Peter McAlindon's fast track for aspiring entrepreneurs (with disabilities)
If you've seen Shark Tank on ABC you know it's an opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs to gain an audience with billionaire business people, pitch their products, ask for investors, and potentially gain mentorship opportunities (or be completely exploited for their product ideas). The Sharks present themselves as one part nurturing and one part ruthless, lobbing advice and connections, cutting deals or squelching dreams. Small time business people are made and broken; products pitched go nowhere or show up in your local department or convenience store.
At the ATIA conference in January, ATPN had the opportunity to attend "Entrepreneurship for Persons with Disabilities" presented by Peter McAlindon, Ph.D . McAlindon is not a ruthless Shark, but a community-minded assistive technology (AT) entrepreneur (of orbiTouch keyboard-fame) who is passionate about growing a business sector led by persons with disabilities. Like the Sharks he has a passion for mentoring and for mining his own connections, experiences, and business acumen to help those with strong business ideas succeed. Unlike the Sharks, he is targeting highly motivated individuals with disabilities only. He knows you are out there; he wants to find you; indeed, he's getting ready to train you up!
Why entrepreneurs with disabilities?
McAlindon believes that the sea change needed to improve employment for persons with disabilities won't happen until more businesses are created, developed, and led from within the disability community itself. Entrepreneurs--by their very nature--tend to help each other out; so he reasons, the more persons with disabilities who succeed, the more will be available to lend a hand, grow the community, and ultimately impact the hiring and retention practices of a broader swath of corporate culture. While success as an entrepreneur is challenging for anyone, entrepreneurs with disabilities often face greater isolation and have access to fewer resources. McAlindon suspects there's an untapped ocean of potential talent out there.
McAlindon is, himself, a serial entrepreneur, and founder of Blue Orb, Inc. He has a doctorate in Industrial Engineering with a focus on ergonomics, and teaches entrepreneurship at Rollins College Crummer Graduate School of Business. He supports and works with the Central Florida Disability Chamber: a first-in-the-nation Chamber of Commerce devoted to providing business mentorship and resources to individuals with disabilities as well as fostering youth entrepreneurship. Woven into every entrepreneur's DNA, he asserts, is the urge to advise others, network, and connect. His latest project intends to exploit that gene trait for the greater good, while seeking to replicate it within a fast-track accessible ecosystem of his own creation.
McAlindon's vision: accessible, step-by-step, one-to-one mentorship
Blue Orb, Inc. has a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to create an accessible online program that matches entrepreneurs with mentors and generates curricula targeted to the needs of each mentee. The vision is for an online portal to reach mentees anywhere, but at the heart of the project are actual people--currently a network of 150+ mentors who range from serial entrepreneurs to legal and marketing experts. The mentors are gleaned from McAlindon's own business network (think LinkedIn), and they are eager to help. McAlindon reports that beta testers are currently seeing a six-day turn around with their applications.
Motivating McAlindon is his own experience creating the orbiTouch keyboard and his belief that the tools and connectivity of the digital age can shave years off the traditional entrepreneurial process. "What took me 20 years to accomplish can now be completed in just three," he told the room at ATIA. Every entrepreneur, he notes, has a different experience and process based on many variables. Common to all, however, is the need to access the information and skill sets necessary to move business ideas forward (since no one person can know everything).
Mentees accepted into the program receive two kinds of mentors. The first is a "global mentor," a single individual charged with guiding a mentee's education, activities, and action steps from concept development to distribution and beyond. The second is step-specific, mentors who are assigned along the way based on individual mentee needs. Assistance with the patent process, for example, may be provided by a lawyer with this particular area of expertise.
Helpful to the mentors is the rigor of the program's application process. The application mines product and marketing ideas for their potential and flaws, and quickly reveals how well applicants have thought through their ideas. Sample questions include:
- Describe your business in 140 characters or less.
- What's new, interesting, or different about what your company will do?
- Do you have a website or prototype? What is your website URL?
- Explain how your company will make money.
- Provide information and URLs on current or likely competitors.
- Why should we work with you and your company?
Successful applicants are next provided with no-fail tests to help match their team building and learning styles, etc. to appropriate global mentors (who take the same tests). Applicants who are not ready to be mentored are provided feedback for how to further develop their ideas.
The rigor of the program is also reflected in the curriculum expectations McAlindon describes. Appropriate books and online courses are recommended tailored to the learning and business needs of each mentee. Participants may be referred to particular offerings at udemy and HubSpot, to the blogs of marketing gurus (Brad Feld, Seth Godin, Mark Suster, etc), and to entrepreneurial support organizations such as the Kauffman Foundation, Do-It, and TechStars. Evaluations by both mentee and mentor are completed for each program step to help gauge their level of commitment, accountability, and to further improve the system.
McAlindon stresses that program information will be available in many formats through the mobile device of the user's choosing (Android and Apple platforms), and Skype is deployed for face-to-face connecting. Prior to initiating the application process, participants are queried about their AT preferences and referred for further AT exploration as needed.
McAlindon does not specify if his target audience is a business person with a disability or a person with a disability who'd like to get into business. And while his application seems to suggest the former, he is quick to assure that mentors are available to help any motivated individual with a disability complete an application and develop their concept. He also intends to market the project through the VA to veterans with disabilities, the network of Centers for Independent Living, and other disability services organizations (among other entities).
Are you passionate about a business idea? Interested in playing in Blue Orb's shark-free tank? Blue Orb is looking for beta testers! Help Peter McAlindon retool from a serial to a social entrepreneur. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.