Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has opened up about how his journey with his special needs son has shaped his life and career.
Nadella’s son Zain, now 21, has cerebral palsy and is legally blind. Zain’s pregnancy was complicated. “I remember the year 1996 as a thrilling time. My wife, Anu, was 25 and I was 29. My career as an engineer was taking off, while she was building her career as an architect,” Nadella wrote in a blogpost. “Even more exciting, however, was that Anu was pregnant with our first child.”
“One night, during the thirty-sixth week of her pregnancy, Anu noticed that the baby was not moving as much as she was accustomed to. So we went to the emergency room of a local hospital in Bellevue. We thought it would be just a routine checkup, little more than new parent anxiety,” he says. “But upon examination, the doctors were alarmed enough to order an emergency cesarean section. Zain was born at 11:29 p.m. on August 13, 1996, all of three pounds. He did not cry.”
Zain had suffered from in-utero asphyxiation, which meant he’d be confined to a wheelchair, and also had severe cerebral palsy. “I was devastated. But mostly I was sad for how things turned out for me and Anu.” says Nadella. But his wife’s reaction to the situation surprised him. “For Anu, it was never about what this meant for her — it was always about what it meant for Zain and how we could best care for him. Rather than asking “why us?” she instinctually felt his pain before her own,” he says.
Nadella says he learnt a valuable lesson from his wife — empathy. “Her empathy for others runs deep, and from her I have learned that when I infuse empathy into my every day actions it is powerful, whether they be in my role as a father or as a CEO.”
Raising a son with special needs wasn’t easy. “To say that period of time was difficult is an understatement,” he says. But Nadella says his situation has made him stronger, and also given him a unique perspective on the journeys of disabled people, especially when they interacted with technology. And as CEO of Microsoft, he’s in a unique position to make products that are more accessible to people with special needs.
Nadella says Microsoft has begun several initiatives to help people with disabilities use its products. Windows 10, for instance, comes with a Narrator app that reads out the content of the screen, which helps people with visual impairments use it. Microsoft has also launched something called Hearing AI, which lets people with hearing disabilities experience sound and speech through graphical visualizations, and receive key notifications about vital sound changes in their environment. The company has also launched Seeing AI, a free app that narrates the world around users who might have trouble seeing.
Zain, now 21, is doing well. “Today, Zain is a charming and handsome 21-year-old who loves spending time with his family. He has a discerning passion for music,” says Nadella’s wife. “Our journey, as traumatic as it has been for Zain, has taught my family not just how to cope but also the power of kindness. I learned the empowering art of being kind to others. And it taught me to find that kindness for myself.”