Ben Foss traces the inspiration for his invention, the Intel® Reader, to his studies at Stanford.
It was on the first day of a class taught by Intel co-founder Andy Grove when Grove, who is a Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) lecturer, asked his students why Intel had gotten out of the memory chip business.
“I answered that it seemed to me that Intel was in the horse and buggy business and then the car came along,” says Foss. “Big mistake.”
Foss, who is dyslexic, was in his final year of Stanford’s JD/MBA program. He had gone to the university’s Office of Accessible Education for the course audio books but had found they weren’t ready. So he wasn’t prepared for Grove’s first class and didn’t have all the background information about Intel’s strategic decision. Foss endured the remainder of that class with Grove calling on him over and over, referring to him as “Mr. Horse and Buggy” and looking to him for answers he did not have.
That low point didn’t last long. Right after class, Foss made sure he got the materials he needed from OAE to prepare for Grove’s next class, and he and his teacher developed a friendship that endures today. But the frustration he felt at not having the tools he needed stayed with him.
After receiving his JD/MBA in 2003, Foss went to work for Intel in the mobile technology group. There he came up with the idea for a device that takes a picture of a page of text and quickly reads it back—a device he certainly could have used when he was a student at Stanford.
An important part of the journey to Intel and the development of the Intel® Reader was for Foss the process of accepting dyslexia as part of his life. “I didn’t talk about it openly before Stanford. But the experience of dealing with the workload forced me to negotiate for accommodations, to get books on tape and spell check in exams, and all that,” he says. “I started to integrate dyslexia into my life—to make it part of who I am, not something to get over.”
Law school nearly did Ben Foss in. “I ruptured my spine and by second semester had put myself in the hospital,” says Foss. He blames the injury on his willfulness, but there’s more to it than that. He was fighting an uphill battle to keep up with the reading—which he estimates was taking him five times as long to complete as his peers. His backpack was loaded down with heavy casebooks and after discovering books on tape—the cassettes for which, he says, could weigh as much as a cinder block, particularly for Con Law—he was literally breaking under the weight.
Foss was identified with dyslexia at an early age, but he thrived with the help of supportive parents and teachers. “I was pulled out of elementary school classes to go to special class, but by the time I got to high school I had developed survival strategies. I would take only the first year of a foreign language so that I wouldn’t have to move on to spelling. I took AP English, which focused on Shakespeare, so I could watch the plays rather than read them,” he says. “But none of that could work here. Law school was my wall.”
Foss says that he suspects that most dyslexics self-select out of law, but for him it seemed a natural next step. He excelled at debate (he was the British Isles debating champion in 1998 and a World Masters Debating Champion in 2001), did social studies at Wesleyan University, received a Marshall Scholarship to study at The University of Edinburgh, and earned a Truman Scholarship to work at the National Economic Council at the White House.
“I worked in the Clinton administration and for Marion Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund. I worked for Chris Coons, who’s now Senator Coons from Delaware, and for Eliot Spitzer on his campaign for New York attorney general. They all went to law school. I thought I should too,” he says.
He was accepted to Stanford Law—but he wasn’t sure he wanted to go West. So he visited a friend, Kate Frucher, JD ’00. It was the late 1990s and Silicon Valley was booming.
“I went to a Vint Cerf (BS ’65) lecture and he was talking about the interplanetary Internet and how planetary designators might be assigned within URLs. And I thought there’s something going on here, something so different from the East Coast. And I wanted to be a part of it,” says Foss.
But that first year of law school made him face a reality. “It became clear to me that while I’d be fine working at a senior level in a law firm, I would get shelled at an entry-level job—that I would, ironically, not be able to do the work of an associate, without putting myself back in the hospital,” he says.
So he applied for a joint degree with the GSB and was accepted. He left Stanford Law, he says, thinking he might not come back to finish the law part of his degree.
“For me, the initial premise of going to law school was absurd. I don’t read as most do. I don’t spell. So each problem I faced just seemed like an incremental level of insanity.”
Foss thrived at the GSB and decided to finish his legal studies for the full joint degree because he could see the value in gaining a better understanding of the law. He persevered, making “lifelong friends” in both schools and even co-chairing the Stanford Public Interest Law Foundation’s auction. And he learned a lot about the different perspectives of each program—and the students in them.
After graduation, Foss jumped into the creative culture he found at Intel, working on venture capital deals for processors, screens, Skype, and more. A few years into the job he was looking at cell phone technology and exploring ways of receiving television on the tiny screen—when a light bulb came on.
“I was just playing with a cell phone and I wondered if I could take a picture of a page of text with it and upload that to my computer for my voice software to read,” he says. “I knew that the processing capacity of cell phones would increase drastically and probably in just a few short years. So I decided to try to build a platform around that—assuming the software on my computer would be on my cell phone soon.”
Foss went to Grove and told him he wanted to resign to spend time developing the idea. “Grove said no, I should develop it at Intel.” Foss pitched the idea to Intel’s healthcare products division, and it was given a green light. He built the prototype himself and then led the team to develop the product. “It was fun. All these dyslexics came out of the woodwork, wanting to be on the project,” he says. The Intel® Reader launched in 2009 and is still shipping commercially—with a second generation currently in development.
Foss pulls a reader out of his backpack for a demonstration and scans a page of magazine text. The machine’s voice reads the page back, quickly and clearly. It’s compact—bigger than a cell phone but smaller, and thicker, than an iPad. Foss is clearly proud of his invention and keen to make sure it gets into the hands of those who need it. For him, the reader was the start of another phase of his career: advocacy. He left Intel in 2011 to become the executive director of Disability Rights Advocates, a civil rights law organization. Recently, he decided to sharpen his focus specifically to dyslexia and has taken over as CEO of an organization that he founded in 2003, Headstrong Nation, which is building a community for dyslexic adults. Foss rattles off some statistics, noting that more than 30 million people in the U.S. are dyslexic or have other language-related disabilities, referencing historic figures with dyslexia like Winston Churchill and George Patton and many of today’s high-profile entrepreneurs including Charles Schwab (BA ’59, MBA ’61) and Sir Richard Branson. Foss cites recent studies that show a correlation between dyslexia and entrepreneurialism—and crime.
“Recent studies estimate that 35 percent of high school dropouts and 40 percent of prisoners share my disability when it comes to reading,” Foss says. “There’s a strong correlation between dyslexia and entrepreneurialism—people who find the door to corporate America locked shut go through the window. But there are also a lot of kids who can’t read and don’t get support, quit school, and wind up in prison.”
Foss was recently introduced to Sean Stevenson, one such former prisoner, who had spent 17 years in prison for dealing cocaine. “I asked him if he’d ever used a book on tape—he said no. So I sent him an Intel® Reader,” says Foss. “I called him a few days later to see how it was going, and the guy was ecstatic. He told me he’d read everything in his apartment—every newspaper, every magazine, the material from his parole officer that he’d never been able to read. Then he went down to the local school and showed the reader to the principal, who now wants to get some for the kids there. It was incredible. The guy’s mind had finally been opened.” (Watch an ABC News video about Sean Stevenson and the Intel® Reader.) Foss is hoping to work with Joan Petersilia, Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law and faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, on research into prisoners with reading disorders.
Reading has long been the doorway to success in our society. For Foss, embracing dyslexia—and innovating so that everyone has equal access to information whether through his or her eyes or ears—is his life’s work. Along with leading Headstrong Nation, Foss has written a book for parents with dyslexic children, as a guide to navigating through their school administrations to get the resources their children will need. Random House will publish it in 2013.
“I see so many people with dyslexia metaphorically dragging themselves up the stairs, when the ramp is right there,” says Foss. “We’re so invested in this notion of normal, yet there is no real normal.” SL