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Oct 4, 2022

Joining Carol Pankow in the studio today is Inge Huband, Program Consultant for the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Small Business and Employment First programs, and Nicky Harper, Vocational Rehabilitation Administrator for Wyoming VR.
This year, the National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) has a theme of Disability: Part of the Equity Equation in recognition of the vital role people with
disabilities play in making the nation's workforce diverse and inclusive.
For our listeners, Wyoming VR does not participate in the Randolph Sheppard program; however, they have concentrated for almost two decades on their small business program that focuses on self-employment. Learn how this focus has attained over a 50 percent success rating for small businesses through partnerships, creativity, education, and community networking.


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Full Transcript


VRTAC-QM Manager Minute: National Disability Employment Awareness Month - See how Self-Employment Serves a Critical Need in Wyoming with Inge Huband and Nicky Harper



Speaker1: Manager Minute brought to you by the VRTAC for Quality Management, Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time. Here is your host Carol Pankow.


Carol: Well, welcome to the Manager Minute. Joining me in the studio today is Inge Huband, Program Consultant for the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Small Business and Employment First Program, and Nicky Harper, Vocational Rehabilitation Administrator for Wyoming VR. And wow, was that a mouthful? So good to have you both. Inge, how are things going in Wyoming?


Inge: Oh, they're pretty good. We had a very hot summer. We're looking forward to some cool down here.


Carol: Absolutely. And Nicky, how about you? How are things going?


Nicky: I am well, Carol, thank you for having us. Life is good in Wyoming.


Carol: Excellent. Well, you're some of our favorite people, that's for sure. So this year, the National Disability Employment Awareness Month, or NDEAM, has a theme of disability: Part of the equity equation in recognition of the vital role people with disabilities play in making the nation's workforce diverse and inclusive. So this past year, my colleague Alison Flanagan and I had the opportunity to participate in the Wyoming VR on site monitoring review by RSA. And during the week we spent together, Alison was sitting in the session discussing your small business program in Wyoming and was completely blown away. She told me immediately, She's like, You got to follow up with them and get a podcast together. So for our listeners out there, Wyoming VR does not participate in the Randolph Shepard program. However, they have had a focus for almost two decades on their small business program that focuses on self-employment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that over 10% of US workers are self-employed, and self-employed workers also represent many of the country's entrepreneurs who are responsible for creating jobs for other workers. So let's dig in. So I'm really excited about your small business program, and I wanted to talk a little bit more about that. So Nicky, can you give us a little context about Wyoming does not participate in the Randolph Shepard program?


Nicky: That is correct, Carol. We don't have a Randolph Shepard program for a couple of reasons. Primarily, incidents of visually impaired individuals is very low. So when the cafeteria programs went away, oh gosh, several years ago, it was set up that funding was coming into vocational rehabilitation. So at that time, my predecessor and I believe the field services administrator took a look at that and said, well, there's still funding coming in. So instead of a cafeteria program, can we still continue to look at the vending program and how can we get some legislation and statutes written so that vending income could be utilized to still support individuals with disabilities wanting to develop small businesses? So instead of doing vending cafeteria with Randolph Shepard, we kind of went a slightly different avenue.


Carol: So Wyoming has their own take on this. So you actually have your own legislation that governs what you're doing.


Nicky: We do, yes.


Carol: Excellent. I was very curious about that. So how does the funding work for this program?


Nicky: So the legislation or the statute allows for us to go out for bid for individuals in the communities. They don't necessarily have to be an individual with a disability, but I do believe this score additional points on an RFP, if they have a disability to set up vending machines in state owned buildings. So they set up the vending machines with understanding that a percentage of the earnings come to vocational rehabilitation. So we then use those earnings as match dollars when we set up a small business so that we use federal dollars obviously, and that vending income is used as a non-federal match portion.


Carol: Gotcha. Thank you for clearing that up. So do you partner with the Wyoming Small Business Administration?


Inge: Not directly. So I would call that an indirect partnership. We put a couple of years. We have partnered with the Wyoming Women's Business Center and they receive part of their funding through the Small Business Administration. So what we have started doing is to refer some of our clients. Not all of them will work for this program. Some of them can be referred with the approved loan amount, and then they will actually have to go through a loan process through the Wyoming Women's Business Center. The amount that DVR has approved for their small business is the loan amount that they're applying for, and we are able to pay that loan and the client will have to provide us with showing that they actually purchase what they have. So that's another layer of responsibility for the clients. It's no longer just gives me money. It's like, Oh no, I have to fill out a loan application and I have to talk to the loan officer and put everything out there and they have to have a. That's account ready. They have to have their legal entity already registered before they can even receive those funds. So it puts everything in another level of reality. And then they have the responsibility of purchasing all the approved items and approved that they did purchase them. And they have to send that also to the Women's Business Center as well as to us. So that's kind of how we keep track of all of that. But it does help with the diverse things that clients need. It's sometimes very difficult for, say, to purchase certain items through the process that we have. And so that makes it a lot easier, a lot more efficient than quicker for the client to obtain those needed items.


Carol: I know your state is very you know, you have the rural component. There's sort of a little bit of the bigger city areas and such. But what are some unique challenges that people face in Wyoming with creating a small business?


Inge: It is probably infrastructure. Internet sometimes is an issue, just being in very small communities and very rural, having to drive to places and it causes a lot of issues. But as I said, people are very resourceful when they buy into their idea and they see their idea growing from, Oh, here's that concept that I have in my head and through the process of business planning, it becomes a tangible idea of something that really makes sense and we help them really understand, okay, where you're at in this particular situation, does it really make sense to have a ginormous warehouse? For example? Would it not be better to utilize drop shippers or whatever we're considering in that situation? And then the idea grows from this big monstrosity to something small, functional and doable, and the client is able to just move forward with it. And also, I think giving them the future outlook of you can always grow your business, you can always change. And Wyoming has a really great network of support for small business. We work with local economic development chambers. I encourage the clients to work with all of these entities to really get into the nitty gritty of their small business idea and figure things out.


So it's not uncommon that I ask clients to do surveys, talk to their community and say, Do they really want this service? Because being online works sometimes, but not all the time. It's difficult. It's a big market out there. So when you have a following in your local community and get started, it's a lot easier to transition online or go into a warehouse. So for example, in a small town here in Wyoming called Buffalo, we have a saddle maker and he was visited by our governor. And because of that, we had another visitor from a local retailer who wants to help him with some free space. And so now he's able to move from his own property into a free rented location down the road. We'll probably have to pay rent, right now it's free and he'll have a little retail location. So what he can offer are smaller items. So he doesn't just rely on saddles and so he's really excited and things are moving.


Carol: Well, that sounds like a super smart approach, especially when you talked about having some of the Internet issues that can happen in rural areas too. So you want to have somewhat of a following in that community because people may not be able to get to you online either. That makes some sense. So you talked about this saddle maker. So what are some of the other interesting businesses that have been pursued?


Nicky: Oh, my gosh, quite a few. We get really, really creative. And Inge is a really good job with ensuring that the business is viable and they can be successful. The clients have to put together a pretty detailed business plan. The one that I kind of laugh about is we call it the pole dancing business.


Carol: Do tell!


Inge: This one was a client who just came to me and said, Well, I'm this athletic person. I teach pole dancing. I want to do that as a business. And I wasn't sure if we could do that, being tied to federal funding and all of that. So sure. And I didn't understand the idea of that being just physical exercise and all of that. So there were all these other things with it. But she opened up a studio and a really small town. It worked really well. She had a nice clientele. She was big enough to open a second studio in adjacent small town that worked also well, and then her injury got worse. Unfortunately, she had to sell to local studios. She moved and she's still selling her choreography and her merchandise online. And so that one was a really fun one to work with because it was so out of the ordinary, something different.


Nicky: We have done some really cool ones like. On supporting horses for Wyoming that works out. There's a lot of rodeo and that kind of stuff happening, and individuals may not always have the capacity to transport their animals across state lines. So we've done that kind of business and sometimes even to some micro-businesses kind of thing. One that comes to mind that was pretty cool was the latest craze of like essential oils and that kind of business. So we have really supported from large businesses, from mowing companies to moving horses to one was a t shirt company. This guy, he would get this product and then resell it. I think in his second year of business he cleared like 70,000. Well, that was.


Carol: Well that is cool though, because you guys have been super creative and it's worked for Wyoming, you know, and what people have needed there, because I know you definitely have a lot of challenges with the geographic nature of your state.


Nicky: Absolutely.


Carol: Very, very cool. So how do your outcomes look and how did the pandemic impact your customers and their businesses?


Inge: So our outcomes on general, when we check our numbers, they're about 50% success rate, which is pretty good because nationwide, when you look at all the small businesses that start in the first year, you have a 90% failure rate. And of those 90% within five years, you have another 50% failure rate of those remaining business. So it's very tough. So we are doing pretty good. The pandemic really didn't do that much to us. I was as busy as before the pandemic actually even busier. People were really hunkering down, thinking, well, what can I do? How can I support myself? And we did a lot throughout the pandemic. So the pandemic itself did not. We're seeing a slowdown right now. That is because there are a lot of jobs available. I believe right now the unemployment is at about 3% in Wyoming.


Carol: Oh, excellent.


Inge: So there is that natural slowdown that happens with that. So when work is available, micro slows down a little bit. When it's not available, we get really busy. And so we have that here. But yeah, the pandemic itself was a busy time for me.


Carol: Good. That's good to hear. So how do you partner with the VR counselor in making all of this happen?


Inge: Yeah, so that is a really good relationship. The counselor works with our clients. Sometimes clients get to refer to me right away. Sometimes they have good working with a VR counselor for some time before they even come my way. And then the counselor reaches out. Here's the client, here's what they want to do. So I provide services to our counselors as well as to our clients. I encourage our counselors to contact me if they have a client that has, let's call it a harebrained idea that may not work. So we do research with the client together to figure out is that even a decent idea or these pyramid schemes that people sometimes get involved with. We research stuff like that. So when a counselor isn't sure, I encourage them to contact me. When we're ready, the client gets referred to me and I start working and that looks different for different clients. So sometimes they're very proactive. Other clients, they want their counselors with them. So we just schedule phone calls again, virtual meetings or something to work together and then make sure that the client has all the support that they need. Usually, once the client is comfortable with working with yet another person, they are okay with working with me. That helps lead the process up a little bit because we don't need to coordinate all of our calendars and so we can solve this on that. Again, it depends on the client, but in general, the client can get a bland easy in three months.


They have to do financial projections. So at minimum we have to do a one year, month by month financial projection to see what is your projected income, your expenses, what's the bottom line looking like? How much money do you want to take out of that business? Where is all going to go? That's kind of what determines the whole process and everyone is of a different level. So some people you will have to explain everything to them. You have to teach them entrepreneurship, you have to guide them through the process while others come in with some knowledge already. Sometimes I get completed business class before I even have met the individual, and then once a plan is approved, the client goes back to their VR counselor and then they work together on finalizing the business. They start up their business. The VR counselor meets with them regularly to ensure that everything is on par, and if not, I hope that they will contact me and let me in. And that works pretty well that way. Working with the Women's Business Center. Has been really tremendous because that long counseling that they're receiving is just another way to make sure that everything that we try to teach them, try to put into this plan and process is being reinforced and someone else tells them, know some of the same things that we have went through with them already.


Carol: So that sounds like a great partnership that you have.


Inge: Yeah, it took me a long time to get that build out because outside of vocational rehabilitation, we're considered a brand and to educate those partners, it's not a grant and it's a different kind of process and program and people have different kinds of needs. We need to sometimes slow it down or speed it up, depending on where they are on that continuum, then that's where we need to be. And so that's not always easy. So it took me a long, long time to get through and it took a food truck business who needed a loan, couldn't get a loan through a bank, and the Women's Business Center was able to make a loan. So that client, they finally understood our process. And then I was approached for a contract. We actually entered a contract to make sure that everything is being all the confidentiality and all of that of oversight. And there's information that I cannot share and they cannot share because of lending rules and all of that. So we do have to have all of that information and continually work together.


Carol: So how does that work when you close a case? Because I understand that you're opening a case for the consumer in some situations. So how do you determine when you're closing in the case and consider it successful?


Nicky: Usually it's part of the business plan. They have to be able to demonstrate self-sufficiency, you know, and sometimes we might support them for a good couple of years just following them along for additional supports, just like a regular rehab closure, so to speak. We want to ensure that they are earning adequately, that they can self-sustain their business, that they don't have any additional supports from the division that they need to sustain business. We usually ask for regular paystubs and that kind of stuff to track that. They are doing well and by the time we are looking at closing the case, they have also established a working relationship and develop their credit through the Women's Business Center, which is where we funnel the funds through, so to speak. So they have established credit and I think each closure is very individualized, just like every case is so individualized, the counselor and the client and Inga works together to ensure that things are going well. The client does believe that they can self-sustain by themselves. And we did have a recent success story, which was really cool. We helped an individual set up a small business. I think it was like car detailing, if I'm not mistaken, and because the division helped him and he became really successful, this client then started hiring other V.R. clients to work for him, which was just really neat.


Carol: Wow. That is good stuff right there. Yeah. So what are you most proud of regarding this program?


Nicky: Oh, wow. Most proud of. That's a difficult question. I think it's the fact that we have some flexibilities in the program because we have a client who would essentially be eligible for VA services and considered to have a significant disability can potentially qualify. And if it is a viable business idea, we are always open to exploring it. And I think I really like is that we don't just say, okay, here's a set of funds now what do we walk them through that process? And then our recent engagement with the Women's Business Center, where the clients then get the opportunity to start developing their own credit as well, because we all know a lot of individuals with disabilities have challenges in that area where they don't necessarily have good credits or try to borrow in the future becomes difficult. Trying to borrow from the state small business might be challenging, so this really sets the client up for success and we're not necessarily doing for them, we're doing with them. And I think that's what I like to see, that we just don't say, Well, here's a set amount of dollars. Just like our individualized plans. Business plans are very individualized too. So depending on the need and the business, sometimes it might be 5000, sometimes it might be 50,000. I like that we can individualize it and work with the clients to help them out and help them out in their communities. Most recently, we sent a client to Nashville. He is super talented in the music industry and as a counselor, I was always hesitant to support someone to get a music degree right. But this individual, we sent him to Nashville. He's doing amazingly well. And one of the final things we are going to assist with is so the v r program is going to purchase the vehicle and the small business program will purchase kind of a mobile studio that he can. Around recording, and he already has multiple offers for recording contracts in Nashville. So that's really.


Carol: Cool. Wow, that is super cool. Well, and it speaks to what Inge said earlier about the percent of people that are successful because most small businesses, 90%, fail in that first year. But you guys are seeing a success rate well over 50%, which is good stuff. And that just speaks to what you're talking about with all of that support that you're giving to individuals the entire way through.


Nicky: Absolutely. And it's kind of a comprehensive support group of the counselor working with them, the area manager, getting involved when needed, the community support. I mean, it really does take a village, right, to support folks. And we have some really good success stories.


Carol: I love that. I love that. So, Nick, is there anything else you'd like to share with our listeners out there about your small business program or if they're considering something like that? I know most of the states have a Randolph Shepard program, but you have expanded obviously out to working with other people with other types of disabilities.


Nicky: I think sometimes we just get so stuck in bureaucratic, can we do this? Can't we do this? Is it allowable just giving clients and counselors the flexibility and the freedom to get creative, but then also having someone like Inga on staff who really have the expertise to determine if that business actually has the viable to be successful in your state, in that community, being able to do some fiscal projections for that said business, like I said, you know, the pole dancing thing, we were like, Wait a minute, worked. But they were very successful in that community. There was a lot of research that happened, went in to determine that there was a need for specialized exercise kind of thing and that there wasn't anyone providing it. So we do a lot of research and it is time consuming. But I think I go back to our staff, just us can be very creative and we need to believe in our clients too. So giving people the opportunity, being realistic, saying they want to start a small business to mirror Elon Musk might not be feasible, but being realistic and working within your boundaries, but sometimes stretching comfort zones and being curious and exploring options. So that's what I would suggest.


Inge: I would just say, know your local economy, get to know the people, talk to local people. Because if you hear for the third time that you want to have another woodworker opening up shop, you really need to know can that community support another business?


Carol: Yeah. Good stuff. Well, thank you so much for joining us today and I really appreciate you highlighting what's happening in Wyoming and helping us to celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Best of luck to you all.


Nicky: Thank you so much. Yep. And like you said, the beauty of what we do is just giving opportunities for individuals with disabilities to do what they think maybe that they were not going to be able to do to be contributing members of society. Again, we contribute to their families and we all come together. We can all make a difference.


Carol: Thanks much.


Nicky: Thank you, Carol.


Inge: Thank you, Carol. I appreciate it.



Speaker1: Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time, brought to you by the VR TAC for Quality Management. Catch all of our podcast episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening!