Did you know that less than 1% of all businesses in the U.S. currently are Deaf-owned? If we apply the 2.07% of U.S. population that engages in entrepreneurship to the population of Deaf citizens, we should have about 20 thousand more businesses led by Deaf entrepreneurs. Deaf economics is seriously lacking in our world today, and that is precisely what one group of teachers and students is striving to change.
Professors Thomas Baldridge and Alim Chandani teach an integrated capstone course at Gallaudet University on ‘Developing a Social Enterprise Business Plan’. Last year, they teamed up with several students to create an organization called ThinkBiz that would help aspiring Deaf business owners achieve the necessary resources in entrepreneurship. Baldridge and Chandani not only teach the course, they also act as advisors to the ThinkBiz organization, which students themselves run. When Chandani and CEO of ThinkBiz, Don Cullen, talked to Convo about a potential collaboration, we immediately jumped on board. As the Deaf-owned VRS in this industry, we understood the need for more Deaf-owned businesses. ThinkBiz hits it close to home for us.
(Cullen introduces ThinkBiz with Zornoza)
This year, ThinkBiz launched a pilot Business Plan competition. Students of Baldridge and Chandani’s capstone course worked in groups throughout this spring semester to develop a business plan that would serve as their entry in the first-ever business plan competition, judged by Michael Janger, Margie English, and our very own Wayne Betts, Jr.
Six teams of two or three students entered the competition, each presenting their own entrepreneurship idea and plan to the judges and audience. The judges deliberated and awarded second place to Custom ASL, presented by Ryan Bonheyo, Albert McCrea, and Jared Vollmar. Their business plan proposal was to provide ASL classes for the restaurants and bars on H Street, which are frequented by Gallaudet students and staff. The classes would be customized to best fit the type of communication that occurs between the staff and Deaf customers.
First place went to Boomerang Cafe, by Raaed Abu-Atteeyah and Richard Dahan, who were gifted an iPad mini from Convo. Boomerang Cafe is an already-existing business on campus, located inside Living and Learning Residence Hall. However, it was lacking a business plan, which was what Abu-Atteeyah and Dahan presented. Their clear and structured plan won the judges over. First and second place winners also received monetary prizes from sponsors.
(The judges watching as a team presents)
“In the past, Gallaudet students have tried to set up businesses, but they collapsed as soon as the students graduated. I hope that ThinkBiz will be an incubator that serves as the missing link for transition to preserve existing businesses. I want the students to feel a sense of ownership with ThinkBiz; it should be a vibrant center of resources for them,” Cullen commented.
“There is no business culture here,” agreed Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Cybulski. Cybulski was also the Master of Ceremony at the competition.
Chief Financial Officer Travis Zornoza wishes he had this type of access to resources and support when he was a freshman. “Gallaudet would be a different place by now,” Zornoza contemplated. “Many Deaf people have great ideas for entrepreneurship, but don’t know where to start. This is the perfect opportunity to try them out and to make mistakes. Make it your playground.”
“We want to expand ThinkBiz from organization to incorporation for outside of Gallaudet as well as inside. We can do more. Pop that Deaf bubble!” said Clayton McMillan, Chief Marketing Officer.
(Wayne with the winners and their new iPad mini)
ThinkBiz winners Abu-Atteeyah and Dahan plan to expand equipment and add food options with their monetary prize.
“We really want to buy an espresso machine and a refrigerator,” Abu-Atteeyah said.
“We’ll use Square on our new mini iPad to make credit card charges,” Dahan added. “I hope to see a larger pool of competitive applications and employees, and to see awareness spread. Someday, there might even be a Boomerang Cafe franchise. Who knows?”
“But, our first and foremost goal is to keep Boomerang Cafe going,” Abu-Atteeyah chimed in. Wise thinking, as a significant percentage of businesses never make it past the first three years.
Stability is key in a strong Deaf economy, which could potentially be a powerful tool for our community. Think of the opportunities that could be created with a vigorous center for Deaf entrepreneurs. We’re calling it: ThinkBiz is onto something big here.
If you are a Deaf entrepreneur, get on Convo’s CODE Directory! Apply today: