Austin, Texas was pleased to host the 13th consecutive BLAST (Business Leadership and Superior Training) conference for blind entrepreneurs and merchant vendors at the Renaissance Hotel this past November. Representatives from all 50 states enjoyed the BLAST conference, which was presented by the National Association of Blind Merchants and the Business Enterprises of Texas.
Abundance of opportunities
A great deal of energy and enthusiasm accompanied the attendees’ arrivals. I noticed that spirits ran high on Tuesday, which kicked off with a morning of staff and State Attorney General training. The afternoon offered a wide variety of symposium topics including lessons in leadership, a healthy choices seminar and a very helpful smartphone tutorial. There were classes to maximize Low Vision Logic effectiveness, as well as discussions about technology and micro markets. The evening celebrated 75 years of Randolph-Sheppard and more than 125 years of Coca-Cola refreshments with an outstanding Texas BBQ dinner. Music and dancing were provided by some of Austin’s many live performers and networking opportunities were abundant.
Wednesday’s annual Leadership Breakfast featured excellent speakers and a leadership address from Mark. A. Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind. The morning’s Upward Mobility Training Session focused on productivity, the future of entrepreneurship for the blind and the future of unattended retail. As technology changes, health concerns and an evolving retail environment challenge all small business owners in the vending industry, BLAST met the issues head-on with practical solutions and infectious confidence.
The afternoon trade show allowed attendees to taste and touch the latest and greatest products, equipment, and technology of the automated retail industry. The trade show was sponsored by the National Association of Blind Merchants and it showcased experts who could answer specific questions about accessible technology for the blind, legal issues and partnering for contracts in addition to a host of vending-related products and services. There were 83 exhibitors. Entrepreneurs and staff alike got an opportunity to witness genuine Texas hospitality in Autin’s famous “6th Street” entertainment district after the trade show closed for the evening.
Education empowers attendees
Thursday was another day of intense listening and learning with business leaders and industry experts energizing the crowd. Michael Hingson, president of the Michael Hingson Group spoke to business owners about creating their own destinies. Hingson, a dog-guide user and author of the book Thunder Dog, led a number of people down from the 70th floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11. His life story and business leadership were compelling. Kevin Adams, president of Skill Connections, instructed the group as to why “Success is not for Whiners”. Additionally, I discussed creating a future in the vending industry today. “Taking Inventory and Restocking the shelves of Randolph-Sheppard” was presented by Deanna Jones and Jesse Hartle, who were both from the United States Department of Education. Special speakers included Steve Farber, president of Extreme Leadership, Inc, John Murn, director of the RSA Buying Group, and Colleen Wunderlich, director of the Forsythe Center for Entrepeneurship at the Hadley School for the Blind. Thursday’s speeches were highlighted, however, by an incredible story of civil rights advocacy and entrepreneurship shared by Dr. Marc Maurer, immediate past president of the National Federation of the Blind.
The conference culminated with an awards banquet featuring 2008 American Idol finalist Scott MacIntyre. MacIntyre was inspiring, as he spoke and sang about the hope and triumph he has experienced, and the encouragement he receives from the National Federation of the Blind. He said he confronts his blindness through his support of family, his faith, his long white cane and the notion that, through raised expectations, you can live the life you want. BLAST conference attendees left feeling very positive about the future of our industry. Small business owners across America are anxious to overcome challenges, produce profitability and enjoy the satisfactions and rewards of hard work.