Joyce welcomes Morgan K. O’Brien, chairman of the board of Watt Fuel Cell Corporation
January 12, 2021 - 2:00pm to 3:00pm

Joyce welcomes Morgan K. O’Brien, chairman of the board of Watt Fuel Cell Corporation since 2018, to the show. WATT Fuel Cell Corporation is a manufacturer and developer of Solid Oxide Fuel Cell stacks and systems that operate on common, readily available fuels such as propane and natural gas. WATT's proprietary patented additive manufacturing process (AMP) has allowed them to produce commercially viable SOFC products for small scale and remote power applications. Mr. O’Brien will discuss the company’s commitment to serve its customers, while maintaining a diverse workforce including people with disabilities.

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FINISHED FILE

"DISABILITY MATTERS"

JANUARY 12, 2020

1:00 P.M. CST

   

 

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   >> Welcome to "Disability Matters" with your host, Joyce Bender.  All comments, views and opinions expressed on this show are solely those of the host, guest and callers.  Now the host of "Disability Matters."  Here's Joyce Bender.

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  Hello, everyone.  I hope you are having a great day in the United States and around the world.  Let me take a moment right there and thank ‑‑ oh, my goodness, there were 19 countries listening to this show last week.  19.  The largest being in China and thank you so much.  But every country, thank you so much for listening to this show.  One person can make a difference no matter who it is. 
    And a special shout out to Yoshiko Dart and to oh, we are talking about around the world.  Hey I have some champion friends around the world.  First, Richard Roberts who is in Japan.  Geon Hyeong Cho who is in South Korea.  Cheryl Harris in Tunisia and Ven Mean in Kazakhstan.  The first four all work for the Embassy and all work for the State Department.  They are fighting the fight all the time for quality of life for people with disabilities.  And then Ven Mean, he is a disability rights advocate in Kazakhstan.  I have been to these countries and I admire you all very much. 

Yoshiko, the reason I gave you a shout out because we will never forget the late great Justin Dart, your husband.  And then the sponsors, oh, my goodness, Highmark is going on I believe it is the fifth year as the lead sponsor.  And Wells Fargo and the Employment Option.  May I just mention last year Peoples was a one year sponsor.  But I should say that Morgan O'Brien because that's why it happened.  Morgan O'Brien, one of the best people I know, a CEO who cares, a CEO who cares about people with disabilities.  Just all around a great person.  So Morgan O'Brien, chairman of the board at WATT Fuel Cell, welcome to the show. 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  Hey, Joyce.  It is a privilege to be here.  And I'm really excited to have this conversation with you. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  Well, we are, too.  And you know what, since we do have listeners throughout the world, what if we start, Morgan, if you don't mind sharing with our listeners a little about your background in the utility industry and your current role.  And then after that what WATT Fuel Cell is.

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  Sure.  So I spent probably nearly the last 30 years, just about 30 years in the utility space.  I spent almost 20 years at Duquesne Light Company, which is the electricity utility that serves Pennsylvania.  Eight of those years as chief executive officer, CEO of the company.  And most recently I spent the last ten years as CEO of People's Gas which is a gas utility serving Western Pennsylvania, including the city of Pittsburgh. 

I'm a Western Pennsylvania person.  I have been born and raised here.  I have not only spent my professional career dealing with I'll call it a whole evolution of what's happening on the energy side but also, you know, engaged in the community, understanding that as any business that serves a region, your prosperity is tied to, you know, the fortunes of the region.  So we have been a long time person engaged in what's happening here in Western Pennsylvania, particularly obviously on energy issues but even broader social issues, you know.  And so last March People's Gas was acquired by Aqua America, which is a publically traded water utility out of the Philadelphia area.  As part of that transaction I moved on. 

When the transaction closed in March I ended my term and career as CEO at People's Gas.  Since then I have stayed engaged with (inaudible).  I was involved with a CEO there.  I chaired the United Way campaign this year.  I am working still with the Pittsburgh chamber and the Allegheny conference and other organizations around the region.  In addition to that we had partnered with a startup company through our relationships with the folks at CMU, a company called WATT Fuel Cell.  For me it was I'll say one of the more exciting businesses that I have been associated with. 
    A fuel cell is basically a ‑‑ it is ‑‑ the technology itself has been around a long time.  It takes energy like natural gas and converts it in to electricity without any combustion.  So there is no fire.  That's normally you would think of in a power plant or a boiler in a manufacturing plant.  There is just a chemical reaction that converts the gas in to electricity.  And because of that it is much more, you know, responsible.  It has significantly lower, almost zero environmental impacts to the conversion of the gas and electricity. 
    And WATT fuel, they took what I would say is a proven technology and have really begun developing a product that you can use in your home.  So you could literally put one of these fuel cells in your house.  And then instead of buying electricity from the grid which is powered by all kinds of area power plants, you could create the electricity in your home right there on site.  And these fuel cells are ‑‑ if you could picture the size of your home computer, it is very small.  And, you know, would probably fit in like your basement and similar to your hot water tank and your furnace.  And, you know, from a ‑‑ so from an environmental standpoint it is a huge improvement from buying electricity from the grid where you have got state power plants that burn energy.  And then you have energy moving through power lines with lots of energy and other environmental impacts. 
    You are now creating it in your home.  So it is much more efficient and it is right there as a source.  So very little energy is wasted.  There is almost no environmental impacts to it.  And then from a resiliency which, you know, if you think of everyone working from home, kids being schooled from their homes, losing your power is much significant in these days and in this setting than even before.  But even before with all the technology that we use that having your lights on all the time is becoming more and more important.  So the fuel cell basically keeps the lights on all the time.  And if anything would ever happen to the fuel cell, you can then, you know, have the electricity sitting there from the grid.  So it creates like a natural backup facility for your house. 
    And they also create fuel cells for recreational vehicles, so that when you take your RV off in to the woods, in the mountains and go on your trip and you don't have any connection to electricity you can turn the fuel cell and power the RV in a very responsible way.  It is an exciting technology.  It's early in its development.  There are I'd say a handful of these out in homes being tested as we speak.  The goal is by the end of this calendar year 2021 to actually have a product that can be sold to the public.  This is truly a startup company.  It is exciting.  It is sort of disruptive to our current way of using energy and obtaining energy.  And for me it is, you know, keeping all of the skill sets that I have developed over the years and, you know, trying to help I'll say a group of really smart people develop their business plan.   

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  Wow.  Now just so my listeners understand this, so is there a manufacturing site where this fuel cell device is made?  How does this work? 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  Yes.  So, you know, today, so this is ‑‑ it is still in the ‑‑ we would call it testing stage, right?  So we don't have a product that we actually sell to the public yet.  But through a partnership with People's Gas we are actually testing these in people's homes.  So there are literally like I said a handful of homes that these have been placed in to, including a couple of I'll call it facilities that People's Gas owns.  So they are going through making sure it works and it is safe, all those good things.  The company is located in West Moreland County.  It is a group of folks.  This is a great Western Pennsylvania story for us.  They started this company in New York.  They came to Western Pennsylvania.  They were actually purchasing a bunch of assets from Westinghouse that used to have an old fuel cell manufacturing facility.  And they were going to take basically the old plant facility assets and move it back to New York. 
    And people here didn't want to see, you know, that business go away.  And made a proposal that these guys couldn't say no to.  They came here and set up shop about a year or so ago.  And they are tightly aligned with Carnegie Melon University.  It is not considered an offshoot from the CMU team.  It is still a close partnership, makes being here in Western Pennsylvania even more sense.  So they don't currently mass manufacture this asset yet, but that's something by the end of this year we'll be prepared to start doing that.  And, you know, in almost all likelihood it will be here in Western Pennsylvania. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  That is so exciting.  You know, isn't it amazing, Morgan, how many startups, I realize this is not, but how many companies have come out of Carnegie Melon? 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  Yeah. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  This is a startup, right? 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  Yes.  It is a great asset.  And the fear always has been we get these startups and they go out to Palo Alto or down to North Carolina and they go to these I'll call them sexier places.  But it is nice to see what I'll call it the great thinking and all the interesting things that happen at CMU actually you get to watch them create businesses here. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  I want to tell you how I know they'll be successful because they have you leading it.  That's how I know.  I mean I cannot tell you what a good man he is.  For all of those around the world listening, especially people with disabilities, I got to tell you there isn't one time that Morgan has not stood behind me when it comes to any initiative helping people with disabilities.  So this is a CEO, a chairman that really walks the talk.  He really does. 
    And that's one of the reasons I think so highly of him.  So you can put this company on your list of good companies for people with disabilities.  Hey, Morgan, the way you are talking then there's many ways this is going to benefit the environment.  Is that correct? 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  Yeah.  I mean, so today nearly all of our electricity is purchased and used off of the electric wires that we have and that's in this country and around the world.  The idea of having I'll call it these ‑‑ it is almost a micro grid inside your house is, you know, this is fairly revolutionary and really forward thinking.  So yeah.  This is ‑‑ the biggest I'll call it the biggest change is not only the fact that it doesn't burn gas.  So today in a power plant we put gas in to a big, you know, power plant that creates a lot of electricity for thousands of homes.  They burn the gas and you will see, there is a smoke stack where the heat from the fire and the boiler, where the smoke goes up in to the environment.  And obviously that's, you know, that's an environmental impact that creates concerns for a lot of people. 
    This technology, it doesn't burn the gas.  It actually literally comes in to your home and through a stack of ‑‑ a ceramic house creates a chemical reaction that creates electricity.  There is no burning of gas.  No smoke stack where gas is being put up in to the atmosphere.  So that's huge.  That's a huge change. 
    And the other thing which, you know, we don't talk a lot about is that energy is lost as you burn it at these power plants.  So about half the energy is going up the smoke stack in to the environment and the electricity that you do create travel far distances from the power plants and from the house and business.  As it goes across the power lines energy is lost.  Not all the electricity makes it from where it started to where it ends up needing to go.  There is that wasted energy has environmental impacts.  So when you add up the combination of burning gas going up to smoke stack to the impacts of energy being lost through just the normal distribution system that we have in place around the world, those two factors, it is a significant improvement from where we are today on the environment.  Like it is a couple ‑‑ two or three times better from the environment.  As well as, you know, the goal of this is to be, you know, economic as well.  So it will be resilient.  Your lights will stay on.  It will be environmentally positive.  But also be economic for you to have this versus buying off the grid. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  Wow.  You know what, this is amazing to me.  How revolutionary is this?  I mean this is really awesome.  How many people work at your company right now, Morgan? 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  Yeah, I mean it is a startup company, Joyce.  So we have got ‑‑ and most of these are folks with Ph.D. degrees, right.  This is not a big manufacturing process yet.  So we probably have about 30 people and again many of them are advanced degree folks who are designing and working on design issues and really setting the stage for when this becomes more of a manufacturing process later this year.

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  And then what do you anticipate the size to be at that point? 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  Yeah, it's ‑‑ a lot depends on how quickly the product gets out in to the market and gets accepted.  The interesting things, because this is what the world is, you know, the manufacturing process is basically a big 3D printer.  So I don't know if you have ever seen a 3D printing process.  But it is not a lot of people involved.  It is very technical.  And, you know, it basically replicates an item and creates that item using computer technologies.  So it's everything about this is, you know, literally beyond state of the art.  It's looking at the future world.  But, you know, the reality is we would expect, you know, hundreds of jobs eventually being created here with, you know, a lot of opportunities here that, you know, to be part of a company that's changing the world and disrupting the energy world in a really positive way here in Western Pennsylvania.  We think it is going to be exciting.  I have learned the lessons.  The 30 years I have had in the utility space of how important a workforce that really is committed and, you know, sort of owns what they do every day, and then supporting a vision around that, it is really critical.  So this ‑‑ building the workforce will be a really important part of this more in the second half of this year, but still really, really important to come here. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  I know you will include people with disabilities when you look for talent because, you know, when I have done work for the NSA or Department of Defense, they would hire people from us, mathematicians, engineers, Ph.D.s.  It is just people don't realize they are out there.  So I'll be really excited, you know, when it takes off.  I have got to tell you I think it will take off more than you think.  I really can see this being something big.  I'm so excited for you, Morgan. 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  Yeah.  You know, and, you know, I have I'll call it the blueprint, you know.  When we were running People's we had the opportunity to create jobs here in the region.  So ten years ago we brought a call center that had been outsourced out of state back to Pittsburgh.  And we, you know, purposefully went about staffing that with, you know, diverse employees.  And at the time the outsource provider was one of the worst I'll call it performers in the state of Pennsylvania for a utility call center. 
    And, you know, ten years later we, you know, through focusing on minorities, people with disabilities, really a cross‑section of folks who really been left behind, we built I'll say a call center with people who really valued that job, and ten years later when we look you will see that we have the lowest turnover.  And a big part of that turnover, the lack of turnover we're having people who really value the job.  That job meant a lot to them.  And not only that, but saw it as a career path.  And so we became more diverse and more successful on the quality of service by focusing on diversity.  And a lot of those folks got promoted.  And so we were more diverse at the management level because we ‑‑ we helped develop those folks.  And so, you know, I'll call it the importance of a company and a business understanding what jobs mean to people who are diverse and with disabilities and have other challenges that how important it is to them and what it means to them. 
    And their ability to really value that job and from a business perspective the company is the beneficiary of that, you know, from not having to refill those jobs, retrain people, invest in the turnover challenges that most companies have.  And, you know, those lessons stay with you forever.  It is not a Harvard business case, but it is the Morgan O'Brien business case.  And, you know, the folks at WATT clearly understand and appreciate, you know, especially anything where you have spent training and quality is really important to have that I'll call it lack of turnover and people who are committed to what they do here.  There is no question in our mind being both diversity in color and race and religion and you'll call it all the flavors of diversity, plus ensuring that we are a place that welcomes and embraces folks with disabilities.  The business case for that is one as I said to you I completely have seen it.  I witnessed it.  And there is no question in my mind about it. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  Well, you know, thank you for making that clear to a lot of the business leaders, listening to this show.  Because as my listeners know this show is on‑demand.  So thousands of people listen to it on‑demand.  And if you are a business person, keep in mind Morgan has been the CEO at these different companies.  It is now the chairman at this company.  So you heard it from him. 
    So true those words are.  Well, okay.  We're almost to our break time.  As you know we have a break on the half hour at every show with our anchor person, Peri Jude Radecic who has done a phenomenal job for us and is presently the CEO of Disability Rights PA.  So Peri, are you with us?  So what do you have for us today, Peri? 

   >> PERI JUDE RADECIC:  Well, I don't think we should get too far ‑‑ too far in to other issues without discussing the terrorist activity that was focused on the U.S. capitol last week and how it impacts disability policy.  And I think that's an appropriate topic.  I mean we face turbulent times and strife and we are only 12 days in to this new year.  And we face the possibility of more protests and extremist activities in our state capitals across the country next week and in Washington D.C.  So let's bring in back to disability policy.  Like what does this mean?  And how do we move forward?  And it means that there is still not a national plan of really ending COVID‑19.  And the attention is focused off of disability policy while our nation has to face this constitutional crisis. 
    So we always talk at advocacy matters what can you do.  First I think we have to condemn the insurrection and this is completely different from the people's right to disagree, but to overthrow the first branch of our constitutional government or attempt to harm our elected officials I think is a step too far.  And we have to condemn that.  It is jarring to watch that insurrection happen on television.  So we have to condemn it. 
    Second we have to focus attention back on disability policy because again it shifted disability policy out of sight and out of mind in the middle of a pandemic that is impacting our community so deeply.  It is taking the lives of people with color and disabilities in disproportionate ways.  I think we have to think about emergency plans.  Those of us who are advocates and work in the field, think about emergency plans through this time period.  We heard stories of members of Congress who with disabilities who were having a hard time being evacuated at the U.S. Capitol.  What are the plans that legislators have in place that our state capitals across the country have in place to evacuate people should there be violence as is projected?  So at Advocacy Matters I think hope lies in all of our hands.  I think that hope lies in your hands.  And we have to communicate with our elected officials now.  Let's start our advocacy with a phone call or an e‑mail and go to www.house.gov or senate.gov for a list of all the members and their contact information.  You should let them know that you condemn that insurrection and urge members to get back to the business of supporting people with disabilities through an issue like the pandemic.  That's the best we can do at Advocacy Matters today as we are still reeling from the events from last week. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  Well, Peri, I too am reeling from this.  As a citizen of the United States, truly there was people that in my opinion were treasonists.  It was Sedition.  It was murder.  It was desecrating.  We are still dealing with thousands of people with disabilities dying through this time.  And we will somehow have to keep our eyes on that in the midst of who knows what is going to happen with the inauguration.  But in addition to that, I'm glad you brought that up.  I did not think about that.  That there are people that work in the capital that are in wheelchairs or that are blind or who are deaf.  And what happens to them if there is a situation where they have to be evacuated from the capital.  That's a really good point.  And we all have to make sure we don't think about it, but that we speak now about it.  And Peri, I hope you will keep us up to date on what happens and what's happening to people with disabilities as we go through all of this.   

   >> PERI JUDE RADECIC:  Absolutely, Joyce.  And thanks for having us on the show. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  Thank you.  I know that's true because Senator Duckworth is in a wheelchair.  Congressman Langerman is in a wheelchair.  There are people who have disabilities that are in our Congress.  But right now we have to tell people with disabilities and employees please be careful January 20th because I know this is supposed to hit all the capitals in our states.  So please be careful and know that we believe in the power of democracy. 
    Well, Morgan, what a time.  What a time.  You never thought we'd see the Coronavirus.  We never thought we'd see this.  And it has been an amazing two years when you think about it. 
    Morgan, I have to ask you a question.  As I said earlier on the show, you have always been a proponent of people with disabilities.  Why is it important to you? 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  You know, I mean I think the first is simple and the sincere of who we all are, one, it is the right thing to do.  I mean treating people with dignity and respect and providing opportunities to people is just ‑‑ it is absolutely the ‑‑ just the human and the kind of I'll say the kind of people we all want to be.  And so, you know, that's one aspect of it.  The other is and, you know, I ‑‑ I really try to force this with other business people, there is an incredible business case around it.  I look at, you know, how expensive it is for a business to have a lot of turnover.  And there are lots of businesses that deal with that all the time.  You invest in employees and train them.  And you go through a great deal of effort to screen them as you know to make sure their background is what their background is.  And then to do all of that and invest all that and to see them moving on to other jobs where those opportunities present is just ‑‑ it is expensive for a business to do. 

And so to get a group of people who, one, have all the skill sets and I'll call it the tools necessarily to be successful, but then to understand and to see how much they value that job and how much they value, you know, the company and the embracing of what they provide and really, you know, they become role models for people all around them.  And so, you know, to me that starts with the human side.  It is just the right thing to do. 

But secondly it gets more and more people thinking about it.  There is an incredible business case that says, you know, that people with disabilities, the return on those investments we make in employees is significantly higher and with greater certainty than those people are going to value that job because it means so much to them. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  Yes.  Now let me ask you this question, so you feel like that.  But still today, going up to 80% of people with disabilities are not counted in the workforce. 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  Yes. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  Why are you so different?  Why are you different than other CEOs? 
  (Laughter).

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  I ‑‑ you probably need another hour show to know the answer to that.  But I think it's ‑‑ and the good news, this is the good news, I see it more and more.  And I know, you know, you recently had David Holmberg and there is some really, really good people out there that just value people and that are become models.  And what I have said Joyce, I think hopefully people listening to this broadcast feel this way, too, is that, you know, we can't ‑‑ you can't ‑‑ I can't solve all of the world's problems.  No matter how big your organization is, you know, in the grand scheme of things it is typically just a small movement of the needle to the extent that you are able to do something positive.  But I think we can all be called models.  And to be a light for own people to look at to see, it is funny somebody said to me, how did you get your turnover so low at People's, Morgan, that gives me a chance and an opportunity to explain the business case around folks with diversity issues and hiring folks with disabilities. 

And so I think there is a real opportunity for everyone to differentiate themselves in a positive way from a valid business perspective, to, you know, invest and really recognize the value of everyone, and particularly the people with disabilities.  And again everything is a return on investment in the business world.  And I don't think there is a greater return of what a company, a business leader, department manager, take it down to whatever the lowest level is, if you embrace it and become a model for others either in your company, others in your ‑‑ in the area that you work, or if you are sitting at a CEO level seat, all of us can be role models that others will want to follow when successful. 

I'm still optimistic that there is progress being made.  It is never fast enough or great enough.  But the glass is half full here.  I think ‑‑ I see more and more people understanding both the business case and then I think I'll call it the human side of why this is an important issue for all of us.  And I do see I'll say more and more people wanting to be leaders and really role models for others to show them the business case around doing this. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  Why is that though?  With you me I mean.  Was this instilled in you, this feeling of including all? 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  Yeah.  My parents, we were call it a lower ‑‑ at best lower middle class family.  My father was an immigrant here.  And he taught us from an early age to respect everybody.  And respect how important a job was.  And it wasn't an entitlement.  It was a gift, whether you were sweeping floors at the grocery store in the summer, moving furniture in the part‑time job while I went to college.  Every job we had it is a gift and treat it like a gift.  And be appreciative.  And understand that every worker you treat them with dignity and respect because of that.  And, you know, then it just follows, right, that when we think about that, you know, whether it is the security guard in your building or the CEO who lives in the penthouse or everybody in between.  Everybody's job is important.  And everybody should be valued.  And, you know, and then you apply that to people.  And you see, you know ‑‑ once you see it, I think that's the part that I really try to explain to people.  If you see people with disabilities and how important their job is to them and the commitment and real dedication that they bring to the workplace that is really I'll call it infectious so that others around them, they become sort of role models for others.  And so once you see that, it just ‑‑ I think as a human being and as somebody who just respects all people, that just ‑‑ it stays with you and you can't ‑‑ you can't ever go back to I'll call it being ignorant and not understanding that.  And just being not aware of how important this issue is.     

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  Yeah, well, as I said you are a special person.  So you listen, that's for sure.  Hey, Morgan, I know you love Pittsburgh.  For all of our listeners, what would you say are some of the best reasons to live in Pittsburgh? 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  You know, I'm a huge believer in Pittsburgh.  And in Pittsburgh, I would say to everybody listening that we are just hitting our stride.  This pandemic shook everyone's economic office.  We are all getting our feet back under us.  But the future of this region is really exciting.  And I think we truly have business leaders and community leaders who work together that, you know, we are going to be successful and continue to grow the region with jobs and opportunities.  But do it in a way that I think is the right way and the only way and that's to be inclusive.  And I think, you know, the secret to Pittsburgh which makes it unique is that, you know, I think it is an area that a lot of us came from the working class.  And, you know, we appreciate and value hard work and importance of what a job means to every one of us.  Solving a lot of the social issues going on in the world, whether it is Black Lives Matter or just the separation that people feel from everything that's going on nationally, that, you know, part of that, and not the entire cure is to give people a job that builds dignity with themselves and others.  And provides opportunities for those careers to continue to grow.  And I think, you know, people in Pittsburgh embrace that and support I'll say across the board inclusion.  We are not perfect.  And we have got a lot of challenges that you could describe. 

But I do think we are a community of people that care about each other and really, you know, work hard at making this a better place for our kids and grand kids because, you know, the one thing that happens in Pittsburgh is people tend to stay here because it is a welcoming place, and a place where you feel your neighbor cares about you. 
    But so that means your kids are going to be here.  Your grand kids are going to be here.  And so a lot of us, our legacy is that we have a vested interest that, you know, we get better.  We make, you know, next year we are better than we were this year and five years we are even better than we are now.  And I think that type of sort of community engagement around, you know, moving important issues like disability, like diversity, like inclusion, all that moving that forward, you know, it is exciting.  It won't solve every problem that we have.  I have seen and I think all of us recognize that, you know, giving people a job with dignity and the opportunity to expand that career will solve a lot of our social problems. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  Right.  And I would say about that, you know, Pittsburgh people are great people.  They really give back.  It is a city that people give back.  In addition to that I mean we have opera, symphony, museums, national museum, like the Warhol and the Avri and Heinz center and Carnegie Melon and you can go on and on. 

I'm going to give you a minute to talk about the United Way.  You said you are the chair.  So why don't you tell our listeners.  The United Way helps many people and I guess wow, it would be needed right now with what's going on in this country with the pandemic.  But why did you agree to chair?  And what do you like about the United Way?  Why do you think it is so valuable for this region? 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  Yes.  I mean I have been a long time supporter and really advocate for the United Way.  As I said my background is in the utility space.  And, you know, a big part of the mission of the utility is, you know, as a society is making sure that everybody's lights are on and their homes are warm in the winter, even if they can't afford their utility service.  So we have a strong I'll call it social service aspect to a utility business.  And understanding that, so I would tell people at the United Way, you know, we deal with one portion of a person's life challenges.  They can't pay their utility bill. 
    But if you think about it, right, and the employees I have that we're dealing in these issues, you realize if you can't afford to pay your utility, chances are you are having trouble paying your rent.  Chances are you are having trouble getting food.  Chances are you are having trouble getting access to medical care.  If you are missing one of the issues chances are the challenges aren't just your utility issues.  And so I got engaged early on in helping bring about it is called 211.  Literally the numbers 211.  It is a help line for people with social service issues. 
    And so if you don't know who to call and you can't find food for your family, or you can't pay your rent or you are having trouble with your utility bills, you call the 211 hotline and there are trained case workers who answer the phones.  And they help connect you with resources in the community.  And, you know, for me it was the idea that if somebody's calling Duquesne Light or People's Gas and they can't pay the utility bill, you don't want the call to end there.  We started becoming a partner with United Way.  We would like to transfer those folks after we deal with the utility issue to 211 to help deal with the wholistic challenges that people in economic challenges have. 

This year is an incredible year.  It is the perfect storm.  You have many people unemployed.  So if you think of where United Way gets most of its funding, a lot of it is through employee campaign.  A lot of people who donate to the United Way were being let go, furloughed, dealing with their own economic challenges.  I will call it the pool of dollars to help became less but then the need becomes greater.  Typically there are a number of people in our society need help.  The United Way is there to help them.  We are going through, that population is bigger than ever before with more people unemployed.  More people who never had to in the past ask for help to feed their family or where am I going to get my rent payment or how do I get medical services when I'm not working.  All those questions, you know.  So the need is greater than ever.  And, you know, and as I said I ended my full‑time job at People's.  And I knew this was going to be a big lift and an important year. 

And I still have I'll call it the ability to connect with companies and, you know, get people I'll say excited about potentially helping their neighbors and helping people in this community.  And so for me to volunteer to chair the campaign was, you know, an easy one because I got it.  I knew how important this is.  And this year as I said I think it is probably the most important year we have had with the number of people that need help.  Many of them never having had to ask anyone ever before for help.  And then also the challenge to raise money when a lot of people are, you know, having their own economic challenges.  It was ‑‑ I knew it was important. 
    And I couldn't possibly not want to be a part of it.  So...

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  Well, are you worried, Morgan, about the ability of people to give?  Or are you more going to corporations? 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  So I'll tell ya, so we are ‑‑ the campaign is sort of in the throws.  And you asked why earlier, what's so special about Pittsburgh.  What you find is that when the need is real and growing, people step up.  So I'm going to, you know, throw out some company names here in the region.  PNC completed their employee giving.  This is where employees dedicate some portion of their salary to give to the United Way and they do it every year.  They had a significant increase in the amount of money that people are now setting aside just because people are aware of how great the need is. 
    You know, I can say Highmark has had a successful campaign.  A number of our sort of the pillars of our community, UPNC have really stepped up and their employees have stepped up and are giving more which is really uplifting, right? 
    And so we actually think we are going to have ‑‑ I mean I'm a glass is half full.  So I start with that.  I think we are going to have, you know, a record campaign as far as contributors.  Everyone who has given we have asked them to step up from what they have done in the past because of the need.  You don't have to sell it too hard.  People get it.  And it is just ‑‑ it is actually probably one of the most uplifting things I have seen is that across the board executive level, middle management, you know, union workers, all stepping up in their own way giving from what they have given in the past increases. 

So, you know, again to me it is what makes Pittsburgh special.  And I think, you know, it is something we will all be proud of when we get the campaign finished.  There are still some challenges as companies deal with their economic challenges, but overall there is just so many positive twists that, you know, that we didn't necessarily expect going in to this that it makes you feel good about who we are and what we are as a community. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  I think you will have a record year.  Because Pittsburghers come forward when you need them.  We had a great year this year at Bender, this past year.  And it is for that same reason that when people say hey, you know, I care about people with disabilities.  Or hey, I care about the United Way because you reach out and help so many different constituents.  So I would encourage everyone to participate.  And as once again having you at the lead we know it will be successful.  First of all, thank you for being with us today.  What message do you have for our listeners? 

   >> MORGAN O'BRIEN:  I think as a community and a nation and a world we have dealt with so many issues this year.  And I think, you know, we are coming close to the end of this pandemic with the vaccine now rolling out.  You know, we have got a new day beginning in Washington, you know, with a new leadership team that's stepping in to place here.  You know, it is easy to focus on all the negatives and the challenges that each of us have had.  But I think 2021 is going to be an exciting year and full of I'll say growth and opportunity.  And I think it is inherent in all of us that when we look at opportunities and growth that we are inclusive.  And that one of the most important audiences we have are those with disabilities.  And I would build the business place for anybody out there that says if you invest with somebody with a disability, that will be the highest return you could have as far as investing in new employees.  So I'm incredibly optimistic and excited about what the future here is going to bring. 
    And I think for all of us our best days are ahead of us. 

   >> JOYCE BENDER:  Absolutely agree.  We end every show with a quote and today that quote is "It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people", said Martin Luther King, Junior.  This is Joyce Bender, America's voice where disability matters at VoiceAmerica.com.  Talk to you all next week. 
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