Founder Series #1 – The Beginning (Part 2)
If anyone tells you because you’re deaf and hard of hearing, you can’t be an entrepreneur, they don’t know what they are talking about.
Many of us probably grew up with our parents, managers, or itinerant teachers setting low standards for us by default. I vividly remember being told that I shouldn’t expect to pass high school by my itinerant teacher. I shouldn’t get my hopes up about university either because other hard of hearing peers were failing high school and that it was okay. I was lucky to have ignored this belief because I wanted so much for myself and my future.
People are quick to judge and think people with a disability can’t be successful entrepreneurs. They make the false assumption that our disability is associated with a lack of abilities and is, therefore, impossible to run a successful company.
I vividly remember watching a clip of Canada’s first deaf MPP, Gary Malkowski. He talked about audism in school and how it affected his belief about his talent and capabilities. He was able to erase those false narratives and become an MPP. Gary can undoubtedly teach us what it takes to go against any biases and perceptions and still reach our career goals. The leaders who should have guided us and given us the confidence when we were growing up, some of them didn’t have any faith in us, but they shouldn’t have the last say.
There is a negative mindset ingrained in our thoughts as the truth of what we think about ourselves. A lot of this is based on the stigma and biases of the hearing community. The problem with the negative perceptions from hearing people telling people with hearing loss what they can and can’t do has appeared as evidence in the deaf and hard of hearing community’s employment rate. Unemployment is high within our community. Whether we are hired or through our performance evaluation, other people’s subtle opinions are at work. People don’t realize that they are judging us. There has been evidence that based on how attractive you are or if you went to an Ivy League school, you will be easily chosen.
So many of us find ourselves unemployed and have to look for some other forms of work to pay our bills. Studies also show that many people with hearing loss take to self-employment, but they make enough money just to get by.
Let’s face it, the biases about our hearing loss are robbing us of our potential. We can fix it. An important criteria that make someone successful as an entrepreneur is having the right mindset. I want to show you why.
Most first-time entrepreneurs believe that running a business requires special skills and talent to make things happen. From my experience, this belief is a trap that stops people from running successful companies.
Many entrepreneurs feel this imposter syndrome, and I am sure many deaf entrepreneurs felt the same, especially when they are meeting clients, investors, and employees. We often feel like we are a fraud because we don’t have the skills, experience, or knowledge when we are trying to build our business. We think that we are expected to know everything and be ready to start. It’s impossible to be in that position because you’ll never start.
As a hearing loss person, you start to think, who am I to be here in front of executives pitching my business. The truth is you do have the right to be there. You have to start somewhere to feel comfortable with the situation, and unless you start, you will always continue to think that you don’t measure up because you are not getting the experience you need. Experience comes from doing.
Our success as deaf and hard of hearing entrepreneurs is having the right mindset and being our own cheerleader in a startup world with those who would think otherwise. You have to believe that you can do this, and this comes from the right mindset. Really believe you have what it takes. You’ve have proven yourself of your capabilities in the past and you have evidence in the past with small or micro success. You can do it again. This time you just need to do it hundreds of thousands of times to run a business.
I had to have that mindset during my very first investors pitch meeting. I had traveled to another city to pitch for the first time. I practiced and prepared. I arrived in the city on the morning of the meeting and showed up an hour earlier waiting in the building’s lobby meeting. I did not want to miss this meeting at any cost.
Before 10 minutes to the investor’s pitch meeting, I found myself walking into a prestigious law firm and feeling out of place. I continued to keep my composure and greeted the receptionist after exiting the elevator.
After saying my name and the reason for the visit, she couldn’t locate my name in the system. My heart sank. All those negative thoughts were going through my head. I started questioning myself and if I screwed up with the time. All the things that could have gone wrong came up in my head. Not a good start. The receptionist spoke to her colleague, sitting next to her. They asked for my name again, looked in the system, and all was good. It turns out that she was filling in for the day and was new to the day’s program. I was slight relieved until I walked into the meeting room.
If you ever pitched for investment as a solo founder, it has to be the most lonely experience. There is no one to feed off any positive energy, no one to speak back and forth to give reassurance. It was a bunch of blank stares. To the investors, I looked like nothing they’ve ever seen in the boardroom before. I didn’t come in with a hoody or a t-shirt with my company name and jeans. I went in with my favorite blue blazer, which I’ve been seen many times before in pictures. I came as a black woman, hearing aids on, pitching in a room full of men except for one woman. It felt like I was pitching on Dragons Den, a reality tv show where wannabe entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas for investment in exchange for equity.
Up until that point in the boardroom, I was very grateful for all the practice I had done in advance. Because at that moment, I needed to be on autopilot, and the words that came out of my mouth were the only thing that was familiar to me. I walked out, head held high, still no smiles, but that’s okay. I didn’t get the investment.
Along the way, we will not win every time but you will learn. That’s the skill you most need to be a founder of a company. As long as your intentions are good, nothing can stop you from moving forward. When you are hard on ourselves, usually it’s because someone was hard on us in the past. You can’t let those audism attitudes make you feel less than.
Humans make mistakes, that’s how we evolve and create new inventions. We are never complacent. The answers to help you move forward with your business doesn’t come in one giant box with a nice bow. It often comes in pieces, acting as a piece of a puzzle. Your job as an entrepreneur is to find all the parts and fit them together. You do not need to build all the details. You rely on others to create the pieces for you.
For all that to happen, you have to be very self-aware. Self-aware when you are behaving in ways that stop you from moving forward. When you walk into a prestigious firm and think that you don’t belong, you have to believe in yourself. You’ll show up with certainty and conviction. The first person who should believe and have faith is you.
A lot about running a company is unknown. What I am doing today never crossed my mind a year ago. It meant that I had to develop a new sense of fearlessness about not having 100% certainty. That I show up to the boardroom and pitch my heart out.
Interestingly my hearing loss prepared me for this without me realizing. Every day, I am unsure what words I will miss or not, or will my hearing aid batteries die in the middle of a presentation. While our home is our comfort, everything outside is not. We step out every day from our house, bravely.
I had so much fear of getting my business started. Anxiety is something that I know never goes away. I still get nervous about important calls, talking to investors, or even making a presentation on stage. Being self-aware enables me to understand where my fears are coming from. When I was a child, those voices told me that it was unlikely that I would amount to anything because my hearing loss was in the way. My brain tries to protect me from what it thinks is a potential rejection and tells me to stay away.
When I walked into the board room of my investor’s meeting, I had to be fearless. I had to silence my mind and body that told me that I shouldn’t be in that room. If I listened, I wouldn’t have shown up, and I wouldn’t do what needs to be done.
My determination is what helps keep me going. Every person with a hearing loss has that determination. Determination is why we find a way when we can’t har. We found a path through challenges, at home, school, work, or making new friends.
Entrepreneurship determination is the same. There are good days and not so good days, but that was yesterday and today is a new day. We have to look forward to any new challenge.
Should you be looking to build a new career or work on a business idea, and you wonder if you have what it takes, you should go for it. Start small if you must but at least start. You will grow and learn more skills than you would ever imagine. You gain confidence because you are betting on yourself. You believe in yourself to make a difference and to show your community or the world that you’ve got what it takes. You’ll silence the audist voices that plague our minds. We all have everything inside us that is required to create.
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