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# Entrepreneurship as a means to Employment First: How can it work?

#### Abstract

BACKGROUND: Customized employment opportunities are successful ways to employ individuals with disabilities because there is a specific match between the needs of an employer and the strengths and preferences of an individual with a disability.

OBJECTIVE: This article describes one non-profit’s success in meeting the goals of Employment First initiatives for individuals with significant disabilities through entrepreneurship as a means of customized employment.

CONCLUSION: Successful opportunities and innovations include the “right kind” of social enterprise, entrepreneurship through self-employment and micro-enterprises, and other entrepreneurial models. Strategies for resolving the real and perceived conflicts between entrepreneurial and non-profit business models, as well as lessons learned during our own transformation, are discussed for other organizations wishing to reorganize their missions and operations from traditional (pre)vocational providers to ones that truly support integrated, competitive employment for all.

## 1Introduction

Some 50 years ago, “entrepreneurship” was almost a dreaded word among many human services personnel. There seemed to be a divide between those who cared more about comfortable lifestyles/making money and those who cared more about the environment, personal decision-making, and the plight of those we considered less fortunate than ourselves (Hoyt, 2014). Unfortunately, some of the systemic actions taken to address environmental issues (Konisky, 2015), personal decision-making (Twenge, 2014), and the plight of those we considered less fortunate than ourselves led to the institutionalized poverty of too many (Rector & Lauber, 1995; Shipler, 2008), including those with disabilities (Hughes, 2013).

The effort to “employ” marginalized people with disabilities were non-profit business models built upon how best “to take care of” them by providing a continuum of services (including day habilitation programs, sheltered workshops, and social clubs) under the mistaken belief that people could graduate from a more restrictive level to a less restrictive one and, maybe by the time they were in their 60 s, achieve unsupported but integrated competitive employment. In doing so, social policy resulted in a financially unsustainable infrastructure of human services which continues the cycle of care taking, poverty, and exclusion (Alan Bergman, personal communication, November 14, 2016; Eggers & Macmillan, 2013).

As our national and local economies, as well as values-based developments in human services, demanded a look toward more equitable economic participation for all in the decades since, we found how difficult it can be, in our turbulent economic environment, for many marginalized people to get jobs of any kind – never mind ones that were satisfying to them and lead toward economic self-sufficiency (Agranoff, 2013; Block, Kasnitz, Nishida, & Pollard, 2015; Butterworth, Migliore, Sulewski, & Zalewska, 2014; Iceland, 2013).

The Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE) adopted a strong statement embracing a growing national movement that recognized and responded to the failure of the “continuum of (pre)vocational services leading to employment” system. The statement reads “Employment in the general workforce is the first and preferred outcome in the provision of publicly funded services for all working age citizens with disabilities, regardless of level of disability” (APSE, 2010). Others have followed suit and Employment First initiatives at the local, state, and national levels systematically are working to reform the forced dependency on human services staff, chronic boredom, social isolation, and institutionalized poverty that were the outcomes for too many people with disabilities as a result of these earlier social policies (Billstedt, Gillberg, & Gillberg, 2005). Economically and in terms of broader social justice concerns, this social policy change makes enormous sense as well (Maier, Meyer, & Steinbereithner, 2016; Millman, 2000) and has recently been codified by the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (United States Department of Labor, 2014).

## 2Entrepreneurship as a means of customized employment

According to the United States Department of Labor (USDoL), “Customized Employment” (CE) is a means toward employment first by providing a flexible process involving a personalized relationship between an employee and employer resulting in a “win-win” for both. Customized employment opportunities by definition are successful because there is a specific match between the employer’s needs and the strengths, preferences, interests, talents, and what works/doesn’t work for the individual with a disability that the employer can, as part of his/her day-to-day business practices or with minimal reasonable accommodations, provide. The employer is not being charitable; s/he gains an employee who is capable, dependable and will ultimately benefit business productivity and profitability, and the employee gains a paycheck with compensation at or above minimum wage, feels a sense of purpose, and becomes part of a social community with nondisabled coworkers, customers, etc. From a job development perspective, customized employment relies upon relationships with businesses that are cultivated to result in task reassignment, job carves, or job sharing (USDoL, n.d.)

Through customized employment, and despite ongoing challenges, an increasing number of people with disabilities have achieved integrated competitive employment including those with autism and behavioral/mental health challenges (Burgess & Cimera, 2014; Hall, Butterworth, Winsor, Gilmore, & Metzel, 2007; Hendricks, 2010; McDonough & Revell, 2010; Rogers, Lavin, Ran, Gantenbein, & Sharpe, 2008; Wehman et al., 2014; Wehman et al., 2016). Nonetheless, some people with disabilities still remain un- or underemployed because of the lack of job openings for which they are well-suited. For these individuals, entrepreneurship can offer a viable solution.

Entrepreneurship among people without disabilities has taken many forms (for example, mega-companies, chain stores, “mom and pop” storefronts, self-employment, working as independent contractors, and home-based industries) generally intended to provide services or produce goods in order to contribute to the overall economy as well as economic self-sufficiency on the part of the entrepreneurs (Hamilton, 2012; Griffin, Hammis, Geary, & Sullivan, 2008). People with disabilities have the same right to self-determine which employment options are most satisfying to them (Doyle, 2012), including participation in entrepreneurial opportunities.

Entrepreneurship in a non-profit organization (NPO) context seems paradoxical because the fundamental design of NPOs is to emphasize social missions. Profits derived from the sale of goods and services are not distributed to organizational stakeholders but turned back into “the cause.” Some question whether it is valuable for NPOs to innovate, take risks, or engage in a process of “creative destruction” as part of the entrepreneurial process (Kaplan & Grossman, 2010). A strongly held assumption is that, to do so, would dedicate valuable and limited resources to entrepreneurial initiatives, compromising service provision to those “in need.” Another concern is about “mission drift” and any focus on sales and profit creation – even in support of “those in need” – is met with disdain by some stakeholders (Greer & Horst, 2014). However, putting entrepreneurship in the context of customized employment, rather than solely as a challenge for NPOs trying to stay alive in today’s economy, leads us to examine two types of entrepreneurship the varied nuances of which, for our purposes, we will simplify into a dichotomy of “Opportunity Driven Entrepreneurship” versus “Necessity Driven Entrepreneurship” (Komisar, 2007; Williams, 2007, 2009). The former involves recognizing opportunities in the market and assembling resources (assets, knowledge, and relationships) to capitalize on those opportunities – a stretch for some people with disabilities and NPOs. The latter involves pursuing entrepreneurial activities as a means of survival because there are few or no other alternatives. As such, necessity-driven entrepreneurship can apply to both individuals with disabilities as well as NPOs (Bryson, Gibbons, & Shaye, 2001; Sabeti, 2011; Verheul, Thurik, Hessels, & van der Zwan, 2010).

Necessity-driven entrepreneurship in a variety of capacities furthers Employment First goals. There is a place for a) “the right kind” of social enterprise, b) self-employment through microbusinesses, and c) other entrepreneurial opportunities. We have developed and sustained the first two models, and are exploring the third, focusing specifically on individuals with labels of autism, mental health/behavioral challenges, and significant intellectual and developmental disabilities, some of whom others have said could never work. Through some trial and error, we now know NPOs involved in employment must have a solid understanding of functional business models to meet the varied needs of these individuals – as well as the demands of their varied funding streams – across the varied types of ventures which we will now discuss.