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MBA Students Create Multimedia Tours for the Hearing-Impaired


July 23, 2009 – Karen Borchert (G’09) and Martin Franklin (G’09) spend their days as part-time students and full-time entrepreneurs, thanks to their fledging business that provides guided museum tours for the deaf and hearing-impaired.

The MBA Evening program students developed a service offering the tours through personal media devices. Now, the pair works to turn Keen Guides Inc. into a viable business by day, while attending business classes at night.

Keen Guides currently offers tours in four formats: spoken word, captioned, American Sign Language and cued speech -- a system that supplements lip-reading with a series of hand shapes in various locations near the mouth.

“I think you can give entrepreneurial people some tools to improve their skills, but there’s also just a certain ‘nonfear factor’ that these people have,” says Borchert, Keen Guides’ chief executive officer. “We don’t always know what we’re doing, but we took a leap.”

Filling an Unmet Need for the Hearing-Impaired

Keen Guides grew from Borchert’s friendship with Catharine McNally, a deaf college classmate. An art lover, McNally had grown frustrated over the poor access for the hearing-impaired in museums and other public places.

After one particularly unsatisfying visit to a museum in Washington, where she had been offered a 50-page transcript in lieu of an audio tour, McNally developed her own video tour in sign language played over her iPod. When McNally shared the idea with Borchert, the MBA student was so impressed that she told McNally, “What you need is a business plan.”

As it turned out, Borchert also needed a business plan for an upcoming competition. She and Franklin joined forces with six other classmates to turn McNally’s bare-bones tour into a plan to provide a much-needed product to an underserved population.

Borchert and Franklin, Keen Guides’ chief operating officer, immediately recognized the potential of McNally’s guided tour. Played through portable media players, it was less conspicuous than a bulky transcript or a sign language interpreter and allowed users to move through the museum at their own pace.

“At first, it sounded like a nice feel-good idea,” recalls competition teammate Lejla Alic. “Keen is a nice hybrid between having a chance to make money and helping people.”

Keen Guides took first place in the competition, and has since won other contests, grants and financial support from family and friends.

Applying Their Education to Their Dream

Keen Guides has expanded its market to include both the deaf and the hearing-impaired. This vast group, according to most estimates, includes one in 10 Americans and continues to grow as baby boomers age.

“Starting a business from scratch requires the thoughtful application of everything we’ve learned, from strategy and accounting to negotiations and finance,” Franklin notes.

Borchert and Franklin know they have to expand rapidly to gain a foothold, but the current economy presents financing challenges, especially with museums’ tightening budgets.

But Keen Guides’ management team is finding that the potential to create something from scratch and provide a valuable service outweighs the challenges of starting a business in a tough economy.

“I could have continued to work for my old employer,” Franklin says, “but it is fun building your own thing and seeing how it grows.”

This story appears in the spring 2009 issue of Georgetown Business magazine.

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