Starting your own business from the ground up for the first time isn't simple. Dealing with financials, gaining entrepreneurial experience, and having to flesh out a detailed business plan are just some of the challenges you may encounter as a rookie business owner. But that shouldn't stop you.
You'll eventually get past the hurdles, build a strong network and, most importantly, gain the business experience you dreamed of when you first started. The three entrepreneurs we profile learned the ropes the same way you will, but with one special trait: their disabilities. And that didn't stop them.
Maayan Ziv Photography
It took a broken wheelchair, a point-and-shoot camera, and the streets of New York City for Maayan Ziv to discover her passion for photography. Maayan lives with type two, spinal muscular atrophy—a disability that causes muscle weakness throughout her body. A type of muscular dystrophy, she travels, shoots, and performs everyday tasks from her wheelchair.
Starting out as a camera-loving high school student, Maayan went on to study radio and television at Ryerson University, and worked on the side as a freelance photographer before starting her business, Maayan Ziv Photography. “It is kind of my brand that I launched a couple of years ago,” she explains. “It was something that I was really passionate about, so I took that leap and started putting myself out there and seeing if I could build a company.”
A fashion enthusiast with a forté in portrait photography, Maayan has had the opportunity to work with Toronto-based talent, in addition to familiar names like Edward Norton, Keri Russell, and Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor David Onley. The chance to photograph these famous faces came through hard work, in a self-branding experience Maayan simply describes as “interesting.”
She focused her energy on networking and getting her name out to the public, she explains. “I put together a website, and started reaching out to people. I think a lot of it had to do with me being something different than what most people were expecting.”
And her models were drawn to her. “Being a photographer in a wheelchair was something that was actually exciting for people,” says Maayan, “so they wanted to see how I worked and how I could do it.”
Since then, she has been able to travel back to her photography roots in New York City where she met with Grace Coddington, creative director of the American Vogue Magazine. “It was my first ever portfolio viewing,” says Maayan. “I had these really cool highlights in the beginning that set me off and got me started; it’s been really great and I’ve been really lucky.”
The curiosity from others sparked Maayan’s creativity and motivated her to constantly try something new whenever the opportunity presented itself, but with a disability that affects her muscles and mobility, she’s often asked how she does it all.
“Sometimes people have questions about technical stuff,” she says, referring to managing cameras and lighting, for instance. “I found that whenever there was any kind of obstacle and because I have to be creative, I’ll have to find a way to make it work for me,” adding that her artistic approach has become a signature part of the way she operates her business.
“I just use my own camera and I use lighter lenses so I’m not working with a heavy camera because weight for me can be an issue,” says Maayan. “Those lenses give off a certain look so that’s now what I’m known for. It’s an interesting mix between what my abilities are and being creative with what I can do.”
In her years of photographing on the side to her current role at Maayan Ziv Photography, Maayan confidently says nothing has stopped her from pursuing what she wanted to do. She offers a piece of “corny” advice, as she calls it, to young entrepreneurs with disabilities: “I think the first thing is to believe in yourself and have the strength and confidence to say ‘this is what I love’ and then just go for it.”
As she aspires to continue growing as a photographer, Maayan has goals of adding editorial portraiture to her portfolio, in addition to creating awareness of disabilities in the arts. What’s her next stop? She’ll be taking part in the Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sitting Exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum that runs until the end of January 2015.
“It’s really important for me to continue my work and create more of a message about that,” she says. “I’ll be part of that exhibition and there’s a write up about me, and I just talk about being a photographer with a disability.”
ADDvocacy Life Skills and Coaching
A career that started in skilled trades quickly changed when the British Columbia-based company that Keith Gelhorn was working for cut its staff from 77 to four in six months. To make matters more complicated, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) shortly after.
“I had a lot of problems with organization, getting orders right, and following things in a linear path,” says Keith, explaining the symptoms he had before he was diagnosed. “I was good at little pockets of things but couldn’t link everything together,” adding that easy tasks sometimes took him twice as long to complete.
Unsure where his career was going to take him next, Keith decided he’d pursue his first passion in social work—a path he was told not to take years before. “I wanted to get into social work when I was coming out of high school and going into university but it took me about four years to do two years worth of school,” he explains. “When I came out of two years of college, I tried getting into the University of Victoria but I only had about a 70 per cent average and they wouldn’t let me in.” This led Keith to a ten-year career in skilled trades as a plumber before he started his own business ADDvocacy ADHD & Life Skills Coaching, a service designed to offer support and guidance to people diagnosed with ADHD.
But prior to his entrepreneurial debut, Keith knew he had to do his research. Seeing the thousands of ADHD coaches south of the border, he noticed Canada was lacking in the field. “I thought this would be a good opportunity to go back to school, so the school that I went to is called the ADD Coach Academy in New York,” he says. “The timing wouldn’t work out for it if I stayed in BC, so I relocated [to Nova Scotia] and went to school for disability supports and services, and then did coaching school at night.” Soon after, he started ADDvocacy ADHD & Life Skills Coaching.
Focusing on lessons in organization, time management, relationship building, and educating in ADHD, Keith now coaches 30 students from the Nova Scotia Community College in Eastern Canada, in addition to a contract with non-profit groups throughout the province. And his experience running a business with ADHD himself has been life changing. “I’m always cooking up new ideas and I’m finding it really helpful in terms of being creative,” he says. “A lot of things come to me quickly so the amount that I’ve been able to accomplish in two and a half years of doing this is pretty phenomenal.”
In 2013, Keith took his accomplishments further after he received the 2013 Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the Nova Scotia-based Entrepreneurs with Disabilities Network (EDN). “That was pretty significant given the fact that I had all these challenges,” he says. “I had such a rocky career over the years so winning that was pretty substantial. The spinoffs from it have been huge.” Now with a seat on the EDN board of directors, Keith was able to land additional contracts, further helping the growth of his two-year-old company.
“It’s just funny that you can take something that was a disability and turn it into a major positive,” he says. “This year, I just got back from a high school tour with a business coordinator from EDN. We talked to high school kids about entrepreneurship and just different alternatives.”
In addition to his full-time coaching career for people with ADHD, Keith continues to encourage entrepreneurship for young people despite their disabilities. “Find out as much as you can about the disability and reach out for mentors and the resources around you. Working for yourself could be extremely rewarding.”
Looking ahead, Keith hopes to fill the support needs for ADHD sufferers throughout Nova Scotia, help other entrepreneurs kick-start their businesses, while also collaborating with other ADHD experts to write a book.
Jennifer van Amerom
Culture & Company Inc.
A successful recruiting career came to a brief halt when Jennifer van Amerom was diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica (NMO). “Our autoimmune system chooses to attack certain cells that protect the nerve fibres in our bodies and can leave temporary or permanent paralysis,” says Jennifer, explaining NMO. “The protecting layers of the cells that get attacked are primarily in the eyes, which causes optic neuritis and causes people to go blind.”
NMO is a rare disease with symptoms similar to that of multiple sclerosis, like pins and needles and burning sensations throughout the body. For Jennifer, it was a trip to Europe that made her realize something wasn’t right. “I thought I just had a bad sunburn; it was just an average day and my leg basically went numb,” she says. “Within a couple of hours I had lost feeling and was paralyzed from the waist down.” A later attack affecting Jennifer’s vision confirmed her diagnosis of NMO, but has been fortunate enough to recover from both instances, and has now gone back to her recruiting roots.
Before her diagnosis in 2009, Jennifer worked with clients across North America and Europe, specializing in recruitment for web design, front-end development, print publications, and any other position within the creative realm. In her comeback, she opted to part ways with the company she had previously been working for, and took on a new chapter in her life.
Jennifer started Culture & Company Inc. in 2013 with long-time, on and off colleague Shadi Ghani, after both women believed it was the perfect time to make an impact on the recruitment industry. Both having an entrepreneurial edge, they set out to fill the gap in company culture within the creative recruitment industry.
“We do a really deep dive around understanding the types of people that work best in certain teams,” she says. “Everyone’s always talking about extroverts for example, and how they’re great sales folks, but introverts need to be championed as well; they’ve got a real driving force behind them.”
Mentorship, work experience, and an existing networking is what Jennifer says was needed prior to opening their own firm. And with all three essentials checked off, Jennifer and Shadi are now able to help large organizations with recruitment, and are continuing to grow as a company and as business owners. “Our long-term goal is to be bigger than just digital marketing recruitment,” says Jennifer. “We’re not sure which markets we’ll predominantly focus on or where they’ll be based, but we know it’ll be bigger.”
Despite having NMO, Jennifer says it hasn’t stopped her from building on her experience as a business owner. “I don’t think I’ve worked any harder in my career than I have as an entrepreneur.” She advises that to be an entrepreneur—with or without a disability—requires a lot of soul searching and an understanding of what motivates you. “You’ve really got to be comfortable with that and comfortable with knowing that you have to stay passionate about it.”
As for the individuals living with a disability: “[Entrepreneurship] is always a possibility,” says Jennifer. “You can certainly find a way but you have to be a really good planner and make yourself physically number one.”
Photo: Anthony Capano, Marvid/Thinkstock