Saturday, January 13, 2007

A Small Business Success Story

Pictured in the photo above from left to right are Mary Zins, Rise Board of Director, Bertha Hsaio, Rise Chief Financial Officer, Don Lavin, Rise Vice President, John Barrett Rise President (photo), Mary Stransky, Human Resources Manager, Beth DePoint, Rise Public Relations and Communications Manager, Lynn Noren, Chief Operating Officer, and Clifford Lozinski from Johnson West & Company.

As I drove into the hotel ramp in downtown Minneapolis, I wasn’t quite sure if I belonged with this crowd. Here I was driving my five-year old Saturn into the building and found myself competing for a parking space with someone driving a Lexus RV. In fact, the hotel ramp was filled with BMWs, Cadillacs, and other luxury cars befitting highly successful business people.

On this evening, I was headed to a dinner reception and celebration being sponsored by TwinCities Business Magazine and Associated Bank. It was an event held to honor the achievements of nine small businesses in Minnesota. I am proud to say that my company, Rise, Incorporated, was one of these nine small business success stories being recognized on this evening. All of these successful business ventures had been featured in TwinCities Business Magazine’s December 2006 issue. And so here I was attending this exciting dinner reception with several of Rise’s board of directors and senior management members.

As we gathered during the cocktail hour (nah, I had a diet coke), we had opportunities to meet and congratulate a number of high energy entrepreneurs who are the driving forces behind these successful business enterprises. Further, we were networking with many of the outstanding employees of these private enterprises who were clearly proud of their company’s achievements.
The rich diversity of businesses being honored on this evening was fascinating. One company specialized in the development of vaccines. Another focused on the treatment of rust corrosion. Two companies ran spirited Information Technology ventures. Another conducted its business in the insurance industry. In addition, there was a highly successful trucking and moving enterprise, a marble and granite business, and customer service organization. And us.

Hmm. What on this green earth did Rise have in common with these eight high flying companies? I can answer that. We were being honored on this evening as a successful and progressive small business!

Rise was nominated for this award by Jack and Marion Burch from Burch Communications. Over the years, the Burch’s have co-produced a number of video media productions about Rise. This talented husband and wife team have become well-acquainted with the important work we do. The Burch’s observed the importance of a progressive vision, sound business practices, an entrepreneurial spirit, and creative business partnerships that are so essential to obtaining successful job outcomes for the people we represent. Further, Jack and Marion believed these practices should be formally recognized by other members of the business community. So they nominated our company for this recognition with TwinCities Business!

The Burch's ran into one small glitch. You see, TwinCities Business had never recognized a non-profit organization for this prestigious business award in the past. Jack and Marion, however, persisted and apparently made a compelling argument on our behalf. According to Jay Novak, the magazine’s editor and publisher: "My associates at TwinCities Business and I vowed to limit our small business success stories awards to for-profit companies. We made that rule for ourselves and this year we broke it." And with this decision, Rise had become the first non-profit organization ever to receive such recognition by the magazine in 2006!

And so it goes, my Rise colleagues and I were talking "business" with our peers at the cocktail social hour. And not one of them were representatives from other non-profits or organizations concerned about "rehabilitation" issues. Instead, we talked business-to-business about our respective products and services. And of course, we shared our ideas about customizing employment for people with disabilities and why this made good business sense.

After dinner, Jay Novak presented each company with their individual small business success story award. And representatives from each company were asked to make a short acceptance speech. It was inspirational for me to hear about the creativity, imagination, and risks taken by entrepreneurs who believed in themselves and their products or services. They were from the for-profit sector but they were indeed just like us in so many ways (ahem...minus the Lexus).
And finally, the moment had arrived for Rise to accept its award. With Rise’s President John Barrett out of town, the honor was given to my colleague Lynn Noren and I. We accepted the award from Jay Novak and then proceeded to share The Rise Story with some of the best business minds in Minnesota. It was very cool.

Lynn discussed Rise’s growth as a fledgling organization and how we had grown, matured, and diversified in delivering employment and community integration in support of 15,000 youth and adults with a wide array of disabilities over the years. Also, Lynn acknowledged the many contributions and dedicated work of our board of directors, staff, business partners, participants and family members, governmental associates, legislators and policy makers, benefactors, and others so critical to the performance outcomes and success of our business.

I spoke about why it is so important for people with disabilities to obtain integrated employment in the workforce. Also, I shared information about Rise's strategies in customizing employment to make job placement a reality for the diverse group of people and employers we represent. I am fairly certain most business leaders were shocked by the high level of unemployment that people with significant disabilities experience in the United States. And I told them Rise considers this high unemployment rate to be unacceptable and we were working hard with business leaders like themselves to promote social and economic change.

Finally, I shared how Rise had received 19 national, state, and local awards for excellence in its 35 years of service to the community. However, until this evening, all of these awards were in recognition of our service as a "community rehabilitation program" (CRP). This was the very first time Rise was being recognized for its excellence as a business. And we were honored to be recognized with such a select group of enterprising companies.

The irony of the moment was not wasted on me. As many of my readers know, I am not a big advocate of branding our work as "rehabilitation." I have written and published articles before about this topic including a feature called "What if we eliminated the word "rehabilitation" from the important work we do?" It’s not that I’m ashamed of our support of people with disabilities or the work we do when it is done properly. Instead, I am ashamed at how we tend to devalue the people we represent and place limits on their opportunities. And I am saddened that so many fail to see and market the employment capacities that exist in virtually everyone served by CRPs throughout the country.

Driving home from the event, I had one of those epiphanies or defining moments. I had rerun everything that was so right about this evening. And it was crystal clear to me that this is the way things ought to be. There was virtually no patronizing talk about rehabilitation but rather focused discussions about the abilities and capacities of people to go to work. It wasn’t our prototypical gathering with other rehabilitation agencies nor disability advocacy organizations. And we weren’t endlessly lamenting about our lack of funding or need to navigate around some horse crap public policies.
To say it simply, it was an evening of peers sharing their imaginative views about business and networking with each other. And we took every opportunity to share information about our unique business interests and ideas with the people who needed to hear about them most.

For me, there was something magical about this evening. Sure, receiving the award was flattering. More importantly, Rise had successfully shed its heritage and bondage as a "rehabilitation" organization on this particular night. And on this night, our company was recognized as a successful business enterprise by its peers...other businesses.

It was one small step for a CRP, and one giant leap for what we call a "community rehabilitation industry!"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congrats on your award. Reading your blog is freshing and encouraging!! I have been reading you for some time and am grateful for your insight. Like I said it is encouraging!! Keep up the great work!!

VR Counselor in Missouri

5:19 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Hey Missouri VR Counselor,

Thanks once again for stopping by and taking the time to post a comment. I do appreciate your kind remarks about our award and can assure you that I work with an amazing group of people who are inspirational and deserving of this recognition. We intend to work hard and take full advantage of the business connections and opportunities we made in receiving this exciting recognition.

By the way, I hope you are making waves in Missouri! Best wishes.

8:14 PM  

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