“We’re seeing a major influx of people saying, ‘What I really want is to start my own business,’ ” said Rogue Gallart, president of the Central Florida Disability Chamber, a nonprofit created in 2009. “We work with
clients across the board to help them write their business plans and then assist them in finding the funding they need.
“Essentially, we’re a business incubator.”
With expert advice and grant money available for startups, the chamber already has helped write 17 business plans and has 20 more in the works. As the only organization of its kind in the state — and one of the few in the country — it now handles referrals from throughout Florida.
Businesses run the gamut from Internet-based companies to street-corner food carts to construction companies.
“They are wonderful,” said Ayla Topgul, an expert seamstress and designer. After more than 40 years in the industry, she couldn’t find work because shoulder, back and foot problems limited her mobility — and her job options.
“I am happy now.”
Topgul lost her home and car during the years she spent trying to get someone else to hire her. Turned down on her initial application for federal disability payments — a relatively common occurrence — Topgul didn’t bother appealing.
“What she really wanted was to work,” said her daughter, Aydan Topgul. “She said to me, ‘What am I supposed to do? I can’t just sit around all day.’ And she can’t. She always has to be doing something.”
The 63-year-old Topgul went first to Workforce Central Florida, which sent her to the state’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which ultimately referred her to the Central Florida Disability Chamber. There, the two-person staff analyzed her notion of starting her own business, wrote a business plan, secured a state grant of $85,000 for industrial sewing machines and other startup costs, and helped her find a storefront.
Opened last year, Angora Design Studio in Winter Park is still trying to make a name for itself, and it is just now at the break-even point. But Ayla Topgul is thrilled.
“I know I do good work for people,” she said, pointing out meticulous alterations, handmade lace and a series of custom and intricate wedding gowns. Adds her daughter: “If you show her a picture, she can make it.”
Keys to success
Family support is often critical to the success of a business venture, Gallart said. New businesses typically lack the means to hire outsiders, so having someone who will either pitch in for free — or help with living expenses while the entrepreneur is building a customer base — can be the difference between making and breaking a young enterprise.
Although the chamber’s track record is too short to be definitive, so far about 95 percent of the businesses launched are still open.
Peter Schoemann, a Central Florida attorney who created a National Chamber of Commerce for Persons With Disabilities before realizing the issue needed a more localized approach, said Gallart’s organization is “a fantastic place.” In fact, his group is now getting requests from New York; Washington, D.C.; and Texas to replicate the Central Florida model.
But entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart, he cautions.
“You have to have willpower,” he said. “It’s one thing to have a good idea. It’s another to be willing to put in the effort 24-7 to run your own business.”
And for those receiving government disability payments, there is a strong disincentive, Schoemann said.
“It blows my mind the way the current system is set up: The moment you earn more than the ridiculously low income allowed, you’re going to risk getting kicked off. Yet that’s long before a new business owner can make enough money to survive.”
On the flip side, Schoemann said, many entrepreneurs with disabilities are more determined than their typical able-bodied counterparts. Often, they’ve spent years — or even a lifetime — overcoming barriers.
For Bill Miller, a 35-year-old Lake County quadriplegic, the inability to walk, sit up, move his arms or take care of his own physical needs has only magnified his drive to succeed. Injured in a freakish fall at age 20, he belatedly returned to college online, completed a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a 4.0 grade-point average and is now working on his master’s degree in entrepreneurship.