Listening to an inner voice – John Yeh, deaf entrepreneur

Alison A. Knocke

Listening To An Inner Voice John Yeh has a disability, but he doesn’t consider himself disabled. Born deaf in 1947, Yeh has always had to work a little harder. When his hearing disability closed doors to him in the business world, he did not give up. Instead he created his own opportunities.

The result was Integrated Microcomputer Systems, a computer-software engineering and integration company that Yeh founded in 1979. Then, the IMS staff consisted of Yeh, a business manager, and a secretary who knew sign language. Today, the firm, based in Rockville, Md., is a multimillion-dollar enterprise with 450 employees.

For John Yeh the road to achievement was difficult and sometimes frustrating. Yeh, one of six children, was born to Chinese parents. His family fled mainland China for Taiwan in 1949, them moved to Brazil on a cargo ship in 1960. He arrived in the U.S. in 1962.

In his new country, Yeh had to learn not just one language, but two. Although he could lip-read Chinese and knew Chinese sign language, he now had to translate Chinese to English and then English to sign language.

He was 15 at the time, and he was eager to start school and make friends. “But I was put in a class with the 8- and 9-year-olds,” he says, speaking through a sign-language interpreter. He was so embarrassed, Yeh continues, that he worked exceptionally hard and set high goals for himself.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in computer science from the University of Maryland, and he became a U.S. citizen. But when he decided to make his own place in the business world, new struggles began. With hands moving in fluid motion, he communicates the frustration he experienced when attempting to come up with the funds to start his company. Every bank rejected Yeh’s request for money, even though his parents offered their home as collateral.

Yeh looked to those in his family for moral support. Without them, he says, “I probably would have quit.”

Finally, in 1979, friends told him of loans available to the handicapped and members of minority groups through the U.S. Small Business Administration. When Yeh was told he needed three bank-loan rejection letters to be eligible, he simply turned over that day’s mail. He got a loan for $100,000.

Yeh has gone on to develop the Personal Tele-Communicator, a machine that allows deaf people to communicate through telephones and computer networks, and he is working on other technology that will further merge the hearing and non-hearing worlds.

Yeh emphasizes that these machines are not IMS’s primary business, but rather its contribution to the community. Computer science research, telecommunications, and network design are central to the company.

When IMS was 7 months old, it received its first major contract, from the U.S. Army. even though the company was starting to grow at a healthy rate, Yeh took no salary for two years. His wife, Marry, who also is deaf, supported him with her teaching job. “I was nervous and worried the first year,” he recalls. “The money went fast.”

The Army contract was renewed and expanded, and now an estimated 85 percent of the company’s business comes from the Defense Department. Other IMS customers include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Texas Instruments, and the National Institutes of Health. IMS’s revenues for 1987 were $21 million, and were expected to reach $27 million last year.

More than 10 percent of Yeh’s employees are deaf, and 39 percent are minorities. “We do not look at color of skin,” Yeh says. “We do not give special treatment to the deaf. I want the world to understand that capable people should be given an opportunity, whether they are handicapped, black, or whatever.

“We must finally learn to look at people’s abilities and not their disabilities.”

COPYRIGHT 1989 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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