"Corporations and employers recognize the value of including people with disabilities in their workplace and marketplace," says Jill Houghton, deputy executive director at the US Business Leadership Network (USBLN). The nonprofit's goal: to help companies owned by people with disabilities gain business opportunities through its new certification program.
One disability-owned and -operated startup in USBLN's certification pipeline is Raise Hope Capital, a financial-services company based in Newark, N.J. Launched in July 2008, Managing Partners Scott Chesney, Brian J. Rogers and Michael G. Testa have not only begun selling security, investment and insurance products, they're also committed to training and employing people with disabilities as the company grows.
"People with disabilities aren't necessarily looking for philanthropy; they want to work," says Testa, who along with Vietnam veteran Rogers conceived the business idea as a way to keep Rogers in the securities industry.
The two had worked together for several years. But after an operation to remove a growth on Rogers' throat left him with no vocal cords, "management said they weren't sure if they could keep Brian on 'because you can't have a salesperson who can't speak on the phone,'" recalls Testa.
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So the two pooled their personal savings, were introduced to motivational/people-with paralysis spokesperson Chesney (at age 15, he suffered a sudden spinal stroke), and a one-of-a-kind business was formed. "There are no investment banks or broker dealers that are owned and operated by people with disabilities," says Testa, "and we set out to do that."
Headquartered in the same building as Rutgers Business School, Raise Hope Capital's managing partners are leveraging some of the state university's relationships to recruit potential brokers, interns and mentors.
"We're looking for people who also want to give back," says Chesney.
The company will soon begin offering new hires securities (series 7) training as well as work/life–balance coaching. "We're trying to create a level playing field with regard to accessibilities," he says.
In addition, Raise Hope Capital is in the process of forming partnerships with mutual fund and insurance firms to job shadow its interns, further increasing career opportunities for students with disabilities.
Although the trio, who learned about the USBLN-certification program through the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, is still awaiting approval, the founders are confident that a minority-owned business certification will stimulate growth. That's partly because technology, they say, has removed many barriers in this industry.
"Technology has broken relationships in this industry that were never questioned before—the old boys' network," says Testa. "It has unleashed our workforce. It's taken people [with disabilities] out of their bedrooms and allowed them to compete in an area where the doors have been shut for over 100 years."