Start-up Diversity: Local and National Programs for Entrepreneurs with Disabilities

Casino and hotel magnate Steve Wynn and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson have something in common besides their success; they are entrepreneurs with disabilities. Wynn’s eyesight is acutely impacted by retinitis pigmentosa, and Branson is dyslexic to the point where his school headmaster told him, “You’ll either end up in prison or a millionaire.” With wealth measured in the billions, both men are examples of how far people with disabilities can go as entrepreneurs.

Just as efforts are being made to include people with disabilities into the workforce, similar programs are promoting entrepreneurship.

Three such programs for entrepreneurs are in Chicago—the  Chicagoland Entrepreneurship Education For People with Disabilities (CEED) Project at UIC, the Julie and Michael Tracy Family Foundation’s Growing Solutions Farm in the Illinois Medical District and related Chicago Botanic Garden initiative to establish people with disabilities in gardening-based social enterprises, and the State of Illinois Mission: Veterans2Entrepreneurs program, which educates and assists veterans with disabilities.

Among the most ambitious national programs for entrepreneurs with disabilities are the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans With Disabilities (EBV), which has a chapter at Purdue University 125 miles from downtown Chicago; the Disability Supplier Diversity Program® of the nonprofit US Business Leadership Network, and the $3 billion Veterans Administration’s program of set-aside contracts for businesses owned by veterans with disabilities.

“It is high time that people with disabilities are recognized not for their limitations, but for their abilities—abilities that cover the same spectrum of talents as others,” said Constantine Bitsas, JVS Chicago Vice President of Career and Employment Services. “Entrepreneurship is such a talent that needs to be nurtured; these programs provide those with disabilities equal opportunity to make their dreams a reality.  They assist entrepreneurs to overcome challenges in pursuit of their vision, which is a goal of all entrepreneurship programs such as JVS Chicago.”

UIC Strives for Dual Focus

With funding from the Coleman Foundation, the University of Illinois-Chicago is launched a program of Entrepreneurship Education for People with Disabilities in January 2015 that looks to train entrepreneurs and professionals working for the service agencies supporting people with disabilities. With research and curriculum ongoing, CEED is beginning to recruit its first class of entrepreneurs with disabilities.

“The Coleman Foundation focuses on disability, but also on entrepreneurship, and our project tries very hard to bridge the two,” said Co-Principal Investigator on the grant and Associate Professor of Disability and Human Development Sarah Parker Harris.

The situation that the project hopes to address, Harris said, is where people in business know how to work with business people, but aren’t always sure how to deal with the disability community—and similarly, service providers are very adept at working with people with disabilities, but not necessarily versed in the business side.

“We are starting to recruit for next spring’s training, which will begin in March. We’re also compiling a resource guide for entrepreneurs with a disability,” Harris said. “We’re trying to collect success stories. We’ve heard from many entrepreneurs with disabilities that they would like to see examples of successful entrepreneurs and have a chance to connect with the right mentors. We sent out a survey of established entrepreneurs just last month, and we’ve already received more than 40 responses from people who are willing to let us use their stories, and many are willing to be mentors.”

Harris said this is particularly good news because in the last UIC project about entrepreneurs, researchers discovered that it is difficult to find mentors who have a good working knowledge of business and of the disability community.

“Some business people have excellent business knowledge but have no experience or knowledge of the barriers that people with a disability face,” said Harris. “For example, they are not familiar with having to limit income to remain eligible for Social Security disability payments; some business people are shocked by the idea of capping income.”

The first phase of training classes will be for service providers from social service agencies, including JVS Chicago, and the second phase will be classes for entrepreneurs with disabilities and their support providers. The Coleman Foundation funding will allow UIC to train up to 40 entrepreneurs and 30 service providers.

“The trainings will consist of eight sessions at UIC over 16 weeks, with a workbook,” said Harris. “The workbook for entrepreneurs might have them working on something like a business plan, while the service provider might be investigating what changes need to be made at the agency to better support entrepreneurship as an employment option.”

Those interested in participating should contact CEED directly on its website, as next March’s attendees will be selected this month. Because of the Coleman Foundation grant, there is no cost for the training or the materials, and the program will offer continuing education credits (CEUs) for agency staff.

Nurturing Entrepreneurs with Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities

One of the CEED project’s areas of focus is on people with complex disabilities, including intellectual/developmental disabilities, said Harris, “which is a group that doesn’t get a lot of attention in business or even in employment much of the time.“

A few blocks from UIC in the Illinois Medical District is Growing Solutions Farm, a program of the Julie and Michael Tracy Family Foundation and the IMD that gives all its attention to people with IDD. Under the watchful eye of Head Grower Gwenne Godwin, urban farmers—many of whom are on the autism spectrum or have a mental health disability—grow vegetables, herbs and flowers that are sold and donated to food pantries.

“Once young adults with IDD turn 22, they can’t find a lot of funding for education,” said Angela Strelka, the JMTF Special Projects Manager. “They have to work. Growing Solutions Farm gives them training and socialization. They learn about farming, working together, and social responsibilities–showing up to work on time, for example—and expectations. The farm seems a particularly good environment for that kind of learning; there is something very therapeutic about being on a farm.”

The farm grows “a lot of chard, bok choy, tomatoes, peas, flowers and herbs,” said Strelka, “and thanks to a new grant, we’ll be growing some crops year-round instead of stopping completely after the fall harvest.”

Customers of the farm include the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden, but anyone can buy the farm’s crops.

The success of Growing Solutions Farm led to collaboration between the Botanic Garden and JMTF—an entrepreneurial guidebook entitled “Gardening as a Social Enterprise: Including People with Disabilities.” It’s a comprehensive explanation of how to start a gardening-related “social enterprise,” a business that puts doing good ahead of maximizing profits. The e-book is wonderfully detailed about the gardening-related requirements for such an enterprise, as one would expect from a Botanic Garden publication—but it’s also spot-on from the vantage point of starting up a business.

Tensh-hut! Present, Start-up!

Veterans with disabilities, who have been the subjects of several employment assistance efforts, are beginning to see entrepreneurial programs for them, too.

While the closest Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities is 125 miles away in Lafayette, Indiana, at Purdue University, veterans have Veterans2Entrepreneurs, a State of Illinois program, in downtown Chicago.

“We don’t specialize in training veterans with disabilities, but we can make accommodations for them to attend our trainings,” said Senior Program Manager Nicole Mandeville, “and we’re in close contact with other programs for veterans around the country, including EBV and the SBA Outreach Centers.”

The focus of MV2E, said Mandeville, is on “removing barriers to veterans owning their own businesses. We help by explaining the basics and helping veteran-owned businesses become licensed or certified with the state so they are eligible for set-aside contracts.

“Military training makes vets good entrepreneurial candidates, in part because they are disciplined and experienced,” said Mandeville, “but they need the right corporate culture in which to thrive after years of military service. Sometimes the best way to find that culture is to create it yourself.”

Once certified and established, a business owned at least 50 percent by a veteran with a disability can qualify for a Veterans Administration program that set aside $3 billion of purchasing in the last year for veteran-owned businesses.

“People with disabilities are employed at a lower rate than the general population and experience a higher rate of poverty,” said Kenny Smilovitch, Director of the Duman Entrepreneurship Center at JVS Chicago. “It is encouraging to see multi-disciplinary programming that presents entrepreneurship as a path to self-sufficiency while addressing the unique challenges facing this community.”

The Duman Entrepreneurship Center helps individuals interested in starting up or expanding a business by assisting with one-on-one counseling, business management training and low-cost loans. Call 855.INFO.JVS or email for assistance.

Entrepreneurs with Disabilities Resources

JVS Chicago Duman Entrepreneurship Center:
855.INFO.JVS (855.463.6587) or


US Business Leadership Network:
Disability Supplier Diversity Program® includes certification that a business is owned by someone with a disability, and benefits include access to contracting opportunities, networking and advocacy. Chicago program administered by:

Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Foundation:

Small Business Administration programs for people with disabilities:
Illinois District Office, 500 W. Madison Street, Suite 1150, Chicago, IL 60661
Phone: 312.353.4528

Financing a business             

Local assistance                     

Veterans with disabililties:   

UIC CEED Project for entrepreneurs with disability and service providers:

General info:

To apply for training:

Growing Solutions Farm:
Working urban farm staffed in large part by people with intellectual/developmental disabilities

Gardening as a Social Enterprise: Including People with Disabilities (online e-book)
A detailed guide to starting a gardening-related social enterprise

Mission: Veterans 2 Entrepreneurs:
Help with starting a business, certification and procurement from State of Illinois; works with all military veterans

Purdue Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV):

SBA veterans outreach:

Abilities Fund
A nationwide nonprofit community developer and financial institution focused on expanding entrepreneurial opportunities, including access to capital, for people with disabilities.

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