Leah Wren Hardgrove came to Washington University in St. Louis with the desire to make the world a more accessible and inclusive place for people with disabilities.
Born legally blind, Hardgrove grew up understanding that society was not built for her.
“I would not be who I am without my disability, and I would never choose to not have my disability. The discomfort I’ve experienced is what motivates me to make the world a better place,” Hardgrove said.
She envisioned going to law school, but discovered a different path though business. Her “aha” moment came when Starbucks announced its eco-friendly plan to eliminate plastic straws.
“It wasn’t legislation; the company had the power. And it had a ripple effect on others,” said Hardgrove, noting the move came at a cost: some people with disabilities need straws. “Clearly, if I want to make lasting societal changes, I need to be in business.”
Hardgrove is set to graduate in May with dual degrees in marketing and organization and strategic management from Olin Business School. Marketing, she said, has the power to normalize disabilities through better representation. Yet many aspects of marketing — like print ads — are not accessible for people with certain disabilities.
Hardgrove was selected as a Lime Connect Fellow, a highly competitive leadership development program, where she connected with other student leaders with disabilities. She also interned at Google, where she contributed to an accessible marketing guide for advertisers and hosted talks about good representation in media.
“Google is the industry leader. If they adopt accessibility practices, it will have a domino effect on others,” she said.
At Washington University, Hardgrove was a thrower for the track and field team and a member of Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity. Over the last year, she has made and donated face masks with a clear plastic mouth covering so others can read lips.
After graduation, Hardgrove returns to Google, where she will serve as associate product manager. “Society is not built to include people with visible and invisible disabilities, and I’m going to change that through strategic product development, people management and brand management,” she said. “Nobody should feel less valuable because of a physical or developmental difference.”
Leah Hardgrove, a member of the track and field team, will work at Google to make products more accessible for people with disabilities. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)