Help for Entrepreneurs with Disabilities

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 It is no secret that it is difficult for new small busineses to succeed. Most small businesses fail within the first few years of existence. Many founder because of inadequate funding. It is practically impossible these days to borrow from financial institutions unless you have been in business a few years and have demonstrated a history of profitability. But that is not the only pitfall.

Businesses also fail because of a poor or nonexistent business plan, poor management, too optimistic sales projections, poor marketing, poor location, the owner's insufficient experience, and so forth. Given these pitfalls, imagine the extra challenges faced by business owners with disabilities.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people with disabilities are almost twice as likely as the general population to be self-employed. (They are also much more likely to be unemployed or underemployed.) When they plan to establish a business, people with disabilities have to confront extra challenges, such as arranging for insurance and special furniture. They often lack the assets they need to start a business, as well as mentors and business contacts who understand the particular challenges they face.

Fortunately, programs have been set up in many parts of the country that aim to make it much easier for people with disabilities to start businesses. Most states offer loan guarantee programs to enable individuals with disabilities to borrow from traditional sources. For example, in Illinois, the Minority, Women and Disabled Participation Program will purchase up to 50 percent participation interest in loans up to $50,000 for qualified applicants.

Getting access to that kind of funding can be the key to getting a business off the ground. Just as important, however, is laying the groundwork in planning, education and networking. In central Florida, an organization called the Central Florida Disability Chamber of Commerce (CFDC) was established two years ago to help entrepreneurs with disabilities develop business plans and find funding. The program was so successful that the chamber expanded its scope. Last year, it received certification from the Florida Department of Education to add other services to clients through the department's vocational rehabilitation program.

The CFDC now helps prospective business owners identify business concepts, conduct marketing studies, develop business financials such as cash flows, projected income statements and balance sheets, analyze Social Security benefits, determine funding sources and write business plans. Once the chamber determines that a proposed project has merit, it will prepare a business plan, using state funds at no cost to the applicant. Currently, the CFDC is working on 18 new proposals that are scheduled to be completed within the next year.

SCORE is a national organization of volunteer business counselors who provide support to all individuals who are interested in starting their own business. In Florida, there is a close working relationship between SCORE and the disability chambers. When individuals with disabilities come to SCORE, if they are unaware of all of CFDC's programs, we refer them, so they can receive maximum support both in the development of a business plan and associated funding.

The CFDC has developed a template that has been used to establish disability chambers in other states. Rogue Gallart, the chamber's president, is eager to help vocational rehabilitation programs in other states offer similar programs (the chamber's website is http://cfdisabilitychamber.org; Gallart can be reached at 407-420-4892).

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has created the Center for Veterans Enterprise solely dedicated to assisting all veterans, including the disabled, in starting and building businesses (www.vetbiz.gov). This website provides links to sites providing assistance to veterans such as the Small Business Administration and the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs. Another site that is useful for veterans with disabilities is the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service (www.vba.va.gov/bln/vre/empresources.htm). This site cites tax credits available to businesses employing disabled individuals.

Gallart suggested that the first step for any entrepreuner with a disability should be to contact his or her nearest vocational rehabilitation office to determine what state programs are available. If there are no active programs, they can use the CFDC web site, or contact Mr. Gallart directly.

The original article is from the chicagotribune.com

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