Signals | February 23, 2023

The impact case for bridging financing gaps for disabled founders

Roodgally Senatus

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ImpactAlpha Editor

Roodgally Senatus

ImpactAlpha, February 23 — Mexican-American paralympic athlete Diego Mariscal, who was born three months premature with cerebral palsy, is out to prove the thesis that having a disability can be a competitive advantage in business. 

Mariscal runs 2Gether-International, a Washington, D.C.-based impact accelerator that supports entrepreneurs with disabilities. He is looking to raise a $5 million fund to support high-growth impact startups in 2Gether’s network of nearly 600 disabled founders.

“We want to show that here’s this community of people that are underserved, that are facing systemic oppressions, high levels of unemployment rates and high poverty levels, but if nurtured and supported in the right way can yield very successful businesses because of their lived experiences,” he told ImpactAlpha

As the American with Disabilities Act defines it, a disabled person is an individual who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. One out of every six people globally, or an estimated 1.3 billion people, experience a significant disability today. People living with disabilities have twice the risk of developing conditions such as depression, asthma, diabetes, stroke, obesity or poor oral health. They often face ableism, discrimination, poverty and exclusion.

“Unlike other minority groups, disability is the only one that any of us can become a part of at any point in time,” says Mariscal. People with disabilities are almost twice as likely to start a business compared to non-disabled people, but many businesses led by disabled founders fail early due to lack of resources and investment. 

“A number of entrepreneurs have come out recognizing their disability, but that happens after they’ve become rich and famous,” he said. Stigma keeps many founders from disclosing their disabilities. “That’s why this work is so important because it’s not just about supporting underrepresented founders, it’s also about reframing the whole conversation around disability.”

Long COVID as a disability

Ibrahim Rashid, a founder who had lost the ability to walk due to the virus, wrote in ImpactAlpha about how Long Covid has focused new attention on disability justice. Rashid has built Strong Haulers, a tech platform to help Long Covid haulers manage their symptoms.

Nearly 20% of adults in the U.S. who’ve had Covid-19, or an estimated 50 million, reported having Long Covid symptoms, says the U.S. Census Bureau. Long Covid patients are experiencing more frequent hospital visits and are struggling to go back to work, a new analysis shows. Two-thirds of people with disabilities are unemployed. 

Covid-19 was “a mass disability event,” says Regina Kline, a former lawyer representing workers with disabilities turned investor. 

After meeting Jim Sorenson, the billionaire founder of Sorenson Impact, who made his fortune applying video compression technology to realtime captioning to help deaf and hard-of-hearing people communicate more fluidly, Sorenson and Kline created Enabled Ventures to invest in companies closing the disability wealth gap. Enable invests in growth-stage ventures founded by, for or with people with disabilities. 

Disability cohorts

2Gether has raised a little over $1 million to help 70 disabled founders raise more than $41 million from investors. The accelerator partners with Google, Comcast , the Loreen Arbus and Kauffman foundations, and the U.S. Small Business Administration to run up to four cohorts each year. Cohorts often include as many as 15 founders who get training on marketing and negotiations, business growth, management and sales, and other needs unique to their disabilities.

In 2021, 2Gether teamed up with Google for Startups to launch its first impact tech cohort. Founders in the cohort included Gareth Walkom, founder of WithVR, an app that uses virtual reality to prepare people with speech disorders for real life situations. Nikolas Kelly leads Sign-Speak, an AI sign-language interpreter for non-signers to easily communicate with individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing. Vanessa Gill is the founder of Social Cipher, a social-emotional learning platform that offers games and curriculums designed to help neurodiverse youth develop learning skills and construct positive boundaries. 

Between 80-90% of founders that have gone through 2Gether’s cohorts are working on disability-focused solutions. More than half are women and at least half identify as Black, Indigenous and/or a person of color, or BIPOC. Through the partnership with Comcast, 2Gether runs a 10-week accelerator program for impact tech startups led by BIPOC and disabled founders. 

“Many of the founders we’ve helped were already on the cusps of raising capital. They just needed an extra push” said Mariscal. 

For example, one founder had a technology that offered an innovative approach to satellite inspection. 

“What he was lacking was how to tell a story in a compelling way,” Mariscal said. “So much of the daily life of disabled people is around storytelling.”