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What Will You Change: Helping the World to See
January 26, 2012
Originally interested in biotechnology, Monty Montoya took a part-time job as an eye bank recovery technician. Then a senior at Arizona State University, he spent nights and weekends collecting tissue and preparing it for transplants. Instead of turning his stomach, the experience fostered a lifelong passion to eliminate corneal blindness.
“My original involvement in the field was by chance,” says Montoya (Cross Continent MBA ’03). “When I graduated, I was offered a full-time job, and since then, I have worked in every role possible at an eye bank.”
Today, Montoya is President and CEO of SightLife, a Seattle-based non-profit that recovers and processes corneas for transplant. Founded by the Lions Clubs in 1969, the organization was locally and regionally focused until the late ‘90s. Montoya joined the company in 1997, in the midst of a restructuring.
“It made a transition from a mom and pop shop to a very professional, mission-driven organization,” explains Montoya. By 2000, SightLife became the top provider of corneas for transplants in the country, and began to expand internationally. That same year, Montoya went to China with a surgeon from Cleveland, OH. They took eight corneas with them.
“We showed up and there were about 125 patients who needed transplants. We evaluated them and could only pick eight of them,” Montoya remembers. “I’ve had multiple experiences like that."
"I’ve come face-to-face with the reality of corneal blindness. It’s tough seeing the desperation of people, especially parents. It made me realize that there wasn’t a voice for these people.”
Montoya says his experiences with the blind have been especially poignant because he knows what it’s like to live with a disability. He was born with clubfoot and until age 5, had multiple surgeries on his left foot to correct the disability.
“I had to crawl, walk, and even learn how to ride a bike with a cast on,” Montoya says. “But I also knew the benefits of surgery and was able to be a high school athlete.”
As a result of his personal experience, he feels deep empathy for those with corneal blindness, which may be cured by cornea transplant surgery. Corneal blindness can be caused by a number of factors including infection, injury, and disease. It’s more common in developing countries where unsanitary conditions are more likely to lead to infections.
“I realized that the organization and I had an opportunity to be a global catalyst and to make a difference for the blind around the world. So I needed to become the best that I could be,” he says. “I began looking for tools to help me advance and that led me to Fuqua. I was very much a technical expert in the field, but not a business expert. Fuqua gets a lot of credit for what I’ve been able to accomplish.”
While he was finishing his degree in 2003, Montoya became CEO of SightLife, which he says was largely due to his MBA. Under his leadership, the organization grew from a $3 million to a $15 million company, with more than $4 million reinvested into programs for the visually impaired in the Pacific Northwest. SightLife also now provides donor corneas, technical training and support for the development of eye banks in more than 40 countries, including India, Nepal, and Paraguay.
In India, the ultimate goal is to establish 30 partners that will each provide at least 3,000 corneas for 100,000 transplants a year. Leading that effort is SightLife’s Country Director Manoj Gulati (Weekend Executive MBA ’04), who Montoya describes as “incredible,” and was recruited through Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship.
“SightLife is now a global force for change, and we are attracting the best talent to accomplish our mission,” Montoya says. “SightLife’s mission, answering both a business and a social challenge, was impacted by what I learned at Fuqua. And it’s very much integrated with my personal passion for the cause. For me, serving as a global leader to eliminate corneal blindness is my life’s calling.”