If you have a disability or know someone with a disability, let me bring you a message of hope: businesses do want to hire you.
You can be an entrepreneur. I know that it’s not always easy. The fit has to be right; the learning curve can be steep; you may not know a potential employer that believes in you yet, and you might not even believe in yourself. But as president of the Central Florida Disability Chamber of Commerce, I witness progress on a daily basis.
Our agency began in 2010 as a sub-creation of the Center for Independent Living. Although we’re located in Orlando, we serve the entire state of Florida. The mission of the Central Florida Disability Chamber is to provide information and education on business creation and growth, specifically designed for the needs of individuals with disabilities. We’ve learned a lot since our founding, most of it from sheer trial and error. There was really no agency for us to use as our model; in fact, agencies outside of Florida are now calling us for advice on how to create a similar program, and we remain the nation’s only disability chamber of commerce.
Why did we start? First, we realized there were a lot of entrepreneurs who did not know the ins and outs of running a business: how to make meaningful connections with vendors and customers, how to write a business plan, etc. Separately, we heard from employers who wanted to hire workers from the disability community. In fact, 60 percent of our members don’t have a disability themselves but want to hire from that talent pool.
The Disability Chamber of Commerce differs from other traditional chambers in that we have fewer after-hours events. We focus on offering training programs and brass-tacks networking. We spend a lot of time making phone calls and email introductions. From a training standpoint, we connect members with business mentors who can guide them through understanding financial issues. For example, when we bring in Regions Bank, they help train our members about how loans work and help them connect with banks for their first business loan.
Our members have a range of disabilities and career paths. Many have post-traumatic stress disorder from military service; one such gentleman created his own line of pens but didn’t know how to market them. We connected him with hotels and hospitals that can use his services. Assistance for this member was delivered through our Veterans Business Initiative program. Other members were born with or acquired disabilities, such as one member who is 70 percent blind and owns a cookie company. Another member uses a wheelchair and has his own company to dig and create swimming pools.
What advice would I share with future entrepreneurs? Know your business. If you’re going into the food industry, find a job being a server — even if you ultimately just want to cook. You’ll learn essential lessons about customer service. I’d also acknowledge the importance of family support. A wife or a parent can offer key mental support to reassure you that even when you run into stumbling blocks, you can follow your dream all the way.
So now, I have a business proposition for you. We at the chamber will continue to offer training, connections, and outreach, and we’ll keep pushing small businesses to step up and do more. And as for you, continue to stretch, whether it’s hiring another individual with a disability or considering an entrepreneurial endeavor. Together, we’ll make progress not just for the disability community but for all of Florida’s economy.
Rogue Gallart is president of the Central Florida Disability Chamber of Commerce, located in the National Entrepreneur Center in Orlando.