KR Liu has been described as a thought leader and disrupter of the status quo when it comes to accessibility inclusion for all individuals, most prominently for persons who have hearing loss.
Her leadership and advocacy has expanded to include gender equity after more than 20 years working with technology companies where she was the only female at the executive level. Even when she earned her space as a “C” level technology sales executive, her male peers were so locked in their vision of what their technology could do that she had to bring her passion and ideas for how this “modern and cool” technology could help individuals with hearing loss outside of the tech industry itself.
Her passion and ideas are now being sought after by national and international companies and organizations, including the World Health Organization. How did this all happen?
Diagnosed with a severe hearing loss and fitted with hearing aids before the age of 3, KR was fortuitous that her parents lived just 15 minutes from the only school for children who were deaf or hard-of-hearing in the entire Bay Area of California at that time.
Beginning preschool at the age of 3, KR learned to read lips as the primary means of learning and communicating with her non-hearing-impaired peers, including her twin sister Karen. Although KR experienced bullying in the later grade school years from being in her special school in the morning hours and a regular school in the afternoon, becoming very proficient in lip reading allowed her hearing loss to be somewhat invisible.
Her internal coping mechanism became basketball as she found her skills and talents on the courts. In fact, her goal after high school was to play basketball in college and then beyond. However, a broken hand in the beginning of her senior year of high school kept her out for the entire season. Being a young teenager in the heart of the burgeoning dot-com community, KR began to consider programming as she already had every piece of available technology for individuals with severe hearing loss. As she was browsing programming books in the Towers Bookstore, a gentleman came to her and asked her if she could code. She said no, however the individual talked about his start-up video conferencing company and asked her if she would be interested in an internship. She said yes, and then began her year of trade school to learn the basics while working for the start-up company at night. At the completion of her trade school year and internship, she was hired in a permanent role at the company.
What she didn’t know until then was that her beginning role in technology sales would require her to have headsets that had sound amplifiers. When she asked for assistance in paying for them, she was advised to keep her disability private and that the company would not pay for the amplified headsets, at that time costing $500.00. She borrowed the money from her mother and thus began her rising career in technology sales.
Her passion for accessibility and lowering costs of technology for persons with significant hearing loss became more “amplified” when she moved to another company in a national sales position. At the young age of 26, as she was preparing for a national meeting, her only pair of hearing aids broke. KR knew she really needed these aids for this meeting. Negotiating for some time to get to an audiology center, she was aghast at finding out she needed $3500.00 and that the aids she needed would not be available for a week or so, so she had to use loaner aids. Giving away money she didn’t have, going to her car, she broke down and cried and promised herself that she would do something about this. Her CEO and mentor at the time asked her what was wrong. She broke down again and shared her story. The CEO told her that the company wanted her to be successful and would support her.
Seven years later when the company was sold, her mentor asked KR what she was going to do next. It was then that KR said out loud, “I want to shake up the audio industry and disrupt it with modern technology.”
A few years after working in several audio companies, KR was recruited by the CEO of the then-new Pebble SmartWatch company. KR was already using their smartwatch’s vibrational capacities to let her know when someone was calling her on her iPhone. However, she still had to adjust the volume through her phone making it seem like she was reading on her phone during important meetings. That led to the creation of a Starkey app titled “Halo for the Pebble Smartwatch.” When she later moved to Doppler Labs, the wireless earbuds were the coolest technology. She advocated to utilize the Bluetooth capabilities of wireless to allow individuals with a hearing loss to adjust volumes as needed in an unobtrusive and de-stigmatizing manner.
Her passion and advocacy for accessibility inclusion and design has led to national acclaim that included being an important collaborator with Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Grassley to pass legislation called the Over-The-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017.
This act was signed into law by the President on Aug 18th, 2017. The Over-The-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 will effectively increase the market for more affordable hearing aids. Companies will be standing in line to create hearing aids that will meet FDA standards, and it will be almost as easy as going to a drugstore and buying a pair of reading glasses.
Unfortunately, with millions of younger people blasting music through their ears via wired and/or wireless buds, a significant percentage of them will need hearing assistance sooner rather than later. Additionally, the World Health Organization says that 1.1 billion of us risk hearing loss in the upcoming decades. This legislation couldn’t have been better timed.
What KR has modeled for women executives is what she said to herself years ago: “I wasn’t seeing women, and certainly no women with a disability in the technology industry. I need to work at being that woman.”
A woman who knows the power and freedom in being employed in a company whose culture of inclusivity may be safer than what is experienced at home. A woman who wants to help companies look at how technology can empower millions of the 60% of unemployed persons with disabilities to contribute their talents and gifts to make the world a better place for all. A woman who wants to help other women be in the “C” suite shaping corporate culture to be more inclusive and accepting of differences.
Here is what KR’s LinkedIn page says about her: KR is a passionate thought leader and advocate for accessibility inclusion and design, gender equality and the LGBTQ community. KR leads talks at multiple events a year, including having been invited to speak at the White House, the United Nations, Capitol Hill, CES, SXSW and many more to push for a more accessible and inclusive world for all. She has been featured in NPR, CBS This Morning, Fast Company, Business Insider, Tech Crunch and many more for her work in accessibility inclusion and equality.
She has been awarded a U.S. Congressional award; Silicon Valley’s Top 40 Under 40 and 2017 Women of Influence; and 2015 Women on the Move by Women’s Business Journal for her advocacy work in hearing health and technology. KR is actively involved with industry organizations that are working toward tech innovation in hearing accessibility. KR is on the board of directors for the Hearing Loss Association of America, the Consumer Technology Association Foundation, Deaf Kids Code and the World Wide Hearing Foundation International.