As a startup co-founder and CEO, fund raising is a major part of my job. I attend seminars and panels, I talk to startup mentors and experts, and I apply for funding from a variety of sources. There’s one thing about this process that I have noticed. You often hear about funding opportunities for certain special interest groups. Women led startups, minority led startups, startups led by service disabled veterans. Those are all wonderful groups to be lifting up. There is one group, however, that seems to me to be woefully under-represented. The non-military disabled.
I’ve been to a lot of funding workshops, and I have never once heard mention of a fund, or a program, or even a hat tip to disabled led startups. This is very concerning to me for a few reasons. For one, this is a group that does in fact need the help. The disabled are disadvantaged in a lot of ways, and a little encouragement and aid, financial or otherwise, goes a hell of a long way.
Secondly, entrepreneurship is particularly empowering for the disabled. A flexible self driven career where I can set my own limits and control my own schedule? Sign me up! Entrepreneurship should be fostered among this community that is uncommonly poised to take advantage of the upsides of being your own boss. As I have discussed in a previous blog post, the flexibility of schedule that comes along with entrepreneurship is particularly beneficial to those who need a little extra leeway to define their own schedule and plan their own day.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly to potential funders, is the unique perspective that the disabled bring to their work, as discussed here in a previous post. For me at least, my severe chronic pain has taught me to be comfortable with adversity. I know how to rise up to a challenge because I do so everyday that I face the world with my disability. This is particularly useful for entrepreneurship, a career that is uncommonly challenging and that requires extreme perseverance. If there’s one thing my disability has taught me, it’s how to keep moving forward despite some pretty daunting obstacles. The uphill battle is my wheelhouse. This ability translates well into the startup world.
What can we do to address this problem of limited resources for the disabled? Awareness of course is a good place to start. The disabled exist! It’s very easy for us to be pushed to the sidelines, but we are here, and we want and need to be involved. Not only that, but we have many unique skills and perspectives to offer.
Related to but separate from the issue of awareness is the problem of stigma. Often the disabled, and especially the invisibly disabled, hide their disabilities due to the fear of judgement and unconscious bias. We fear that revealing our disability will actually hurt our chances of receiving funding. This is something that I myself had to consider before even starting this blog. Will funders doubt our ability to deliver because of our illnesses? We do not ask for the support that we deserve, and have often earned, because we are afraid of being perceived as needing help. This stigma leads to concealment of our illnesses, and the obfuscation of our true selves leads to it’s own set of problems.
I’d like to challenge funding agencies to step outside their box and to consider funding a disabled led company. Not just for social good, but also for the good of your investment portfolio. Studies have shown that increased diversity leads to increased success. It’s not just kind to spread the love (and the money) – it’s also smart.