Categorized | Social Entrepreneur

We’ve Got Each Other and That’s A Lot for Love—The Ballad of a Social Entrepreneur

Dana-Marlowe

Dana Marlowe

I am sure that most, if not everyone fondly knows that epic Bon Jovi song, ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’. The timeless narrative of Tommy and Gina struggling to pay their bills in the wilds of New Jersey speaks true for many people, even if the majority of us did not grow up in the Garden State. The song is prolific in karaoke bars and sports arenas but really, it is the anthem of the entrepreneur. Take my hand, we’ll make it, I swear. This is the mantra I hear echoed in my head every day. That is what social entrepreneurship means to me–working together with confidence, but not being afraid to live on a well thought out prayer every now and then.

My company, Accessibility Partners, aids businesses and government agencies in the process to test and procure accessible technology for people with disabilities. Subsequently, we employ many people with disabilities as consultants for the company. Almost 75% of our labor pool has at least one disability and we like to have testers that actually have real interface with the technology. I feel that it is wise to have people with disabilities test because after all, they are the demographic that our clients are trying to sell to.

It is obviously than a shrewd business decision to hire people with disabilities. Yet, that factor is insignificant compared to the real reason why I hire people with disabilities. In the United States, one out of every five people has some sort of disability, whether it be auditory, visual, movement or cognitive. It is without a doubt the largest minority group in the country. Furthermore, this vast group can extend an invitation to any individual at any point in their life. As Americans age, the number is only increasing as faculties decrease. The vast majority of these people are hard workers and desirous of employment but find that they are only greeted with stereotypes and negative attitudes when they reply to job listings. The amount of Americans with disabilities and their levels of unemployment should never be proportional. That is why I decided to step in and make those numbers go down.

My belief in equal access to technology is not recent but rather a process that I am glad has led me to where I am now. I have degrees in Educational Interpreting from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and Professional and Technical Communication. Those pieces of paper do not mean anything until you put them to good use. Good use often comes out of serendipity.

A few years ago, on some idle, insignificant Tuesday, I walked into a computer store to fix some problem. Just by chance, I happened to witness people using sign language. Cue the proverbial “aha” light bulb above her head. I immediately inquired within the store and discovered that they also sold products to the government to help employees with disabilities become more accessible. I knew immediately what I had to do. A week later, when I went to recover my computer, I was decked out in a business suit and a resume was firmly planted in my hand. As I was later told, I sold myself to the owners. I was ecstatic. Finally, a position doing communications at an accessibility company!

My voracious passion never waned, in fact it grew. I craved to get more hands on in the accessibility field. Thus, in 2009, I decided to take my idea and turn them into something concrete. I collaborated with my two colleagues, Karen Beauregard and Travis Roth, and we developed a business plan. Even now, I look back proudly at how firm and comprehensive our plan was. People underestimate how much planning goes into creating a small business and often leave items like business plans on the wayside. You can only coast on your passion so far. Eventually, your shiny Ferrari of an idea runs out of gas and you are stuck on the side of the road while someone with a solid station wagon with excellent gas mileage passes you. Accessibility Partners has had to make pit stops since our start up in April 2009, but we are still steadily cruising on the accessibility racetrack today.

Success was and is not easy but we have had a ton of help on the way. Accessibility Partners functions on a telework model. My colleagues and I work primarily out of home offices or on the road. We find that this not only cuts the cost on overhead but promotes better efficiency. We are all disciplined workers who get to enjoy occasionally working in our pajamas or taking showers at two in the afternoon. Yet, we are all capable of meeting clients for professional meetings or attending conferences. Teleworking just adds to our diversity.

We are constantly hiring people with disabilities to test new and exciting technologies. Thankfully, technological innovation is booming and the market just gobbles it up. We do not want to leave anyone behind because an item is not usable. Hiring people with disabilities allows for optimal testing of the products and eventually enables almost anyone to use them. It’s a dynamic process that leaves a great feeling in my when it see it happen in front of me. I love knowing that a person with a visual impairment can text on their cell phone or a deaf person can play a computer game just like everyone else. And that’s how it should be.

In addition, we also rely heavily on instant messenger for day-to-day communication. Since many of our employees and colleagues have disabilities, some other methods, like the telephone are difficult and time consuming. MSN is the most accessible form of instant messaging and works well with many of the screen readers that people with disabilities use. We get quick interface and this keeps us all connected even if we are thousands of miles apart. Other software and websites, like JungleDisk and mint.com, keep our files and finances connected. Distance is only a mental barrier for us. Since Accessibility Partners enjoys breaking barriers with a sledgehammer, distance is a cakewalk for us.

After starting Accessibility Partners, I came to realize that patience is the most crucial aspect for any entrepreneur, whether budding or current. I cannot tell you how many times I have tried to do too many things and my over eagerness led to me not getting anything done. To be a successful social entrepreneur, you have to learn not to dive right into a task but to make sure you plan and budget your time for everything. Other tasks have a nasty habit of creeping up on you and throwing even the best schedules off kilter. If you take everything in stride and are patient, everything can get done. I wish someone had told me that before I started Accessibility Partners. Ambition is a good thing but sometimes it can derail you and absolutely cut momentum.

Going back to Bon Jovi, I suddenly remember how the rest of the chorus goes. He croons, “It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not”. Actually, it does. A lot of small businesses and entrepreneurship’s unfortunately end in failure. Maybe I got lucky because I lived on a prayer that consisted of concrete plans and talented colleagues that are more than willing and capable to do the work. I gave it a shot and yet, I don’t consider myself halfway there, not even by the most generous of measurements. Yet, it does make a difference if you make it or not. Bon Jovi’s lyrics with respect to entrepreneurs are only slightly out of order. We make it because we make a difference.

Written by Dana Marlowe and Sharon Rosenblatt
Interviewee: Dana Marlowe
Accessibility Partners
http://www.AccessibilityPartners.com

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