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Rich Donovan

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Rich Donovan is Founder and Chief Investment Officer at WingSail Capital, a New York based investment management firm that offers institutional equity strategies. Rich happens to have cerebral palsy and uses a disability lens to find investments that beat the market.

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A fresh approach to disability employment

In the first of two articles, New York based disabled businessman and former Wall Street trader, Rich Donovan, considers what circumstances would lead to companies embracing disabled people as employees by first seeing their potential as customers.
The Wall Street sign
Engineers are honest. They have to be, or bridges fail and people die. They have the ability to look at something, find a major flaw and fix it so that the 'thing' works the way it was demanded.

The first step to fixing a problem is to fully define it. The engineering community calls this 'declaring a breakdown'. Let's apply this idea to disability: the economic lives of disabled people are nowhere near what they could be. The promise to create job opportunities using laws and diversity programs has proven false. It's for this reason I am declaring a breakdown.

Equality laws don't work

Quotas and equity laws do not cause hiring, it's the promise of future profits that does. Despite this, we find ourselves in a situation where governments are forcing companies to hire disabled people without considering organisational realities within those firms.

Companies, by their very nature, act in their shareholders' best interests, doing what will grow revenue in the fastest way possible. This goal is baked into an organisation through incentives like bonuses and pay rises. It ensures everyone rows in the same direction, from CEO to marketing manager to those that make the hiring decisions.

Changing systems is far more complex than imposing a quota or a 'nice to do' mandate. It is difficult enough to achieve a business plan without the 'artificial' requirement of hiring people with disabilities, never mind the expected response "don't tell me how to do my job".

An ironic example of quotas not working can be seen in the US government, where four successive Presidents have mandated the hiring of at least 100,000 disabled federal employees.

All four mandates have failed and the level of employees with disabilities has dropped over this period to below 1% of the federal workforce. If the government can't do this right, who do we looked to for the solution?
A visually impaired woman types at her laptop

They're 'customers' first

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this 'breakdown' is the demand that firms hire disabled people before they understand the revenue potential in serving the market.

Historically, minority hiring has lagged minority marketing by 5 to 10 years. While there were isolated campaigns from as early as the 1920s, businesses like consumer products firm Proctor and Gamble ramped up their targeted advertising to women with vigour in the 1970s, but large scale hiring didn't really follow until the late 1980s and 1990s.

Companies must act on disabled people, treating them as customers first, with hiring coming as an 'effect' resulting from serving those customers.

The disability market is big, with ample room to increase sales and profits for business. With 1.1 billion people globally having a disability, controlling over $4 trillion annually, this market is about the size of China. Stakeholders in disability, friends and family, represent an additional 2 billion people with a disposable income of $8 trillion.

These are big numbers, the opposite of niche. But the opportunity and promise of big numbers is not enough - what you do with them is critical.

Companies need to understand that it's OK to make money from delighting disabled customers.

See the 'value' not the disability

Rich Donovan
Corporate America has just begun looking at disability. Having analysed the 800 largest companies in North America(*), 6% of them are doing 'something' in disability that is related to their business and can be measured.

IBM's voice recognition product, for instance, was developed in the 1970s by Dimitri Kanevsky, a Russian genius who happens to be hearing impaired. This is a $5 billion business for IBM today, growing at 22% on an industry level.

Few companies are doing anything in this market because most still see it as charity work. In a typical company, disability is the red-headed stepchild of diversity. The 'action' includes events like 'lunch-and-learns', motivational speakers, disability 'etiquette' pamphlets and/or attendance at a charity dinner. These 'activities' do nothing to drive the ball forward. They should be avoided, as most observers will come to the conclusion that the firm is not serious in its efforts, and is oblivious to the business value in people with disabilities.

The worst offenders cut a cheque to a charity and walk away with their tax credit. They give no value to this marketplace of potential customers or employees. You've seen their logos on banners, programmes and websites as sponsors. When asked of involvement in disability, they point to support of XYZ event, and move on. Today's disabled consumers expect to be an integrated element of business strategy, not merely part of a corporate social responsibility plan.

The best companies, 50 firms in North America, readily admit that they are just scratching the surface. They are treating disabled people as they would any other new market. Alongside research, they act by signalling to the market that they have interest. An example of this is when PepsiCo ran an ad during the 2008 Super Bowl that was based on disability. They used humour to bridge between the broader market and disabled people, collecting more than 4.5 million hits on YouTube. This is a signal that Pepsi values this group as customers.
Two men in a car sign that they're going to miss the super bowl kick off
Walgreens, a national drugstore chain in the US, has integrated disabled employees into their distribution centres, learning from the way they do their jobs to make it easier for everyone to do their jobs. The centres that do this are 20% more productive, an outcome which demands serious attention.

Most people spend too much time analysing a problem. The disability community is certainly guilty of that. The key is recognising that what exists today isn't working and a solution should be found that will produce new and different results. After all, declaring a breakdown is not powerful unless a quality fix is the outcome.

(*)Taken from primary research done by WingSail Capital as part of its investment process in the 4th quarter of 2010.

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