Flint entrepreneur aims to improve communication between deaf and hearing communities

Linda Bell poses for a photo sporting her Ring a Bell for ASL shirt, which promotes her local American Sign Language classes.
Linda Bell poses for a photo sporting her Ring a Bell for ASL shirt, which promotes her local American Sign Language classes. Photo: Sarah Schuch

Linda Bell grew up watching her deaf mother struggle to communicate with doctors, neighbors and family members. She would often need to leave school to go with her mother to appointments and meetings.

Bell, a Flint resident who started Bell Tech Communications, LLC, knew from a young age there had to be a better way to bridge the communications gap between the deaf community and the hearing community. On Feb. 13, Bell won the first-place prize of $10,000 during 100K Ideas’ Pitch For $K and, in the process, moved one step closer to creating an app which does just that.

Bell, who has been teaching and interpreting American Sign Language (ASL) for more than 20 years, is designing an app and related technology that would provide real-time written, visual and audio translations to help deaf and hearing individuals communicate. The technology would eliminate the need for an online or live interpreter.

The audience celebrates after Linda Bell taught them how to sign happy birthday to two audience members at the end of her Pitch For $K presentation.
Photo: Sarah Schuch

“I was inspired by my mother and I wanted to make sure she had a way to be more self-sufficient without being stigmatized,” Bell said. “My dream for this app and our bigger picture solution is that hearing people are empowered to talk to the deaf community and vice versa.”

Bell’s goal is to develop an app and related technology that enables deaf and hearing-impaired individuals to effectively hear the voice output of someone who is speaking — by seeing their words in text and sign language in real time, conversational mode.

With the $10,000 prize, Bell designed a website for Bell Tech Communications. She plans on using the remaining funds for the proof of concept and prototype phase of the app and related technology.

Bell won the last of three pitch competitions, which were hosted by 100K Ideas and funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The second-place winner received $5,000, and the third-place winner received $2,500.

Linda Bell, founder of Bell Tech Communications, celebrates after learning she won first place at the Feb. 13 Pitch For $K competition. She jumped to face the crowd, which included many ASL students and members of the deaf and deaf-blind community who turned out to support her.
Photo: Sarah Schuch

The Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce partnered with 100K Ideas for all the pitch competitions to help participants be as successful as possible. Chamber staff identified mentors for each of the entrepreneurs who presented ideas and helped choose the judges. University of Michigan-Flint Outreach also facilitated a pitch clinic for those chosen to present their ideas.

“We are beyond pleased with how the Pitch For $K competitions went,” said Brandee Cooke-Brown, director of operations at 100K Ideas. “Simply seeing the number of applications we received for the competitions shows how many ideas there are in the community waiting to be activated.”

Cooke-Brown thanked everyone who volunteered for the competition as selection committee members, mentors or judges. She said their participation helped local innovators and entrepreneurs move one step closer to achieving their goals.

“Being able to help people expand their entrepreneurial network was one of the main goals for these competitions, and I believe we accomplished that,” Cooke-Brown said. “We’re excited about the possibility of continuing Pitch For $K. The competition has become part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Flint and Genesee County.”

Linda Bell, a Flint resident, accepts her first-place $10,000 prize at the third 100K Ideas’ Pitch For $K competition earlier this year.
Photo: Sarah Schuch

Bell encouraged innovators and entrepreneurs to participate in future pitch competitions, or work with 100K Ideas to develop their ideas and business plans. She said the mentoring she received from UM-Flint Outreach and the Flint & Genesee Chamber helped her learn more about marketing and business networking.

“We all have dreams of running our own business and contributing to our communities, but writing a viable business plan, understanding financial requirements, evaluating markets and identifying potential customers was a very daunting task,” Bell said. “Coming to this type of event and being a part of 100K Ideas’ competition, I have learned a great deal, and I think it would be beneficial to anyone who might want to be an entrepreneur.”

Bell was overcome with emotion when she heard her name called as the winner at the competition. She leapt up to thank the many ASL students and members of the deaf and deaf-blind community that came to Pitch For $K to support her.

“They really want to see this application go to the next level and I was more excited for them when I heard my name,” Bell said. “It was a moment of true validation. The world will hear us now.”