About half of the 450 workers at a San Antonio manufacturing facility that produces everything from office supplies to aircraft floorboards are blind or visually impaired.

This year, it added one more — at the very top. 

In June, the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired named Cindy Watson to lead the local arm of the national nonprofit organization that provides one-stop-shop services and employment for the blind in Bexar County. 

Watson is the first blind person in the nonprofit’s 88-year history to be named president and CEO — and the first woman. 

Selected following a national search that yielded 200 applicants, Watson, who previously served as CEO of Seattle’s Lighthouse, started her new role in August. As CEO of San Antonio Lighthouse, that also means overseeing one of Texas’ largest military apparel manufacturing operations.

Watson replaces CEO Mike Gilliam, who led the $120 million enterprise for 16 years. 

The board did not set out to hire someone who is legally blind, but it was a plus, said John Garcia, Lighthouse board member and chairman of the selection committee.

“We wanted the very best candidates, and what we were looking for is somebody that had large business experience … and the heart — because not only is our business important, our mission is even more important,” Garcia said. “She’s off to a great start.”

Board members aren’t the only ones who think Watson is suited for the job. During her first days at the Lighthouse, Watson received some hands-on training at the organization’s 140,000-square-foot plant on Roosevelt Avenue, including working a sewing machine to assemble the helmet chin straps that the Lighthouse produces for the Army.

“They basically put me through the paces to show me what it’s like to go through training,” Watson said. “They had a lot of fun with it … and said that I passed and I was ‘recommended’ for employment.”

Cindy Watson walks through the manufacturing plant housed at the SA Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The San Antonio Lighthouse is one of the largest military apparel manufacturing operations in Texas.
Cindy Watson walks through the manufacturing plant housed at the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The Lighthouse is one of the largest military apparel manufacturing operations in Texas. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Watson was diagnosed at age 9 with a genetic eye condition that progressed through her teen and young adult years. Though she has some functional vision, just like many Lighthouse employees, she can’t read print and relies on assistive technology on her phone and computer. When Watson walks, she uses a white cane to help with depth perception and calls upon ride-sharing services to go from home to work and back. 

Watson grew up in Houston, excelling in school despite her vision loss. “I think, initially, a lot of what I accomplished was to prove to everybody that I could,” she said. But that desire to overcome isn’t unique to her. 

“I think we all are faced with people’s expectations and limitations, the perception other people place upon you based on who you are — your gender, your upbringing, your disability, all of those things,” Watson said. “And I think I just had that little bit of edge of proving everybody wrong in the beginning.”

After graduating from the University of Houston, she went to work for the state’s vocational rehab program, helping people in their homes adjust to vision loss, a “problem-solving” job she did for eight years. 

The need to prove herself eventually gave way to a desire to give back, so she pursued a master’s degree and participated in a nonprofit leadership development program that took her to Lighthouse organizations from Corpus Christi to Alexandria, Va., and Las Vegas. 

“So when I finished the two-year program, I had met all of the CEOs from Lighthouses from all over the country … and it was very empowering,” she said. 

She went to work for the Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind for eight years before joining the staff of the American Foundation for the Blind in Dallas. From there, she was hired as a senior vice president and eventually CEO of the Seattle Lighthouse. 

Her husband, and two children now in middle school, have followed her to each new post. “I’m not sure if I would have had the courage to just pick up and start over this many times without that support,” she said. 

Watson’s limited free time is spent mostly as family time — watching her 11-year-old son play baseball and working out with her husband. Beach destinations are their favorite getaway. “We like to stay active,” she said. 

Like any good corporate leader, Watson has a vision for the Lighthouse based on ensuring the long-term future of the organization, which may include diversifying the current product line. To do that, she is preparing to kick off a strategic planning process next month.

But she’s also focused on a goal that’s important to her. 

“When I think about our employees and our workforce, I think about upward mobility, and career pathways and training programs, to create careers beyond the job opportunity,” she said. “I’m never satisfied in that regard. I guess that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

Carlos Mata works in the mechanical pencil and clam clip department at SA Lighthouse's manufacturing plant.
Carlos Mata works in the mechanical pencil and clam clip department. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

In addition to jobs, the Lighthouse also provides vocational and independent living rehabilitation programs to help people who are blind or vision-impaired gain their independence. Their youngest client for these services is 10 months old and the oldest is 103. Watson said their goal this year is to serve 7,000 people — and the need is growing as the U.S. population ages.  

For the day-to-day management of the Lighthouse, Watson relies on Microsoft’s speech technology and keyboard commands rather than a computer mouse. There’s no paper in her office. She listens to emails, voice mail, and text messages on her phone with the playback at 80%, so rapid it’s nearly inaudible for most listeners. She compares it to skim-reading. 

“It is pretty cool, though, how at one time everything was ‘special technology’ that was for people with disabilities, and now there’s this movement to have this built-in inclusion by design,” Watson said. “I’m excited to see where this all goes in the future.”

On a recent afternoon, Watson stood in the cafeteria talking with Lighthouse employees who had just completed a shift and eagerly waited for the bus to go home. As a blind person, it’s clear she has a rapport with the workers that goes beyond being the boss. But she doesn’t assume anything. 

“Within our workforce, everybody has their own walk of life and their life experience that they bring to the table,” Watson said. But “I think there’s a trust there that our employees have, and they’re just excited that it’s someone who’s blind. 

“Blind and female — I’m not sure which one they’re most excited about.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.