Business training for aspiring entrepreneurs with disabilities

Sarah Parker Harris and Maija Renko

Sarah Parker Harris and Maija Renko. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services (Click on image to download)

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities often overlook — or are overlooked by — the business world. University of Illinois at Chicago researchers hope to empower them through entrepreneurship training under a new, two-year, $300,000 grant from the Coleman Foundation.

Chicago is home to more than 600,000 disabled people, and their unemployment rate is twice that of the city as a whole. Most employment programs have focused on placing people with disabilities in any job, without considering their interests.

“Imagine being told as young as 16, 17 or 18 years old that you might love gardening, but we’re going to put you in a workshop packing boxes instead,” said Sarah Parker Harris, associate professor of disability and human development at UIC and a co-principal investigator on the grant.

The new program at UIC aims to expand career options for persons with disabilities through the development of a tailored business program. The project leaders were particularly concerned with bridging the gaps in culture and language between the business and disability community.

The program will be developed with input from the disabled community, service agencies and small business development agencies. Disabilities service agencies will be given resources and training that will show them how business development can be an option for those they serve and how to connect their clients with the business services they need.

“This will be a unique opportunity for people with disabilities to access entrepreneurship,” said co-principal investigator Maija Renko, associate professor of managerial studies.

The multidisciplinary collaboration between Renko and Parker Harris began with a pilot program in 2010, funded by a UIC Chancellor’s Discovery Grant. Overwhelming response forced them to turn away as many people as they were able to include, and they continue to receive inquiries on their website.

Many entrepreneurs start businesses to help disabled people. “What that doesn’t do is empower people with disabilities to actually be business owners themselves,” said Parker Harris. “We’ve seen people with disabilities create successful businesses.” But too often, she said, they lack the social networks and the business acumen to even begin.

The trainings will bring together people from the business and disability fields as well as individuals with disabilities in workshops in writing business plans, marketing, and networking. “This will be a unique project that targets both people with disabilities looking to be entrepreneurs as well as their service providers,” said Renko.

The ultimate goal is to make the program self-sustaining, so that service agencies will recognize individuals with the interest and potential to become entrepreneurs and provide the support and training they need for success.

Under the grant, the team will develop a model that is replicable in agencies across the country. The training will include an evaluation tool to assess readiness. At the end of the training, the team hopes to hold a business planning competition that will bring the budding entrepreneurs together with investors.

The program will be customizable for entrepreneurs at various stages. “Some people are just at the idea phase, and are often told ‘no’ before they can even begin because they have an intellectual or developmental disability,” Parker Harris said. “A lot of building success is connecting the right people. People are interested in funding, but they don’t know where to go.”

Increasing the number of disabled people who are also business owners could change the face of employment, Parker Harris said. In addition to creating jobs, people with disabilities bring their distinct experience to the mission of the business and may be more likely to hire other disabled people.

“I think it’s really exciting that we’re trying push through not just the policy barriers and the systemic barriers, but some of the attitudinal barriers,” Parker Harris said.

Information on the program is online.

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