When Karen Williams, who has cerebral palsy, decided to launch a small business from her home in Saint Clairsville, OH, she contacted Small Business and Self Employment Service (SBSES, www.jan.wvu.edu/sbses), a group formed by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to help entrepreneurs with disabilities.
"I honestly did not have a clue," Williams says. "But SBSES sent me a whole stack of information that helped me set myself up, identify resources and find clients who are looking to work with people with disabilities."
Thinking about telebusiness
Williams had worked for a company in Waynesboro, PA for ten years, moving into IT work in sales and marketing. But then her husband was transferred to Ohio, a four-hour drive away.
"After some moments of panic, I realized I could do a lot of the same work by e-mail and fax," she says. "I approached my boss about telecommuting."
The company wasn't prepared to keep her on as a long-distance employee, but was perfectly willing to work with her as a vendor. So Williams, with help from SBSES, set up her own business.
"I've maintained an ongoing relationship with my former employer for three years," she says. "It's been going very well. We have a broadband connection in our house and I do everything via the Internet."
Assessing individual needs and goals
Kim Cordingly is team leader for the SBSES consultant group, which has its home at West Virginia University. "We're the entry point," she says. "We can locate organizations available to assist individuals with disabilities who are interested in starting their own businesses, depending on the type of business and location."
For example, she notes, "We look for business incubator programs focused on their specialties, and we get them in touch with an SBA office or small business development center where counselors will work with them." The counseling services are almost always free of charge.
"It's really important that we handle a case at a time and get the specifics of the individual's needs. Some people already have a plan, but other callers have no idea what resources are out there at all and need us to pull together a good overview for them."
In fact, she notes, "Some people call us every week and we provide a mentoring kind of service."
Assistance for service-disabled veterans
There's plenty of advice and mentoring available for service-disabled vets, says William Elmore, associate admin for veterans' business development (VBD) at the SBA (www.sba.gov/vets). Elmore counsels vets on starting their own businesses, and can refer them to five district offices around the country offering a range of services and programs.
But there's much more than that available, Elmore explains. VBD has thousands of cooperating partners, including 1,100 small-business development centers, and 400 chapters of the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE, www.score.org). Some 10,000 SCORE volunteers offer counseling, training and online assistance to vets and, in fact, to any small business owner at all who asks for their advice.
Vocational rehabilitation and business planning are other key services the SBA can provide, and so can most states, Cordingly says. "Or, if folks need additional training, we could get them in touch with a program at a local community college. We also know about online training opportunities."
The VBA's vocational rehabilitation and employment service (www.vba. va.gov/bln/vre) is also available. It works with thousands of service-disabled vets each year, providing business development assistance and counseling.
Resources for all
The SBA gets together with the General Services Administration, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) to host matchmaking events specifically targeted to service-disabled veteran-owned businesses. The matchmaking brings the small-business owners together with large companies with an interest in supplier diversity, and also those companies' tier 1 suppliers who are asked to subcontract to the vet-owned businesses.
Increasing numbers of private sector companies, including most of the Fortune 500s, are beginning to bring in service-disabled veteran-owned businesses, even when the work is not specifically tied to government procurement. "Everyone knows that vets make good employees," Elmore says. "Well, they make good contractors, too."
Cordingly points out the SBA has two programs that give socially or economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs access to federal business development and procurement programs. She often makes a case to show that people with physical disabilities fit into that category.
"We work with them one-on-one and try to develop resources. This includes small business development programs, microenterprise programs, chambers of commerce and economic development groups. SBSES will pull all that information together for them."
Diverse suppliers know the benefits of certification when they hunt for new business, especially with large companies and those doing a lot of business with the government.
Not many large certification programs have a category for entrepreneurs with disabilities, so SBSES works to determine if the business owner can qualify based on other criteria: a woman-owned or minority-owned business, or, in the case of the SBA, the physical disability contributing to economic disadvantage. The government and most states do give special consideration to service-disabled vets.
But, "There's no way government can guarantee a successful business," Elmore points out. "Certification gives you the opportunity to compete; the rest is up to you."
Cordingly sees growing interest in people with disabilities starting tech-related microenterprise businesses.
"Technology is a huge factor in terms of enabling them to operate a business from home," she says.
She cites the Abilities Fund (www.abilitiesfund.org), a nonprofit national program, as a great resource for people with disabilities who are interested in starting a microenterprise.
Elmore notes that research shows a high number of service-disabled veteran-owned businesses in the high- tech arena. He attributes this to government initiatives in technology and infrastructure.
The vets' entrepreneurial spirit
According to the SBA, fourteen percent of all veterans own their own businesses and twenty-two percent are thinking seriously of going for it.
Elmore is enthusiastic about those statistics. "It's the highest rate of successful self-employment of any group. I think part of it may be the element of planning, discipline and ability that comes into the equation.
"Veterans are the most diverse group of Americans there are," he adds. "We come from all ethnic, racial and social backgrounds; we range from one hundred percent disability to none at all."
Vets, he reflects, have unique skill sets and experiences that tend to make them outstanding entrepreneurs. "The kinds of training, the places they've been, the experiences they've had, that's all value-added."
OPPORTUNITIES FOR SUPPLIERS WITH DISABILITIES
These are some companies with supplier diversity programs that focus on firms owned by people with disabilities or service-disabled veterans.
|Company and location
|Bank of America
|Full service financial services company
(New York, NY)
|Real estate, travel, hospitality and vehicle rental services
|Cable, entertainment and communications products and services
|Tissue, packaging, paper, building products and related chemicals
(Armonk, New York)
|Slot machine and video gaming machine design and production
|Payment solutions for credit, deposit access, electronic cash, B-to-B and related programs
(San Diego, CA)
|University of Pennsylvania
|Wireless communications network
(San Francisco, CA)
|Consumer payments processing
(San Francisco, CA)
|Diversified financial services
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