Aira is a local start-up company transforming the way people who are blind, low vision, or experiencing age-related vision loss experience daily life and connection with others. PLNU alumna Amy Bernal (08) has a lead role in taking Aira to its next level and expanding the company’s reach.
As technology trends more and more towards automation, it enhances the quality of life for sighted people. But according to Bernal, that means there is a portion of the population who may be left out of those digital experiences. And with 10,000 people in the U.S. turning 65 every single day, there is a strong potential many will experience declining vision and would benefit from the technology and service offered by Aira.
Here’s how Aira works: people who are blind or low vision can use their smartphone’s voice-over controls to open the Aira app. Once it’s open, all they have to do is double-tap their screen to launch a connection to a human Aira agent through the camera on the back of their phone. The agent, someone who is highly trained to provide visual information richly and efficiently, then describes the relevant information within their view.
“It’s really about just connecting someone who may need a little bit of visual information or maybe some cognitive assurance around whatever task they are doing,” Bernal explained.
Some common use cases for Aira may be going to the airport and locating your gate, and finding a magazine or a bottle of water along the way. Or reading small print on a prescription label. Or meaningful experiences sighted people may take for granted, such as verifying your child’s written homework folder. Did they write what they said they wrote? Did their handwriting match the way they were taught?
“What stands out [about Aira] is we believe in human connection and we believe we are meeting a need at the right time,” Bernal said. “What we’re building is truly about inclusion and it’s not necessarily just another technology product.”
The culture at PLNU teaches students to care for the needs of others and live out their calling through service. It deepened the importance Bernal placed on community and care for people throughout her career.
“The relationships I built at Point Loma showed me how valuable it is to have very deep authentic connections with people,” Bernal said. “People stay connected to those who they really care about and those who really cared for them. I think that genuine connection and concern for people isn’t just about your personal life but it can pay off in your career as well.”
What we’re building is truly about inclusion and it’s not necessarily just another technology product.
At Aira, Bernal uses skills and knowledge developed across her career. When she first graduated from PLNU with a degree in international studies, she worked at a nonprofit focused on community development and advocacy around border issues, then went into philanthropy where she learned about nonprofit work being done to keep older adults involved in their community as long as possible. She then went to Intuit and served as senior offering program manager, a role focused on technology. For the past three years, Bernal has been able to combine her love of technology and improving community accessibility at Aira.
Bernal joined Aira shortly after it was founded by her friend and colleague Suman Kanuganti. She has seen the company start from nothing and helped it become what it is today, serving thousands of people in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
Initially, her work focused on building the company’s agent community — finding, recruiting, screening, hiring, and training agents to fit their brand and create an amazing product experience for users. She has hired many PLNU alumni at Aira and said it has been a delight to watch them develop their careers. She then worked on business development for the federal government, led customer care, and helped launch the company’s partnership in Australia. Now, her role focuses on people and partners — overseeing Aira’s culture and HR capabilities, and the business and market development of bringing the Aira app onto new devices and platforms.
Her current priority is getting Aira onto mainstream devices that we all have in our homes such as smart speakers and tablets, and embedding it into other services where it makes sense for users to connect to a real person. She works to develop relationships with these companies and the operational capabilities of Aira moving into international markets.
“Moving forward, I’m excited about growth and how we can bring Aira everywhere,” Bernal shared. “I’m excited to see Aira available in every touchpoint of our lives that we need it, in our homes, on devices, to different groups within the world that could benefit from the service.”
I believe that in Christ’s call to love others as ourselves, a way we can do that is to be explicit about inclusion.
She also loves the start-up environment — every day there are new ventures to try and new skills to learn.
Beyond her work at Aira, Bernal has a heart for nonprofit community development and community advocacy. She has been part of Women Give San Diego since it was founded 10 years ago. Women Give is a volunteer organization working to make women and girls economically self-sufficient. Bernal serves on the nonprofit’s grant committee. She also stays involved in local political races as much as she can, supporting candidates and staying informed, because the outcomes and what they mean for communities matter a lot to her.
“I believe that in Christ’s call to love others as ourselves, a way we can do that is to be explicit about inclusion,” she said. “It is not pretending that diversity means inclusion. We have to do that work, we have to be allies and advocates for people who are not like ourselves if we want to achieve a world in which there is greater freedom and equality. I think Aira is one of many ways I can answer that call.”