In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Tony Cancelosi, president and CEO of Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. Tony Cancelosi shares delightful stories from his life, from when he was a child growing up in an Italian neighborhood to dressing up as Santa Claus annually earlier in his career. He also shares what eventually led him to start doing community service and what keeps him going through hard times like the pandemic.
- Tony Cancelosi’s childhood growing up in an Italian neighborhood in South Phildelphia
- Dressing up as Santa Claus for more than 20 years and its impact in Tony’s life
- Tony Cancelosi’s career at Control Data and how it started his community service journey
- How Tony Cancelosi became chairman of Service Source, an organization that helps indvidials with down syndrome and other disabilities, and later, Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind
- Why Tony Cancelosi decided to form alliances with Leadership Greater Washington and other more organizations
- How Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind is serving its constituents through the pandemic
- The legacy Tony Cancelosi hopes for Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind to leave behind
Patrick Burke, executive director of the DC Police Foundation
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Welcome to Partnering Leadership, I am really excited to be welcoming Tony Cancelosi. Tony is the president and CEO of Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, and he was appointed to that position by their board of directors back in September of 2005. Under his leadership, CLB has focused on its priorities to better serve the needs of the residents living in Maryland, DC, and Virginia who are blind or visually impaired.
He has done that through partnerships with various organizations in the region and has really been impactful in leading the organization. I really enjoyed this conversation, and I'm sure you will too. I also enjoy hearing from you, keep your comments coming, firstname.lastname@example.org. There's a microphone icon on PartneringLeadership.com. You can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast, that way you'll be sure to be notified of new releases. Tuesday's with magnificent changemakers from the Greater Washington DC DMV region and Thursdays with global thought leaders. Now here's my conversation with Tony Cancelosi.
Tony Cancelosi, welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.
I am happy to be in a conversation with you too.
Tony, having seen your leadership in the greater Washington DC region, leading Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, I've been impressed with a lot of what you've been able to achieve. However, before we get to that would love to start out with whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person and leader you've become?
Well, it's very interesting is that I grew up in South Philadelphia and when I was growing up, we lived two blocks from the Italian market. And it was almost like living in Italy because everybody spoke Italian, everybody was friendly, everybody was giving. It was just an absolute, wonderful opportunity to grow up with my grandparents who lived three doors away.
My aunts and uncles lived around the corner, but it was all about love within the family. Sunday dinners, my grandfather would make coffee on Saturdays and the whole neighborhood came and had coffee, but that upbringing gave me a base of giving which in an Italian family that was so important.
And I'll give you one tidbit way ahead of when we talk about Leadership for Greater Washington. I remember in our class sitting around and somebody said, "Well, has anybody written a book? Has anybody born in another country?" And I jumped up and I got in with born in another country and somebody said, "Well, wait a minute, where were you born?" I said, "Well, I grew up in South Philadelphia in the Italian neighborhood, like being in Italy."
That's outstanding because you had a cultural, diverse experience right here in the States, in Philadelphia with that family. On the other end, you also did write a book. So you're both an author and were born in a foreign country.
Yes, it was amazing. Wasn't it? I don't know if I get that much recognition that I wrote a book but I did write a book. I was a Santa Claus. This is something that a lot of people really don't know about me unless they read my book, and the book is called Santa's secret. And for more than 20 years, I was a Santa Claus.
Now most of you have seen me I'm in pretty good shape, so I had to use a lot of padding, but the essence of it was that if I was going to be Santa Claus, I had to really look good that children would believe it. And so I was president of the association for corporate growth at Tyson's corner. And they said, "Well, we're looking for a Santa Claus." And people looked at me and said, no, not you. And I said, well, why not?
And so they gave me money. I bought a magnificent Santa outfit, a beard, boots, and everything. And I looked very professional. So that started a little career for me with Marriott corporation. And so every year I did their annual holiday party at the Ritz-Carlton at Tyson's corner. But the essence of what I did was I did it for a lot of children in churches and homes, and that was the love of it.
And then my granddaughter came along, Kelly Lynn, and I said, well, I'm going to be Santa Claus for her. And so I could only do it once because after that you will know who I am, but the interesting part is that we did it when she was about a year old. And I already had written the book, give the paper of the book, but till this day, she's 11 years old going on 12, she has a picture of Santa in their kitchen. And every time she sees it, she says that is the real Santa and she never knew it was me.
Well, we'll make sure she doesn't listen to this podcast at least for another few years.
I know, I know, but there's other stories about children that I've met in their twenties now. This is a very good story if I may take the time to tell you is my wife was with a friend of hers and her daughter is an attorney and was at the courthouse in Fairfax county.
And I had to go there for a meeting and I was there and I was speaking to someone and this person came back and told her mother-in-law that, " I heard this voice and it was Santa." It is amazing how people resonate your voice that it stays in their mind, into their holiness, so to speak. So I've had that several times.
It is wonderful, but both through being Santa and different ways, you've wanted to continually give back to the community, Tony. So when we go back to that childhood, part of it was the family environment that you grew up in. What else drove you so much to want to contribute back to the community at large?
Well, it has a lot to do with your parents, I think. My dad worked in the fruit and produce business and every day or every week, he would bring back fruit and vegetables and everything and give it to the neighbors. So when you see others give a thing, it's a good experience to say, gee, that's a good thing to do. Especially when they come back and say, "By the way that watermelon was fantastic", right? Gratification, other people feeling what sometimes they never have the opportunity to feel when somebody gives them something.
What a great example, Tony of leadership. I always say that leadership is the example you set as a leader. And in this case, parenting is the example you set, by your parents giving back to the neighbors and to the community. They gave you that example of how you should grow up and what you should become. So then what did you decide to study after coming out of this nurturing foreign environment in Philadelphia?
I got into the real world South Philadelphia High at one time was all boys. And then when I went there, it was co-ed which kind of really got us all like confused of what's going on here now, but the education that I got and I can tell you one little story is that you never know how well you're doing when you're self-evaluate yourself, but others recognize that you are doing well. And so when you do get good grades and so forth, you say, oh wow, they appreciate what I'm doing.
I played football in high school and I learned a lot through that, getting hit and beat up a little bit, you know. But I also forgot to tell you, my dad was a professional fighter at one time and he fought in the middle way. And I went to the Joe Louis Golden gloves program when I was growing up. And so my dad was a professional fighter and my family never talked about it 'cause there was 11 years difference between my sister and I.
And so I didn't experience it other than when I was with my dad watching the Friday night fights. And he would say he could tell who the winner was and I'd go, how does he know that? But then all of a sudden, then I'm in the Joe Louis Golden Gloves and I'm going, oh, this is interesting. So that was another stepping stone in my life.
Now Tony, I always knew I shouldn't mess around with you. I didn't know about the Golden Gloves part, but we had met long time ago at the Board of Trade and you pulled out the money that you had in your pocket and you had a rubber band around it. So I always say I better not mess around with Tony.
Well, you know that story, right? You know that story. It's something that you see and you do, and sometimes you don't want people to think that you're part of that, but anyway. We're not revealing to anybody what it is, but anyway.
For the audience, they can Google search it to find out more about that. So then Tony, from there, you also had a very successful career, primarily in a series of software companies serving as CEO, then for-profit tech companies, iBright, eStrata. So when you were going through those business experiences, leading those different organizations, how were you still engaging and giving back to the community?
Well, one of the organizations that when I first started in the computer industry started with a company called Control Data in the late sixties, and moved to Washington DC in the seventies, 1977. And so one of the things that we did with Control Data was that we developed some very significant software and hardware.
One of the things that we did, we set up the voting system in the house of representatives. And I happened to be in charge of that when I came to Washington and giving back even then was to make sure that there was nobody voting on those machines other than a Congressman.
And I had stories to tell about that I maybe can't like, it's still confidential probably. But that made me feel good, but at the same time, Control Data had programs. And one of the programs they had was very fascinating to me is that during the riots in Washington, DC, the city was destroyed a lot as we all know in the late sixties and so forth.
But Control Data started this program to put money into redevelopment within the District of Columbia. We started a local program to incorporate a GED program for inmates at a local prison here in Washington, DC. And I remember going to the graduation with Mayor Washington and giving out the diplomas. And that started to get me more involved in those kinds of things.
And more importantly, is during the Vietnam war, soldiers that were coming back, we had training programs for them and worked with organizations like Volvo watch to help service-disabled. Unfortunately, I got drafted into the army during the Vietnam era, did not have to go into combat or anything that was so horrific for many, many soldiers.
But at the same time, it made me want to take care of those who were coming back with all kinds of disabilities. And if you look at what happened then, and what happened today, a lot of the soldiers then did not have all of the technology to work them, but we had these training programs from job approach. So that got me going in that direction.
So while you were again giving a lot back to the community, it was a side to your professional life of working in for-profit businesses. It is very different than leading a nonprofit organization. So in 2005, you were appointed by the board of directors of the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind as the president and CEO. Why did you want to take on the challenge of actually running a nonprofit?
I ran a worldwide software company but I was here, our corporate headquarters was here, but part of my mission there I became chairman the board of an organization here called Service Source that served people with down syndrome and all other disabilities. And so this is amazing story in the sense that we were very successful in a lot of the businesses we started. One of the very successful one was Sylvan Learning. I don't know if anybody knows that I was one of the original people that created Sylvan Learning and that again was giving back education.
And so when we decided that we were going to expand the ICL platform here in the US, I said we're going to have to give and have partnerships with people with disabilities. And so I started to reach out and became chairman of the board of Service Source. It gave me the opportunity to say, hey, this is what I really want to do. I want to start working with people that do not have all the physical attributes. To be successful in a job, but help them get that, help them get the skills they need to be independent.
And when I was chairman of the Service Source, Service Source, won a very large mailroom contract with the IRS, and guess who their partner was? Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. And they asked me as chairman to kick off the big meeting we had announcing the contract and that I would welcome Columbia Lighthouse which I did and I got to meet some of the people and it just touched my heart that here are people that are now going to come on with other people with disabilities but do not have sight. And it really made me feel that this was something that I had been looking for.
And that's why you took on the challenge and a big part of what you've done, Tony is forging all kinds of alliances to bring additional opportunities to the community that Columbia Lighthouse serves. So why did you prioritize the alliances as a key element of how you wanted to move Columbia Lighthouse forward?
Any organization and I've done some podcasts on this is how do you grow your organization and why should you grow it? What are the meaningful things that you have that others could take and grow with? And so when I started to look at what I had to do, I had to become a member of Leadership Greater Washington. Why? Because there were people there that I could find that could be partners for us.
Going to the board of trade meetings, going to the economic club, going to all these different organization platforms that were out there to learn more about how I could grow Columbia Lighthouse because somebody might say, "Why would I hire a blind person?" And I would have to have the story to say, "Well, they can do this. They can do that. They could increase your profitability. They can manage this. They can manage that giving them the power to be effective."
And so I started in one of the partnerships that have evolved today and I'll bring it forward is one with Catholic University. We're working with them because they have blind students at the Catholic University. So we're helping those blind students navigate the campus or setting up maybe a scholarship fund for this new cane that we're having. But it's bringing those students that go there that are visually impaired and blind but also helping the university to be accessible to all people with disabilities.
Providence Hospital, I got on the board. I'm still on the board of Providence Hospital. What amazing relationship with Providence is Ascension Hospitals. They're the largest hospital network in the world. We are now doing eye testing. We're doing vision testing and all kinds of things with them. We just had a partnership with them.
We helped vaccinated 20,000 people in the District of Columbia, both doses of Moderna. I helped getting all the volunteers. I mean, partnerships enhance and enrich what you want to do. It's not like selling a piece of software, but it's taking someone to make them be independent. And you can't say there's just one thing that made it happen. It's a combination of integrating like my granddaughter loves to bake and she's always saying, "Granddad, I need this, I need that, I need this and I need that." What we do with our own businesses is that integration of love that comes together.
What a great analogy to use Tony, in terms of the fact that there is not one contributing factor. There are a bunch of different things that come together. Part of what happened for Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind in making those partnerships your reality is you taking a more active role in seeking relationships and those partnerships, one of those was through your involvement in Leadership Greater Washington, which as you've referenced a couple of times was also impactful in terms of your relationships and connections in the community too.
Yes. I mean, if you looked at the people that were there, they wanted to be there. And when I saw how many there were and go, wow, there's a lot of people here. Well, the way the program worked, you got to know everybody and you got to know them from the standpoint of what their worth was and what they were doing in their own life and their own business. If we can capture that in each person that we meet, we are going to be a better person. And that's the side of my thinking is always look for the good and if you find bad, you push it aside.
There is so much value in what you're saying Tony, both with respect to our connections and relationships in the community and with respect to leadership. Now, all of this has become even more important for us since the beginning of the pandemic, which has impacted everyone in one way, shape, form, or another, but the community you serve has also been significantly impacted. How has Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind managed to serve its constituents through the pandemic?
Well, it has to start with the people that work here. It has to start with their commitment prior to the pandemic, their commitment to serve people that have vision loss and give them sight in the way that we help them by giving them the tools to be independent. So all of our staff, that's how we've been operating. And that meaning is that the people that work here want to be here, that it's not a job, they want to be here to serve others and that's the base of the foundation. So now you take that base and say, now we have this pandemic, what do we do?
I brought my senior staff together, brought our boards together, and said, look, we cannot close our doors and I want to take a vote and everybody said we don't close our doors. We opened them up through technology. We opened them up to get vaccinated. I had all of our staff all over a hundred employees have been vaccinated and our clinical services never stopped because we did it on Zoom.
We contacted all of our consumers, we call them consumers and we did outreach by radio saying, we're here, we never closed our doors. And our clinicians and our staff we're outreaching them to the point in our children's program, we went out and bought computers and had them delivered to their home. I'm on a police foundation board, Pat Burke who is presidency, you know, I said, "Pat, I need your help to help the deaf-blind community because they're isolated. We serve the deaf line."
He said, "Why do you need us?" "Well, if we have to have food delivered, could we arrange police officers?" "Yes, we could do that." So we never hopefully left anybody behind in what we were doing to continue that. And so we built the infrastructure to do the Zooming and all of that, but we also built the infrastructure that touched them in certain ways, by letting them know we're here.
So we've never closed our doors. Now our doors are even wider open. We opened up our clinic. We have a clinic in silver spring that does eye testing. It's been there for 10 years now, anyone can come to it. No one is isolated from not coming. It's safe. It's just like walking into a medical office, but it's there. But what is making that work? It's our people here, the staff who have committed themselves to serve, not me, it's them, their passion to give back knowing that that person is isolated and needs that care.
Leadership makes a difference to that, Tony, and also the purpose drive of the team, because they have a very clear purpose of service to the community, which has kept them engaged and kept them going. So if we reflect back on this moment a few years from now, in what ways post the crisis and post-pandemic has the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind become better and more capable? So part of it is you did a great job and your team did a great job in remaining open and meeting needs throughout the crisis. But in what ways has the organization become better and more capable?
What basically we did, we built a new foundation of crisis that if we didn't do these things, what would happen? So we built a new foundation that says the next time this happens, we're going to be there. So it's two things, believing in what you do and who you serve. We know that we had to serve those in need and that we could not fall to our knees to not to do that. So infrastructure building, we want some new government contracts. We want an enormous contract for $15 million over the next five years for the army national guard to do scanning of medical records.
So Tony, you have, and the team has done really well through the pandemic, become stronger as a result of the crisis. But when you look back over this leadership journey and specifically with respect to Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, what is the leadership impact and imprints that you want to leave on the organization and the community at large?
Is that we'd never left, we were always here. That we were here to serve and for everybody to know that we never closed our doors and that we were here, and that's the impact and that's simple. People know and remember that you were there when they needed you, it's like it can be a good example when we started to realize that we still had to serve children and because the schools are all closed and we worked it out where the schools agreed, where we teach in several schools and charter schools and Fairfax county and Montgomery county and so forth.
And we have a wonderful program for children and we've been doing it for many years, is that we went out and bought them computers. We went out and said, we can do this for you. When they know that you're there to serve them, they will never forget that because it will be carried on that Columbia Lighthouse was always there for them, and the impact is the essence of knowing that we're here. That's the thing that I pray for is that we never forget who to serve.
And that spirit of service has been impactful in terms of both Columbia Lighthouse and the community. You've gotten a lot of recognition and many different awards, well-deserved. I do want to touch on a few of them because they are really important and significant. You became a knight of Malta. What is that all about?
The Knights of Malta is a religious order. It was formed centuries and centuries ago. It started as a religious order supporting the Pope. And the country of Malta is a sovereign country which is where we were born, basically. It was always there to serve those on the battlefield. Those who were wounded, those who had died, we buried the dead, we took care of the sick and the poor, but we defended the faith of the Pope across the world.
And if you go anywhere in the world, you'll find the Malta cross somewhere, but it all revolves around our faith, what we believe in, and it's not any different than what I just talked about, Columbia Lighthouse. One of the significant things that the knights have done in serving people, in serving those in need is that they've created a hospital in Bethlehem for unwed mothers and people, for many years, have gone there to have their babies.
And we take care of them. And it's amazing holy family church. It's magnificent. So that's one of the major things, we actually have a van that goes out into the desert for women who can't come to Bethlehem to have their baby, we have their babies in the field. So it's an amazing religious organization that has gone through the centuries of serving others.
So that spirit of service continues because you also won the humanitarian award presented to you by Sons of Italy Foundation.
Yes. It was a complete shock that the Sons of Italy is an amazing organization that provide so much service all around the world in education and a lot of service-disabled veterans. And so when they approached me about we'd like to have you be the humanitarian of the year award, and I said, "Well, I'm not sure I'm that worthy to be among all these people that are way beyond my commitment to society."
And I was just overwhelmed by it and I'm still overwhelmed by it because I'm so honored by it. But again, here's an organization that after I got the award, said to me, "Tony, would you come back each year and we'll give you a table for visually impaired and blind veterans. Would you come back to do that?" And I said, "Of course." So two, three years ago, when the first one we had, I searched around and put my network out because I'm part of the veteran's board at a BA.
And I said we're going to search for them and invite them to this big gala. It's a wonderful gala. It was held at the waterfront, the last one. And I had visually impaired and blind veterans who lost their sight, during different conflicts. And I invited their mother and their father who came with them. At the first event, they honored every one of them at the table. The funny story about it is that one of the young men that came, in fact, he just got his master's degree at Maryland. And his father was in the coast guard.
And so when they were announcing all the people there, they played the songs of all the military. They forgot to say the coast guard. And so I send a note up to the general, they passed it up to him and he went, "Oh, we got one more we're going to have to announce." And they play the coast guard theme and it got, his father stood up. So the Sons of Italy give full scholarships every year to many, many universities, but they've been giving out money for bands and so forth for service-disabled veterans.
So all throughout you have both had a successful business career, a successful career leading a nonprofit, and contributing back to the community through many different means, Tony. So if you were to look back and give advice either to your younger self or younger leaders, as they want to be impactful in their organizations, in the community with their leadership, what advice would you have?
I think there are several elements. One is to be a good listener. You have to be a good listener. I remember when our kids were growing up, my wife and I said, they don't listen to anything we say. So we took a course on active listening. And boy, once we took that course, we got their attention, but listening is, how many of us do not listen to what people say when they are trying to tell you what is needed in order for you to be successful? You have to be a good listener.
This number two is you have to have faith in yourself that when you hear things that you're supposed to do and you know you can't do them is, to be honest, and say, I can't do that because we hear so many say, well, you can be anything you want, you just go out and you can do it. That's true but it's very hard because you have to be honest with yourself and know what your capacity is.
And the third thing is respect the other person that you work with. Respect and believe in the mission statement of the companies you work for, believe in what they do so that you can fulfill that through what you do. The last thing is always be faithful to your family and be faithful in the sense of what their needs are for you to serve them.
That attitude of service whether it's with respect to the organization, to the community, and to the family, it continues. Are there any leadership resources that you typically find yourself recommending or practices on leadership?
I have to say Leadership Greater Washington has the series that they put together and I was honored to be on one of those. And it's not typical, but it's what drives a lot of us to hear what others do and sift through that, to say that applies to me, or it doesn't apply to. But it gives you the comfort level that what you're thinking is something that's being done, that's worthwhile doing. So Leadership Greater Washington has set that stage for us.
And if you think about what's happened where my lunch hours are no longer going to Economic Hub, going here, going there, I filled it with something else. But anyway, part of my mission with the Knights of Malta. But I think that you have to find organizations that fulfill what they want to do in the sense of helping them to grow. I'm writing another book and what I did was I did about 10 podcasts and for a very large accounting firm and they were distributing them to 325 nonprofits that they have.
And so I said, I wanted to get the feedback because I would like to take all those podcasts and put it into a book. And so I had several people look at it and he said, yeah, I think it could work. So it's a matter of saying to yourself, where did I get that idea? Where did I get this idea? Where did I get that idea? And education is a part of it but I do think a lot of it has to do with who you associate with and what organizations you belong to.
They will educate you to a level of confidence to reaffirm what you are and what you can do. And I think too often, we neglect to see that I'm a trustee on the federal city council now and I was so happy they ask me to be part of it because intellectually it is helping me by being around people who have all this energy and all this knowledge, and if I can just get a piece of it. So in essence, it's people you want to be around people that could educate you.
One of my son, both my sons are engineering, my one son went on to and got his master's degree, went all for his Ph.D., he's an expert. I've learned from him every day. I keep asking him about this. And my other son's an engineer in the high-tech world. And I go to him and say, look, I need a new iPhone, or by the way, mom found out that if we subscribe to this, to Alexa, we can bring up our window shades and I called him, he said, yeah, yeah, but you've got to do this.
Anyway, it's how you recognize others for their knowledge and gain from that because when I was growing up, my grandmother could hardly speak English, but she would babysit for me, but she gave me the love that I had with my parents, but even deeper because of who she was. And I think love is another part of our lives that we have to recognize. So the essence is that there are so many great things to read, there's so many great things to do, and it's a matter of how you sift through that. That impacts you as an individual.
It truly does and repeating what you said surrounding yourself with the right people really makes a big difference and I've been fortunate over the years to have had a chance to get to know you, Tony, see your leadership, and really appreciate you taking your time to share some of your background, your leadership journey with the Partnering Leadership community. Thank you so much, Tony Cancelosi.
Well, thank you for having me. I deeply appreciate it.
You've been listening to Partnering Leadership with your host Mahan Tavakoli. For additional leadership insights and bonus content, visit us at PartneringLeadership.com.