Kathryn Webster’s Vision Helps The Blind Shine in Business

above: Although born blind, Kathryn has never let the condition define her.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY KYLE NORTON • HAIR BY MARINA NIKAC, SALON MIMOZA, GREENWICH • MAKEUP BY LYDIA ARROYO

Kathryn Webster has an impressive résumé. She earned her bachelor of science degrees in statistics and computer science, with high honors, from Wake Forest. She earned an MBA from Harvard. Her career has taken her from Deloitte in D.C. to global investment firm KKR in New York. She spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative and was named a 2023 Change Maker. She is a trailblazing advocate for the visually impaired and launched the TAD Foundation last year. She is only twenty-eight.

Don’t tell Kathryn she’s “inspirational,” though. She can’t stand that, because the compliment is usually linked to a fact that the Greenwich resident has never allowed to define her: Kathryn Webster is blind. When leaving a conference, a simple comment that she’s taking the train home may yield the “inspiration” line. “Give me a break,” she says. To her, the obstacles she needs to maneuver around on her commute are nothing. The roadblocks Kathryn is striving to clear for the almost eight million visually- impaired people in the United States are the ones commanding her laser focus.

Kathryn and her trusty companion, Theo

GROWING UP GREENWICH
Kathryn was born blind, but her parents had no idea for the first two weeks, until Kathryn’s dad, Tad Webster (the inspiration behind the TAD name), noticed she startled every time a camera clicked. Her mom, Monica Webster, was sure her baby was fine but took her to the pediatrician at his urging. “The waiting room was packed that day,” recalls Monica. “They did the blue light vision test right in the entryway.” When the nurse blurted, “I’m sorry, your daughter is blind,” Monica fainted.

An emergency surgery restored vision in Kathryn’s right eye, giving her 20/70 vision in that eye, with corrective lenses, for the first ten years of her life. Her parents divorced when Kathryn was under two, and by age four, she had moved from Fort Lauderdale, where she was born, to New Jersey, and finally Greenwich—pinpointed by Monica for its public schools with the support Kathryn would need.

Monica, a realtor at Douglas Elliman, stopped in during our interview at Kathryn’s new townhouse in Greenwich. Their mother-daughter banter is typical. Kathryn: “I just bought this house—my first house!” Monica, “Yeah, I was like, ‘Bye, buh-bye! See ya later.’” She chuckles and mentions that the place needs some lamps. But there is enough light to see her pretty blond daughter on the couch, relaxed and confident, in a casual sweater and pants—there is nothing that says “disabled” here or “special needs”—a term Kathryn especially loathes. Her guide dog Theo offers a hearty greeting and wanders the room.

As a single mom to Kathryn and her older brother Alec, Monica did not have time for pity or coddling. “It was my job as a mom to find her strengths and move forward,” says Monica. “She had twenty-three surgeries. I was working full-time. I just kept my head down. I never remarried. I focused on the kids.”

Tough love is one ingredient in Kathryn’s success story. At Central Middle School and Greenwich High, Kathryn was part of the cool crowd. As her vision deteriorated, she didn’t want to stand out. She started to learn braille at her mother’s insistence, but she kept taking off her thick glasses and throwing away her cane. “My mom and Alec let me fall down the steps at a pizza place,” recounts Kathryn. Monica chimes in, “She refused to use the cane. She had to learn.”

Kathryn was an athletic kid. She was a cheerleader and ran track. By junior year, she had lost too much vision to continue competing in cheerleading. “That was so heartbreaking,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to accept accommodations. With track, my mom would casually wear a cute neon jacket so I could see her at the end of my sprint. Then I did a triathlon with Bob D’Angelo, who used to run the Boys & Girls Club.” Kathryn took up rowing, which she continued through college. She also plays golf. “She’s the stellar athlete in the family,” says Monica. “She’s a great golfer—you just need to tell her the hole is at 12 o’clock, 2 o’clock…” Kathryn scoffs, “Golfing is not a hard sport for a blind person.”

Kathryn had a storage room at the high school full of braille books. She took AP courses. Years in advance she just had to decide which ones, so her books would come on time. She took the SAT and ACT in braille.

“My teachers were incredible,” she says. “They are such a big part of why I’m successful today. Jennifer Perrelli, my math teacher, spent so much time with me. My English teacher, Mr. Walker—I love him to death. I used a device called a BrailleNote, which is essentially a laptop with a Braille screen on it, to read all my books.”

Camille Fusco, Kathryn’s high school Latin teacher, comments, “Kate was an incredibly disciplined, intelligent, curious student. She was a strong self-advocate and essentially simply found a way to achieve her goals. She dealt with the challenges of multiple surgical procedures with grace and maturity. In many ways, Kate has been an exemplar to me when I have struggled with health issues.”

Alec Webster, who works in private equity in Dallas, talks to his sister daily. “We’re really close,” he says. “We always have been.” He credits his mom with pushing her kids to be independent. “She was a single mom. She had to figure out work, getting home to feed us, getting us to practice. If she had a bad day, she couldn’t just take a day off from being a mom,” he explains. “That trickled down to my sister. If she came home and said, ‘I couldn’t do this the same as everyone else, because I can’t see,’ we would say, ‘No, you can do it. Go and try again.’ That fed into everything: her going to Wake Forest, Harvard Business School, KKR.”

left: Kathryn in her Generals’ cheerleading days. right: Kathryn and Alec with their father, Tad.

COPING WITH DARKNESS
Kathryn was losing vision through high school due to scar tissue buildup. “I had to have cornea transplants. I’d had so many surgeries,” she says. “When I went to college, I got my first guide dog, Enzo. A dog, unlike a cane, is a social magnet. I didn’t want to be judged. If it was light out, I could see okay to get around, but I was more confident with Enzo.” She shifted from Mac to Windows to have access to JAWS screen-reading software. “I was studying statistics and computer science, so I needed the best software,” says Kathryn. “There are not a lot of blind people in STEM. I like doing things people say I can’t do.”

Kathryn got involved in student government. “I was treasurer. I also took over as president of the National Association of Blind Students, which is a very legislative collective action group nationally. We work with blind students on leadership development and everything under the sun in equipping them to be successful but also working with legislators on equal access to education and employment,” she explains. “We went to Capitol Hill and worked on bills with Congress.”

Two weeks before graduating from college, Kathryn lost the rest of her vision, but a phenomenon of “phantom vision”—the brain generating visual sensations when it’s not actually receiving visual stimuli—made her think she could still see. Another surgery ensued. It wasn’t until a doctor’s appointment in August, when she was told she had no light perception, that reality set in. “Everything went dark once I was told that,” says Kathryn.

Kathryn called her dad and shared the news. “He went on a motorcycle ride that night to clear his head,” recounts Kathryn, “and got in an accident.” Tad put on a brave front over the phone, but several weeks later Kathryn received the call he was in the hospital. She flew to Florida and found herself managing his medical decisions, including ultimately taking him off life support. Tad died on October 1, 2017. “That put everything in perspective,” says Kathryn. “Being blind was nothing compared to losing my dad.”

Despite being in a “deep funk,” Kathryn volunteered at a training center for blind kids, started her job as an analyst at Deloitte and spearheaded Project RISE—a mentorship program for visually impaired students in Virginia. She ran Project RISE for four years, while earning a promotion to senior consultant at Deloitte and a business school sponsorship. While at Harvard Business School, she received eight summer internship offers. But she knew she was the exception.

With a job offer from KKR in place, Kathryn used her final year at business school to develop an idea that would become her side job and altruistic mission. She founded the TAD Foundation in December of 2022 to give blind talent the opportunity to shine in the business landscape.

“In every space, I’m the only blind person,” says Kathryn. “It takes so much tenacity to stick with it. I want TAD to break down those barriers. The unemployment rate for blind people is 75 percent, and it has literally sat there since 1970. They are either earning subminimum wages—because that’s legal—or they are in the blindness field. Blind people don’t know they can do more because they are not given the resources to do more. They can go into any non-traditional field they want, not work in entry-level positions their whole life, not live off Social Security.”

left: Kathryn at the U.S. Olympic Training Center for triathlon training. right: An empowered child, Kathryn didn’t let anything stop her.

TAD offers parent programming, to ensure parents have the support, resources and network they need from their child’s infancy. “Parents need to be pushing the limits with their kids as soon as possible,” insists Kathryn, “making sure they have a cane in their hand as soon as they can walk, making sure they have Braille resources. We give them the foundational understanding of how to raise their kid to be just like any other kid.” That is Tad’s legacy, as stated on tadfoundation.org: “As a parent of a blind child, every day Tad believed in the capacity of his daughter and the rest of the blind community. He felt that blindness need not ever be an obstacle to success and ensured that mindset was instilled in his daughter as early as she could talk.”

TAD’s Mentorship Program pairs each student with a sighted and blind mentor. “It’s the first-of-its-kind training program,” says Kathryn. “Any mentorship program I know of in the U.S., students have a blind mentor, and that’s great, but we also integrate back into the sighted world that we live in. We are focused on developing technical and leadership skills—building Excel models or being able to present and network—not blindness skills. Our students have those already. It’s an academic year long, with four in-person weekend events and virtual meetings.”

Alec Webster, a founding member of TAD, is currently mentoring two students—one at Notre Dame and one at Cal Berkeley. “One wants to work in finance, one in law,” explains Alec. “Getting to know them has been awesome. Bringing the knowledge from the sighted side is really helpful in duo with the blind mentor. We both bring advantages that the other doesn’t have. I can tell them about the intangibles: sitting upright in an interview, holding eye contact, putting your hand out to shake, bringing your attention to the speaker and not looking around the room. Together we can turn these students into really well-rounded candidates before their interviews. That’s a lot of what my mom and I did for my sister.”

Establishing corporate partners and building a pipeline of qualified blind candidates is the third TAD pillar. “It’s also a battle for businesses to understand what they need to provide for blind employees,” says Kathryn. “It’s minimal: I need JAWS and someone to show me around the building. That’s it. This weekend we have an event at KKR’s offices, working on everything—from how to digest a company’s 10-K to how to do a proper interview to résumés. We are working with local businesses, like Vineyard Vines, to get the students in professional dress.”

Nic Smoller, TAD’s chief strategist and also a Greenwich native, sits by Kathryn’s side during our interview. “Companies want to say ‘DEI DEI,’ [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion], but they’re missing a whole category of people that truly bring diverse experiences and perspectives,” says Nic. They recount a recent win, with a general contracting firm in Atlanta looking to hire blind interns. “We have two brothers based in Georgia,” he explains. “That will be a conversion to hopefully a full-time offer.”

Nic loves working with the current cohort of fifteen mentees. It’s rewarding in a way his mother Candace knew it would be when she met Kathryn by chance at Indian Harbor Yacht Club and learned about the foundation the young woman was forming. “She said, ‘Oh, my son has to be involved with that,’” recalls Kathryn.

Nic chimes in, “I went to Indian Harbor to meet Kathryn, and we talked for two and half hours. By the end I was part of the team.” The team also includes a slew of volunteers and a board of thirteen (half are blind). Syed Rizvi, a Harvard Law School student who will be working at Vinson & Elkins LLP in May, serves as vice president.

“Kate is a true team player who leads by example; she is humble and empathetic, quick to praise the accomplishments of others and downplay her own achievements,” comments Nancy Betty, a Greenwich nonprofit veteran who serves as one of Kathryn’s advisors. “However she chooses to apply her time and talent, the results are always impressive.”

There’s that word again. Kathryn will just have to learn to accept it.

left: Kathryn, Alec and Monica. middle: Kathryn (with Theo) at her Harvard Business School graduation. right: A former competitive equestrian, Kathryn now rides recreationally.

WEBSTER’S DICTIONARY

An enlightening snippet of mother-daughter banter

MONICA:
“Alec, he was the best big brother. He took care of you and me! Poor guy, grew up faster than he ever wanted to. The older child of a special needs child—”

KATHRYN:
“You can’t say special needs, Mom!”

MONICA:
“OK, what do we call you?”

KATHRYN:
“You say I have a disability or I’m blind.”

MONICA:
“Well, you are hardly disabled.”

KATHRYN:
“No, a person with a disability. I don’t care; I just don’t like special needs. As a kid, I hated being called blind, but now I say I’m blind, because I think with ‘visually impaired’ there is a connotation that I can see a little.”

Kathryn and her brother, Alec, who is a founding member of TAD, attending The Lighthouse Foundation’s San Francisco fundraiser. Kathryn serves as the nonprofit’s vice chairman.

COMPASSION NOT CONDESCENSION

  • Kathryn offers advice on how to help treat blind people as you would treat anyone else.
  • Offer help in a non-presumptive way, e.g. “Do you need help?” Or “Can I help with anything?” (Kathryn comments, “Sometimes in the street we are just exploring. If I bang into a garbage can, that’s OK; now I know where it is.”)
  • Coming into a room, make your presence known to a blind person, but be subtle.
  • Parents, don’t baby your blind children. Let them make mistakes.
  • Companies, hire diverse talent by putting your money where your mouth is and getting the talent in the door.

Visit the TAD site and email info@tadfoundation.org to learn more.

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