Kathy McShane has built a career around her love of making a difference. After working in product development and other areas at American Express, McShane started her own marketing firm, Kendrew Group in the New York City area. She ran it from 1987 to 2010, growing it to a $6 million enterprise, also teaching as an adjunct professor at New York University.
McShane went on to start the groundbreaking group Ladies Who Launch, a membership organization that supported 8,000 women in starting and expanding their businesses, running it from 2010 to 2017. In 2018, she became assistant director of the Office of Women’s Business Ownership at the US Small Business Administration, serving the US government for two years before starting her own consultancy. “My passion is to help women,” says McShane.
As McShane found, budding entrepreneurs often benefit from a combination of technical assistance and mentoring. At the Office of Women’s Business Ownership, McShane’s work was focused on serving women who were first thinking of starting a business. Helping them build their confidence was a big part of this, because of structural inequalities, like lack of access to capital, could chip away at their belief in themselves as business owners.
“Many women say, ‘I don’t think I’m qualified,'” says McShane. “There are so many situations where women are just diminished.”
McShane is also an energetic advocate for people with disabilities, and she spoke about how her priorities and values in this area have driven her business at a July 28, 2022, panel I moderated for the New York Public Library on entrepreneurship and disabilities. (The video of the program will be available here soon). After contracting polio at age five, McShane has lived with challenges that affect her walking. In her high-visibility roles, she has had to overcome the discomfort some people feel when they see someone who has a physical disability. “Many people are uncomfortable around people who are not identical to them,” she says.
Business ownership can be ideal for people with disabilities, she says. “There are so many positive emotional reasons for disabled people to pursue entrepreneurship,” she says. “You can really be you. You have value. I built my business around my value. You can do that, too.”
Her advice to entrepreneurs with disabilities? “Don’t let others define your success,” she says. “I don’t define success for you,” she says. “You define success for you.”
The panelists shared a number of other insights that may be useful to you if you are starting a business. Here are some key takeaways.
Create a roadmap—and follow it. “I purposely chose a business where I knew what I was doing: It was marketing,” says McShane. As the primary breadwinner in her household at the time, she decided it was essential to write a business plan, where she worked out the financial side of the business. “Otherwise how will you know you will be able to put food on the table?” she asks.
Make sure to get a reality check on your business plan from knowledgeable people around you. McShane tended to be optimistic. When she asked for feedback on her plan, she recalls, one of her advisors told her, “You’d better increase those expenses by 30% because it’s not going to happen that way.”
Run your business according to your values. One reason McShane chose to run her own business after many years in corporate, she says, is “that I could determine and articulate what my values were and only hire people who subscribed to those values.”
One of those values was supporting women—part of a larger commitment to inclusion. “I felt that women do have a hard time, because we’re the nurturers and caregivers,” she says. “I had women working for me who had young children or older parents. It was a tough place to be in, but I gave them an environment where they could be themselves, celebrate themselves, and where we could take into consideration any disability or challenges they may have and not see those as a negative but instead focus on the things they did particularly well.”
Make time for relationship building. “Relationships and connections matter so much more than you think they do,” said Gustavo Serfafini, co-founder of Pure Audio Video, a reseller of high-end equipment in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., that creates elaborate home entertainment experiences for people who love technology, movies and music, bringing in about $2 million in annual revenue. “If you’re interested in a space, start a Meetup group, join a Meetup group, start to make connections with those communities of people and you’re going to find so many more doors opening up for you, so many more possibilities, that you may change or shift or pivot into something much better than you had even imagined. I wish we had done more of that before we took the leap into the business.”
Embrace your strengths. Problem solving can be a particular strength for people with disabilities, who are put into situations where they must tap this skill every day. “As someone who has a disability, you’re always trying to figure out how to get around this,” says McShane. “How do I negotiate those stairs? So you’re always looking for creative solutions to things. I don’t think we’re totally aware of it, but that’s what we do. We do it every day. Therefore…most people who have disabilities are problem solvers. We don’t have any choice. We’ve got to figure it out.”
Organic chemist and food & beverage industry consultant Hoby Wedler—also co-founder of Senspoint Design, a global creative, marketing and strategic consultancy—has also found that being born without sight has helped him to problem-solve and innovate in ways that people with sight might not. That enabled him to build a business where he has served clients such as Francis Ford Coppola’s wineries, where he developed new concepts for wine tasting events.
“In the food industry, I use my palate, I use my skills that other people do not have, and I am able to solve problems that no one else is able to solve,” said Wedler. “The product development cases, when I get involved, are very challenging. And I just love that. I’m literally able to observe things, see things, and I do use the word see things, in a light that other people don’t see them.
Find different ways to gather the experience you need to do your work. McShane once worked on a marketing campaign for a brand that targeted runners with tired and sore legs. Someone commented, “Kathy, what do you know about running?” McShane thought about it and realized that although she doesn’t run, she had another experience that was just as relevant: “I sponsored the Boston Marathon,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be real running. You can do it in a different way.
Create opportunities for other people with disabilities. Many people with disabilities are underemployed because companies don’t recognize their talents—and entrepreneurs with disabilities are in a position where they can break that cycle in their own hiring.
“The Department of Labor has a database of disabled people,” says McShane. “These people are brilliant. And they should all have jobs, but some people are just very uncomfortable with people with disabilities. That was one of the driving forces for me when I started my own business. I wanted to be in a position where I could hire people if they had a disability or didn’t have a disability but really hire them for what they did well, hire them for their value system. Frankly, they weren’t treated any differently.”
As the panelists pointed out, entrepreneurship can be a very rewarding career option. Although some employers wouldn’t hire him, Wedler says, “If I can’t sit at the table, I’m going to build my own table.”