Kathy McShane has built a career around her love of making a difference. After working in product development and other areas at American Express, McShane started her own marketing firm, Kendrew Group in the New York area. She ran it from 1987 to 2010, growing it into a $6 million enterprise, while also teaching as an adjunct professor at New York University.
McShane went on to start the groundbreaking group Ladies Who Launch, a membership organization that supported 8,000 women in starting and growing their businesses, running it from 2010 to 2017. In 2018, she became assistant director of the Property Office of Women’s Business at the US Small Business Administration, serving the US government for two years before starting her own consultancy. “My passion is helping women,” says McShane.
As McShane found, young entrepreneurs often benefit from a combination of technical assistance and mentoring. At the Office of Women’s Business Ownership, McShane’s work focused on serving women who were first thinking about starting a business. Helping them build their confidence was a big part of this, because structural inequalities, such as lack of access to capital, could destroy their confidence in themselves as business owners.
“A lot of women say, ‘I don’t think I’m qualified,'” says McShane. “There are so many situations where women are just diminished.”
McShane is also an energetic advocate for people with disabilities, and she spoke about how her priorities and values in this area have driven her business in a July 28, 2022, panel I moderated for the New York Public Library on entrepreneurship and disabilities. (Video of the program will be available here soon). After contracting polio at the age of five, McShane has lived with challenges that affect her walking. In her high-profile roles, she has had to overcome the discomfort some people feel when seeing someone with a physical disability. “Many people feel uncomfortable around people who are not identical to them,” she says.
Business ownership can be ideal for people with disabilities, she says. “There are so many positive emotional reasons for people with disabilities to pursue entrepreneurship,” she says. “You can really be you. You have value. I built my business around my worth. You can do this too.”
Her advice for entrepreneurs with disabilities? “Don’t let others define your success,” she says. “I don’t define success for you,” she says. “You define success for you.”
The panelists shared a number of other insights that may be useful to you if you are starting a business. Here are some key recommendations.
Create a roadmap – and follow it. “I deliberately chose a business where I knew what I was doing: it was marketing,” says McShane. As the main breadwinner for her family at the time, she decided it was essential to write a business plan, where she would work out the financial side of the business. “Otherwise, how will you know you’ll be able to put food on the table?” she asks.
Make sure you get a reality check on your business plan from knowledgeable people around you. McShane tends to be optimistic. When she asked for feedback on her plan, she recalls, one of her advisers told her, “You’d better increase those expenses by 30% because it’s not going to happen.”
Run your business according to your values. One reason McShane chose to run her own business after many years in the corporate world, she says, is “so I could define and articulate what my values were and only hire people who agreed with those values.”
One of those values was supporting women – part of a larger commitment to inclusion. “I felt that women have a hard time because we are the caretakers and caretakers,” she says. “I had women working for me who had young children or older parents. It was a tough place to be, but I gave them an environment where they could be themselves, celebrate themselves, and where we could take into account any disabilities or challenges they might have and not see them as negative. , but instead to focus on the things they did particularly well.”
Make time for relationship building. “Relationships and connections matter a lot more than you think they do,” said Gustavo Serfafini, co-founder of Pure Audio Video, a high-end equipment reseller in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., which creates elaborate home entertainment experiences for people who love technology, movies and music, bringing in about $2 million in annual revenue. “If you’re interested in a space, start a Meetup group, join a Meetup group, start making connections with those communities of people, and you’ll find a lot more doors that open up for you, a lot more opportunities, that you can to change or shift or spin into something much better than you imagined. I wish we had done more of that before we took the plunge.”
Embrace your strengths. Problem solving can be a particular strength for people with disabilities, who are put in situations where they must use this skill every day. “As someone who has a disability, you’re always trying to figure out how to overcome that,” says McShane. “How can I negotiate those rates? So you are always looking for creative solutions to things. I don’t think we’re fully aware of it, but that’s what we do. We do it every day. Therefore…most people who have disabilities are problem solvers. We have no choice. We have to figure it out.”
Organic chemist and food and beverage industry consultant Hoby Wedler — also co-founder of Senspoint Design, a global creative, marketing and strategy consultancy — has also found that being born blind has helped him solve problems and innovate in ways that people by sight it may not be. This enabled him to build a business where he has served clients such as Francis Ford Coppola’s wineries, where he developed new concepts for wine tasting events.
“In the food industry, I use my palate, I use my skills that other people don’t have, and I’m able to solve problems that no one else is able to solve,” Wedler said. “Product development cases, when I get involved, are very challenging. And I just love it. I am literally able to observe things, see things, and I use the word see things, in a light that other people do not see them.
Find different ways to gather the experience you need to do your job. McShane once worked on a marketing campaign for a brand aimed at runners with tired and sore feet. Someone commented, “Here, what do you know about running?” McShane thought about it and realized that although she doesn’t run, she had another experience that was just as important: “I sponsored the Boston Marathon,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be real running. You can do it another way.”
Create opportunities for other people with disabilities. Many people with disabilities are underemployed because companies don’t recognize their talents—and disability entrepreneurs are in a position to break that cycle in their employment.
“The Department of Labor has a database of people with disabilities,” says McShane. “These people are great. And they should all have jobs, but some people are just too uncomfortable with people with disabilities. This was one of the driving forces for me when I started my business. I wanted to be in a position where I could hire people whether they had a disability or didn’t have a disability, but really hire them for what they did well, hire them for their value system. Honestly, they weren’t treated any differently.”
As the panelists noted, entrepreneurship can be a very rewarding career option. Although some employers wouldn’t hire him, Wedler says, “If I can’t sit at a desk, I’ll build my own desk.”
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