship at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where he became passionate about learning how to put things together. “I was interested in being methodological and having attention to detail,” he remembers. While there, he met his wife and developed aspirations to become a computer salesman. He went to work selling dictating machines at Pomeranz, a famous stationary store in Philadelphia, where he remembers learning how to hear his own voice. “You build confidence as you start to do things, and I started getting more confident that I could get up in front of a group and talk to people,” he affirms. “Sales started to become natural for me.”
After college, Tony’s first job was with Control Data in sales, and in the twenty years he spent there, he transitioned into a management position and moved down to DC to work in the federal marketing division, exposing him to the federal space for the first time. “I thought I could do more strategic thinking and wanted to develop my management skills, as well as my ability to solve problems,” he remembers. “I wanted to learn how to motivate other people, creating an environment for people to accomplish things and enjoy what they’re doing. You can learn a lot about someone through observation—how they treat people, how they do things, and who they are as individuals. My mother and father didn’t have much education, but they did have this interpersonal skill that made people feel welcome and at ease.”
During his tenure at Control Data, an opportunity arose to join a group that would build a countrywide network to create an online education system. At the time, Tony was part of an organization that ran training centers around the country, some of which conducted testing for NASDAQ, so he was invited to join the initiative. Thus, they created a company called Key Systems in 1985, which was then able to acquire a company that was manufacturing Tudor, a program that would train people on Word Perfect. Tony left Control Data to raise money for this new venture, which allowed Key Systems to buy the Sylvan Learning name from Kindercare. They then took that public in 1991—the ultimate something-from-nothing story.
By that time, Tony had departed to serve as CEO for a government contracting organization, and he began to get a sense of the skills he would need to develop in order to push companies past his previous threshold. “As you mature into your profession, you become known as you achieve, and as that occurs, you put another notch in you belt,” he explains. “If you try to take a leap when you’re not ready, you’re going to miss the boat.” With this in mind, he focused for several years on doing corporate federal contract leases that culminated in several large transactions.
After selling that company, Tony took over the worldwide software business of ICL, an English firm that proved to be the second largest computer manufacturer in Europe. While the enterprise was worldwide, it was somewhat small, but Tony was committed to changing that. He focused on building relationships in the US with EDS and Motorola, eventually selling the business to a Fortune 500 Company. “At that point, I was realizing I had the capacity to leave when I have to leave, get into something else, make an impact, and leave again, usually in three to five year increments,” he details. “Collectively, that gave me about ten years of international experience.”
After ICL, Tony did some consulting and was then contacted to help put together a startup company focusing on voiceover IP. The company needed investors and a CEO to run it, so Tony was asked to come put together the team and the board of directors. He did so, increasing revenue and running the business for four years before bringing in new management and leaving in pursuit of his next venture. “We started at a small roundtable in Reston, Virginia, with a $2 million investment, and ended up selling to another company,” he explains. “We survived the Dotcom era.” Again, he had created something out of nothing and left an organization stronger and more robust than he had found it.
Tony then began working for Eye Bright, a friend’s company that was developing compression technology to go onto a handheld device for MapQuest on AOL. Another company he worked for, Estara, created a number of technology tools that have became staples of everyday life. “Disney’s website uses our click-and-talk capability,” he points out. “For another client, we created single sign on technology for them in 1991. When I can see these things I’ve helped to create for use in everyday life, it’s more rewarding than if I made millions and millions of dollars. It’s about integrating people, systems, and internal controls, and about putting things in place. It involves organization management, structure, and corporate formulation—how you create a company to function properly. But even more so, it’s about understanding the kind of impact you want to make on society. Voiceover IP was a major impact, as was training and education through the Sylvan Learning Centers.”
Today, with CLB, Tony is focused on making that impact even bigger. “It’s a chronic disease that’s effecting diverse populations,” he points out. “17 percent of the returning soldiers are now visually impaired or blind, and with the aging veteran population, the problem is growing more severe. What makes things worse, 85 percent of people are stricken with depression when they originally lose their vision. With these statistics in mind, I see our organization growing to serve more of the population by creating more partnerships, getting more government contracts, and focusing on veterans, seniors, and children, creating the kinds of programs that truly help them find happiness and productivity. And the most important thing is letting them know we’re there for them. And when we create new ways of helping here, they’re replicated in the 89 other organizations we’re connected to, generating a global impact. That’s what we’re striving for.”
In order to serve with the highest level of effectiveness, Tony knows that his team must be cohesive and communicative—qualities they’ve attained and continue to improve. “Each of the 84 people in our organization knows what our mission is, and that mission-driven work is perhaps the best kind of work,” he explains. “When you’re committed to a mission, that concept is bigger than you not feeling up to it on any given day. It’s bigger than you, and you’re committed to doing your best.” Tony is also committed to sustaining this momentum by embracing an open door policy, allowing his employees to voice their opinions to him. “We embrace freedom of speech here,” he says. “I aim to give my employees ownership, allowing them to fulfill their personal missions within the broader mission of the company. We are about mutual respect, and I want to hear from everyone in our organization.”
In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Tony emphasizes the importance of a holistic and complete honesty to oneself and others. “When it comes to who you are, what you want to do, and what you’re willing to do, always tell the truth,” he stresses. “If you decide you want to be self-made, you have to be honest with yourself about what reality is all about. Never take yourself to an extreme that you can’t come back from. Always have a contingency plan along the way, and truthfulness to yourself is the way to maintain that.”
Beyond that, Tony reminds others to remember the important things in life—the things that make life better for yourself and those around you. Remembering that his wife and children are the most important things in his life gives him strength to be the best leader he can be, which makes CLB a better organization. He also takes time out to volunteer as a Santa Claus for charity during the holiday season, and he has authored a children’s book whose proceeds go to CLB as well.
By looking for ways to give back, both big and small, one’s impact grows from raindrops to creeks to rivers to river systems. For adults 65 and older, the odds of experiencing vision loss are 1 in 3, compared to 1 in 6 for a man to develop prostate cancer, and 1 in 9 for a woman to develop breast cancer. Every seven minutes, someone may be diagnosed with vision loss. Yet if we as a society are committed to widening our impact and finding solutions that improve the lives of those around us, we can lend hope to the statistics and light to a world that’s gone dark.