A Publication of WTVP

Entrepreneur, author, advocate

by Steve Stein | Photo by Ron Johnson |
Pierre Paul is CEO and founder of We Hear You, a company that has created a sign language translator and hand held device that turns handicap accessible doors into automatic doors.
Pierre Paul is CEO and founder of We Hear You, a company that has created a sign language translator and hand held device that turns handicap accessible doors into automatic doors.

We Hear You CEO Paul Pierre is on a mission ‘to change the world.’

He’s only 24, but Pierre Paul has already endured a lifetime of challenges and celebrated a lifetime of triumphs.

Extreme poverty, xenophobia and racism are among the roadblocks he’s encountered on the way to becoming an award-winning entrepreneur, sought-after public speaker, diversity specialist, respected mentor and fierce advocate for the disadvantaged.

Paul recently added a new title to his résumé: children’s book author. The title of his debut is Carden: The Wheelchair Warrior, a fictional tale about a young girl trying to fit in during her first day of school. The story was inspired by a real-life person, Carden Wyckoff, a disability advocate and colleague who has not let muscular dystrophy slow her.

“All too often, those who are different find themselves doing and saying anything to acclimate to the status quo,” Paul said. “Carden is no different, using her wild imagination to exaggerate in order to fit in among her peers. But she will learn that children love regardless of age, race, physical ability or gender.”

Published over the recent holidays in English, Spanish, French and Arabic, the book is available on Amazon ($9.99/eBook, $15.99 soft cover), where it sold 125 copies in its first three days. At some point, Paul would like to get Carden into brick-and-mortar bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Target, with hopes of donating some of the sale proceeds to the likes of Easterseals and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

The 20-something CEO

The Bradley University grad and product of the university’s Turner School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation isn’t fazed by lofty goals. He embraces them.

He’s the founder and chief executive officer of We Hear You (WHY), a company launched at Bradley that has created award-winning sign language translation technology “for individuals whose concerns often go unheard,” Paul said.

“My company believes that diversity and inclusion should not be an afterthought of innovation, and I live this in my daily life,” he said. “We Hear You is an extension of my childhood dreams to change the world.”

The company’s two-way sign language translation software — an idea Paul said came to him in a dream — has reached 98% accuracy. Paul isn’t satisfied with that, so WHY has joined forces with the Doğuş Group, one of Turkey’s largest companies, to work out the software’s kinks before it’s rolled out globally.

“It’s going to take about two years for them to perfect … The deaf community has become jaded because of people promising to create this kind of software and not keeping their promise, so we want to do it right.”

Paul said he received invaluable help testing the technology from The Spot Coffee in Peoria, which provided it to hearing-challenged customers in placing their orders via a tablet on the store’s counter.

“This software truly has the potential to bridge the gap between the deaf and hard-of-hearing world and the hearing world,” said Jessica Lang, vice president of community engagement at WHY and a part of the deaf community herself. “The lives that will be impacted can’t be overstated.”

We Hear You’s other invention is Push, a handheld device the size of an Apple watch that turns accessible doors into automatic doors from as far as 20 feet away. The device can be attached to wheelchairs, crutches, canes and walkers, worn as a wristband or attached to a keychain. Push is in use on the Bradley and Illinois Central College campuses, as well as EP!C, a Peoria-based company that helps those with intellectual and developmental disabilities achieve their goals and live productive lives.

Having the device on college campuses is especially important to Paul, who notes that more than 19% of undergraduate college students have at least one disability.

Paul is the lone full-timer at his all-virtual company, which has a team of about a dozen working on the sign language software and another seven tinkering with the Push product.

Bethanie Couri is WHY’s chief operating officer and director of the Office of Residential Living and Student Conduct at Bradley. She met Paul there.

“He and I don’t have to flip a switch between being friends one minute and working together the next,” said Couri. “Pierre is a natural leader. He’s easy to trust and everyone knows his leadership will benefit others.”

Nathan Domenighini, managing director of gener8tor’s gBETA, a partner of Distillery Labs in Peoria, is another Paul fan: “Pierre is a great role model and mentor for minority entrepreneurs.”

‘No limits to what you can achieve’

Born in Brazil and raised in Guyana, Paul ultimately moved with his family to Ohio. His life took a turn for the worse there as he looked and spoke so much differently than his classmates.

But the isolation and discrimination he faced gave him the motivation to master English, become comfortable with public speaking, and use his talents and strong beliefs to make sure others don’t feel as unwelcome as he once did.

His father read to him nightly, “stories of trials, tribulations and hardship, but most importantly, stories that ended in triumph,” Paul said.

He came to Bradley on a speech scholarship after graduating from Wooster (Ohio) High School. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science from BU in 2019, the same year he launched WHY, and a master’s degree in social sector leadership and non-profit management in 2021. He also became a U.S. citizen.

Paul could have started his company anywhere. Why Bradley and why Peoria?

“Because there is so much love and support for entrepreneurs here,” he said. “The resources and mentorships are invaluable.”

he uses his talents and strong beliefs to make sure others don’t feel as unwelcome as he once did.

Ultimately, helping others is what it’s all about.

“That supersedes any success I achieve,” he said. “I want people to hear my story and see how I live my life and realize there are no limits to what you can achieve.”

Steve Stein

Steve Stein

is a longtime Peoria area print journalist