Caroline Casey

Social Entrepreneur, Valuable 500

Caroline Casey wants 500 national and multinational, private sector corporations to put disability on their business leadership agendas, and she’s moving mountains to make it happen. Caroline has spoken about disability on huge international stages like Davos, the Clinton Global Initiative and TED. Her latest initiative, The Valuable 500, is a global movement.

“I’m mid-campaign right now: I’ve got to get 500 CEOs to sign up before Davos 2020. I live, eat and sleep this,” she says. 

“Valuable 500 is about leadership accountability and elevating disability to board level. Leaders’ choices create cultures but, according to EY research 56% of boards have never discussed the word ‘disability’. The reason we’re not seeing accelerated change is because we’ve not seen CEO engagement. They’re not aware of the absolute value of the disability community.”

Caroline is going beyond the business case and appealing to the personal side of leadership using EY research that cites “7% of CEOs have lived experience of disability, 4 out of 5 are hiding it.”  This is something Caroline relates to.

Caroline only learned she was legally blind aged 17, though her parents had known since she was a baby. They hid her disability from her, to avoid the stigma and perceived limited horizons. 

“I think there’s a difference between acquired and congenital disability and that’s about life expectations. If you’re born with a disability people often limit your potential or choices from the outset.” 

When she ‘acquired’ her disability, Caroline chose to continue to hide it. She studied at University College Dublin and tried numerous careers before going to business school and landing a management consultant job in the high-pressured world of Accenture. Two years in Caroline temporarily lost more of her vision and had to ‘come out’ to her employers as visually impaired. 

“I’ve had an odd journey which has allowed me many perspectives. I was born with it, acquired it at 17, only consciously owned it at 28, and learning to accept it and myself is an ongoing process,” she says.

She was told to take time off, so Caroline decided she needed a dramatic change. Based on a childhood love of the Jungle Book she decided to travel across India on an elephant. Her personal quest became a fundraising initiative and took nine months to organise. This unusual story drummed up plenty of media attention and raised enough funds for 6,000 cataract operations with SightSavers International. During this time, she became aware of the extraordinary disability inequality crisis.

From the outset she believed business was an essential part of the solution, but her initial attempts fell flat. “I wrote to over 100 corporations and all of them said ‘I’m sorry, we don’t do disability’.” 

Caroline came back from her trip with an international profile and a new mission: to ensure disability was integrated meaningfully into business and not as corporate social responsibility or charity. 

“We are 1.3 billion consumers, suppliers, employees and members of the community. We are valuable. We are a market. A source of innovation. An under-recognised resource.” Over the years she created several initiatives to engage leadership influence, working with over 450 companies and CEOs and half a million business leaders globally.

Seventeen years on, now armed with honorary doctorates, ample awards, and her own research, she launched #valuable, the precursor to The Valuable 500. Frustrated at the slow rate of change, Caroline approached 53 companies to make it happen. Three got on board and 50 said it wasn’t a priority. 

“90% of companies claim to be committed to inclusion but only 4% considered disability – that’s not diversity and inclusion. Inclusion is inclusion of everyone. And leaders are accountable,” explains Caroline.

At Davos this year Caroline launched The Valuable 500 with her Chairman Paul Polman, Virgin Media and Omnicom. It was a historic moment putting disability centre stage of one of the greatest business platforms on the planet.

She set a global challenge to return in 2020 with the signatures of CEOs who had put disability on their board agendas and made a commitment to action.

Aware that it’s the combination of stories and statistics that compel people to action, The Valuable 500 created the #diversish film with AMV which won a Cannes Lion. 

“This film is about holding a mirror to corporate inclusion without shaming anyone. We need to be aware of what we’re doing or not doing, before we can change it.

“Whenever I get in front of a CEO and explain what this is all about, they say: “why wouldn’t I?” The big issue – is getting to them.”

“It was October 1999 when I came out of the disability closet – that’s 20 years ago. At times I’ve felt so broken because I’ve not done more.  But it’s the people I’ve met along the way that have kept me doing this. The Valuable 500 has an incredible group of allies, partners and a tribe of collaborators. Collectively we are after one goal – full human inclusion. This collective power is contagiousness, it cannot be ignored.” 

“Improving disability and accessibility performance is about designing a world that’s fit for all, with a benefit for business, society and people with disabilities. It’s often forgotten that text messaging was developed for the hearing impaired and the remote control designed for the visually impaired. The untapped creativity and resourcefulness of people with different lived experience is simply crazy.”

Caroline has spoken in recent years about the cost of trying to be perfect and not asking for help. “It’s not healthy. I used to be proud of being a ‘trucker’, but I’m realising that it’s powerful to be vulnerable. I guess that’s what self-acceptance is.”

And though she says, “My heart is roaring for it now more than ever”, she believes her role now is to step to the side. 

“Having witnessed the next generation in action, I believe they’ll take this to the next level in ways I cannot. I built on the phenomenal work done before me and I hope I’ll have added something to this space that can be carried forward.”

With this in mind, The Valuable 500 is setting up a young leaders’ programme. Her tips for the next generation of leaders are: “You’re defined by nothing. What’s important tomorrow will not be what’s important today. Always listen to your gut instinct. Own your stuff. And don’t waste your time being somebody else. It’s your life and the only thing you can be truly magnificent at is you.”