ORLANDO, Fla. — Nobody had high expectations for Mike Calvo.
Born blind, he dropped out of high school and reached a dead end in his career at a bank when his boss told him, “We don’t know what to do with you people.” That was the last time Calvo, 48, worked in corporate America.
“I got very angry,” the Orange County resident said. “My eyes may not work, but as a man, I have goals and aspirations.”
Calvo’s I’ll-show-you mindset propelled him from employee to entrepreneur, philanthropist and chief executive of a technology company that helps the visually impaired. His latest creation is the ChocolateSelfie, which he launched in October after searching for a business that was fun.
“Yes, we will make money, but I don’t do business to make money,” said Calvo, who grew up in Miami. “I do business because it’s what I love to do. I love to come up with a concept. I love to motivate other people.”
Customers upload a picture — it doesn’t have to be a selfie — and it’s printed with edible ink on a candy layer atop either milk or dark chocolate. Calvo said the Orlando area is ideal for his business because it has the second-largest convention center in the country and many hotels that he hopes will want to use his chocolate as a promotion.
ChocolateSelfie (mychocolateselfie.com) is a product line of Calvo’s Chocolate Memories (chocolatememories.net). The company also provides photo booths that print personalized chocolate, chocolate fountains and candy buffets for special events. He runs the operation from his apartment in Hunter’s Creek, which he shares with his 16-year-old son, David, and his vizsla service dog, Hurley.
Working from home, Calvo doesn’t have to kowtow to the corporate conventionalities he detests. He changed out of his workout clothes after a CrossFit session at a nearby gym and into a ChocolateSelfie T-shirt to greet recent visitors. No question was off limits, and his speech was punctuated with occasional expletives as he talked about his attitude toward authority as a youth.
“I wasn’t going to take ‘sit down and conform’ as an answer,” he said.
Calvo admits to joining a gang in his teens and selling drugs to prove he was not the “dweeb” other people expected him to be as a blind person.
He married for the first time at 21 and tried to walk a button-down path by taking the job at the bank, where he worked in collections in the morning and as a customer-service representative in the afternoon. Years earlier, though, his heart already was elsewhere.
The son of Cuban immigrants, Calvo started his first company at age 13, working as a mobile disc jockey and earning $240 a month. At 17, he opened a recording studio.
Fascinated with technology, Calvo later ran a computer-consulting firm that trained blind workers and placed them with corporations. Next up was an invention that let people tune in to any Internet radio station from any radio in their home via a computer-controlled transmitter.
“I started realizing blind people have money, too,” Calvo said. “Blind people are consumers, too. The business world didn’t accept them that way.”
Calvo threw himself into the radio business, collaborating with Matt Campbell, a blind software developer in Wichita, Kan., whom he met through an online discussion group. Together, they developed a technology called FreedomBox, which let visually impaired people use Web browsers, email and instant messages and gave them access to news and entertainment through voice and keyboard commands.
That evolved into Serotek, a corporation that makes screen readers, document-scanning software and a mobile app for blind people and hires visually impaired workers.
Calvo, who moved to Central Florida in 2002 because he thought it was a safer place to raise children, stepped down in 2013 as Serotek’s chief executive officer. With Apple and other companies by then providing free screen readers built into their operating systems, Calvo was itching for a new project. He remains a shareholder and board member at Serotek.
“I thrive in corporate chaos,” he said. “I like having as many balls up in the air as I can possibly handle.”
As with his previous ventures, Calvo assembled a diverse team for ChocolateSelfie that includes his son David, who maintains the website; Campbell, who develops the software; and a chocolatier who creates and ships the orders from Jupiter.
Retail prices range from $1.49 for chocolate coins to $3.99 for business cards and $34.99 for picture frames. Calvo won’t discuss sales figures, but he said his fledgling company had a strong Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
When he’s not working or working out, Calvo likes to tell stories. Last month he drew guffaws from an audience at Orlando Story Club, where he recounted a driving lesson his drunken friends gave him when he was 17.
A fluent Spanish speaker, Calvo said he also plans to devote more time to his role as executive director of a foundation that aims to give tablet computers to blind children in developing countries. It started with a pilot project in Colombia in 2013.
“Technology is a great equalizer,” Calvo said. “There’s no excuse to not accomplish your dreams.”