Welcome to Breaking the Blueprint — a blog series that dives into the unique business challenges and opportunities of underrepresented business owners and entrepreneurs. Learn how they’ve grown or scaled their businesses, explored entrepreneurial ventures within their companies, or created side hustles, and how their stories can inspire and inform your own success.
Running your own business can be a great career choice for people living with long-term disability or health condition.
This may relate, in part, to the increased flexibility around working hours that self-employment brings. Working for oneself can also promote a sense of being a master of one’s destiny and not having to contend with misconceptions and discriminatory attitudes from others that are often encountered while job hunting.
For entrepreneurs of any background, business networking, be this receiving the support and advice of others, identifying collaborative opportunities, or expanding the customer base, remains an essential undertaking.
Unfortunately, as in almost every other walk of life, networking is not without barriers for disabled entrepreneurs. In this post, we’ll discuss why networking can be a challenge and best practice approaches to networking that disabled entrepreneurs can put in place to stay on top of both the competition and their own health.
Why can networking be a challenge for disabled entrepreneurs?
As Bill Sahlman, a professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School explained in the online course Entrepreneurship Essentials: “All great companies — even those with iconic entrepreneurs — had many other people who were involved and, without whom, the company might not have made it so big.”
Networking can be a challenge for disabled entrepreneurs for various reasons, ranging from needing to expend a great deal of time and effort performing in social scenarios when one’s energy is already compromised to facing unpredictable building access issues at venues.
At the same time, a legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic remains an increased openness within the mainstream business community to conducting meetings and events remotely – allowing disabled networkers to engage with new people from the comfort of home and extend well beyond the limits of their immediate geographic location.
So, within this new post-pandemic reality of hybrid online and in-person networking opportunities, what are some excellent networking tips? Below we’ll discuss them.
5 Networking Tips for Disabled Entrepreneurs
1. Research disability-entrepreneurship organizations that can help you.
As explained previously, entrepreneurship is a popular and well-trodden path for many people living with a disability. With this in mind, there are numerous organizations out there dedicated to providing support to disabled business owners.
One such organization is the American Association of People with Disabilities which provides entrepreneurial advice, scholarships, and internships to its members.
Disability:IN is another national body offering support and advice to disabled business owners. It offers an accreditation plan called Disability-Owned Business Enterprise (DOBE) certification, and it’s meant for businesses that are at least 51% owned, managed, and controlled by an individual with a disability.
Additionally, there are local and state-run resources available to disabled business owners, as well as those catering to specific groups such as veterans.
Thoroughly researching and identifying all such organizations should be part of the early-stage due diligence of any disabled entrepreneur, as this type of highly tailored resource is low-hanging fruit for disabled business owners looking to grow their network.
2. Be realistic about the impact of your disability.
Running your own business can be physically and mentally exhausting, regardless of whether someone has a disability or not.
As the meeting and greeting that accompanies in-person networking events can be particularly draining – it’s vital that disabled entrepreneurs set realistic goals around what they can manage and understand exactly how their disability might impact them in different situations.
Going to networking events can be a great way of meeting new business contacts, but if the price of attendance is having to spend the following day in bed, entrepreneurs must weigh these considerations carefully.
Diego Mariscal, who has cerebral palsy, is the founder and CEO of 2Gether-International – a community for disabled founders offering peer support and expert mentoring. “A lot of people will go to an in-person networking event and there'll be this frenetic competition to see how many business cards everyone can collect,” remarks Mariscal.
“That just does a disservice to both yourself and the people you’re trying to meet because, realistically, you just can’t follow up with 20 different people in any kind of meaningful way,” he continues.
“Particularly for somebody living with an energy-limiting condition – a better approach would be to pick one or two people that are going to be in attendance that you want to connect with. Once you’ve met those people – just stop. Chill, relax, and decompress because it’s going to be much easier to follow up with two or three people and build meaningful relationships than trying to do that with twenty.”
3. Be confident enough to use your disability and personality as a positive differentiator.
People with disabilities can often feel self-conscious about standing out, particularly at public events common with in-person networking. Nonetheless, at events where everyone is competing for eyeballs and attention, standing out from the crowd is potentially no bad thing, especially if it is augmented by an engaging, self-confident introduction and a display of strong interpersonal skills.
Networkers with disabilities should not be ashamed of their impairments and seek to conceal them but instead explore ways in which their disability could be viewed by others as a positive differentiator.
Heather Lawver is the founder and CEO of Perfectly Pitched, which helps early-stage social entrepreneurs develop compelling pitch decks and advanced marketing strategies. She also lives with two rare genetic conditions that cause her to experience significant levels of pain throughout the day.
Recounting her experiences working in an incubator program in 2014, Lawver says, “It has to start with you as the entrepreneur and being comfortable enough with your disabilities and who you are to ask for accommodations.”
She continues, “When I was in the incubator program, I got it into my head that, if you were pitching, it had to be done standing up because, if you were sitting down, you weren’t commanding the room. This was a problem for me with my pain issues and someone from the program offered me a chair but, at the time, I didn’t feel comfortable accepting this accommodation because I didn’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons.”
She says doing so was a mistake, that she ended up in so much pain she couldn’t speak and had to force her way through the pitch. Looking back, she recounts that she should have spotted the opportunity that sitting down to pitch could be a differentiator in storytelling style.
“It’s all about being comfortable in who you are and working out how you can turn it into an advantage rather than a disadvantage,” she adds.
4. Fine-tune and personalize your communication strategy.
If you’ve concluded that in-person events pose too many obstacles and you might be better off with online networking – be sure to take the time to hone your online communications and make them stand out.
Platforms like LinkedIn provide a great system for growing your network of like-minded professionals, but it’s vital to ensure that your online communications are polished and personalized.
Business leaders receive multiple emails and social media introductions daily.
To make yours stand out, avoid spamming generic introductory message templates in the hope of gaining someone’s attention. Instead, focus on personalizing messages and honing in on how you think a business relationship might benefit both parties.
Take the time to read the person’s profile and background to identify where their expert knowledge lies. That way, you can demonstrate a genuine appreciation of their thought leadership and how it might relate to your particular area of business.
5. If your differences make you feel awkward about approaching people, practice makes perfect.
Whether online or in-person networking, one way to ease the nerves or any awkwardness about appearing different might be to practice introductions with friends, family, and colleagues before taking the plunge into higher-stakes official networking events.
This might be particularly useful if adaptive technologies, equipment, or other accommodations are used. For someone with hearing loss, this might be trying out Zoom calls with and without an interpreter.
Someone with mixed mobility needs, who may alternate between using a wheelchair and other walking supports, might consider experimenting with both and doing some trial runs to establish what feels most comfortable when interacting with others.
Over to You
Like most activities in business, effective networking is as much an art as it is a science.
To maximize opportunities, entrepreneurs with disabilities have to begin with an honest appraisal of their health condition.
Rather than just trying to slide into a preconceived profile of what a successful business networker looks like, embrace your uniqueness and diversity, as that will be the quickest shortcut to getting to grips with your strengths and weaknesses both in business and in life.