They All Started Companies. Some From Wheelchairs

ATLANTA – The businessmen who arrived at the awards ceremony at a grand Cobb County ballroom were dressed in tuxedos and ball gowns, suits and vibrant colors. One woman sported a glittering skull and crossbones eye patch, like a glamorous pirate.

Some arrived in wheelchairs, relied on canes or covered their feeding tubes with their evening gowns.

Invited by a Georgia-based nonprofit, they came here recently from across the country. Beyond starting businesses from scratch, they had something else in common: They all have disabilities.

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“Starting a business is difficult,” said Álvaro Silberstein, 38, after taking the stage, pushed by his fellow co-founder of the company. “It is necessary to overcome the challenges. You need to be resilient. And I think that people with disabilities have lived that all our lives.”

At the age of 18 he was paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident. He can’t walk or control his fingers, but he earned an MBA. And with his friend Camilo Navarro, he founded Wheel the World, raising $10 million for a site that helps people with disabilities book trips, from hotels to things to do, that meet their specific accessibility needs.

The idea arose from Silberstein’s difficulties in planning his own trip to a national park in Patagonia. Silberstein, who lives in Berkeley, California, said the five-year-old company now has a staff of 45, helps with about 6,000 travel reservations and expects to be cash flow positive next year.

“I’m lucky to be doing this,” he said. “I love what I do. I love the problem we are solving.”

People with disabilities may face additional obstacles beyond the already daunting challenges of starting a business and trying to grow it to profitability, work that often leads to brutal work hours.

Jacqueline Child, who suffers from several chronic illnesses that have left her disabled, said she regularly battles physical pain and severe fatigue.

Child, who lives in Denver, launched a dating app for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. He said she has endured more than 40 surgeries due to her illnesses. She depends on a feeding tube and has to build her business around frequent doctor visits and the need to take a nap in the middle of the day.

I wanted to work in a children’s hospital. But after college, his health changed and he realized that a hospital job would be too physically demanding. He was adrift and jobless. What would be the purpose of his life?

“I didn’t feel like a contributing member of society… I always thought people would think I was a loser,” she said.

When she went on dating apps, she said she sometimes came away feeling rejected and discriminated against when she revealed her disabilities. In the fall of 2022, she and her sister, Alexa Child, created Dateability, which they say now has around 20,000 users, including a presence in metro Atlanta.

“I’m very proud of myself. Not to find a boyfriend, because frankly I haven’t found one, but to find a purpose,” he told attendees.

The recent awards ceremony, held before a crowd of about 200 people in the ballroom of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, was hosted by Synergies Work, a local nonprofit that connects business founders who have disabilities with resources, mentors and other help.

The organization’s founder, Aarti Sahgal, was mentioned in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article last year about one of her sons, who has Down syndrome, making his first successful cold call as an entrepreneur.

Winners of the second annual EDDIE Awards, short for Entrepreneurs Dedicated to Diverse and Inclusive Excellence, were selected by a panel of judges and went to people regardless of whether they had worked with Synergies Work. Sahgal told the Cobb audience that the awards are designed for bold and bold people, who “are not afraid to break down doors; actually, demolishing doors.”

Silberstein won the grand prize for Entrepreneur of the Year, worth $10,000. The boy won the newcomer award.

The event included a variety of artists, presenters and award finalists with disabilities. Dan Parker of Columbus, a former drag racer who was permanently blinded in an accident, has since set a world record for driving blindfolded (211.043 mph) and now makes handmade pens. Derek Heard, a graphic artist from Albany, said his business, Derek’s Doodles, “makes my voice powerful.” He won a creativity award.

Brett Swanson, a 26-year-old with autism and epilepsy, is one of the founders of a metro Atlanta nonprofit, Three Basketeers, that produces gift baskets. There’s enough work to keep him busy one or two days a week, but his mother, Sue Swanson, hopes it will become a full-time endeavor.

He rushed through a prepared speech on stage after receiving an award for community champions, and then ran off, followed by his mother. Back at the table, her mother told him, “I’m so proud,” and she took his face in her hands and kissed him on the cheek.

When Ruby “Sunshine” Taylor took the stage after winning an award for her social impact, she called out to her parents, including her nearly 86-year-old mother, who was in the audience. “This is for you, baby.”

Taylor founded Financial Joy School, an educational and gaming platform to provide financial education. For years she had been a school social worker. She later suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. For a long time she wasn’t sure who her mother was. She couldn’t smile or laugh. She couldn’t pick up a fork. She wanted to commit suicide by jumping out of a high window of the building where she lived in the Bronx, she told a reporter. But her brain was so confused that she didn’t know how to get to a higher floor.

Little by little, the years of rehabilitation changed his perspective, as did the financial and investment education he received from the parents of a former student. Now, her smile is contagious and she wants to spread the word throughout her four-year-old business.

Because of her injuries, a therapist told her that her regular 9-to-5 jobs are no longer possible, the 46-year-old said. She takes naps, fights headaches and can focus on one thing at a time or forget what she’s doing. “My short-term memory is garbage.”

You have to force yourself to work no more than 30 hours a week and often less. The disability, she said, “has limited my speed, but it hasn’t limited my heart.”

© 2024 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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