Unleash Different: Achieving Business Success Through Disability

Unleash Different: Achieving Business Success Through Disability

by Rich Donovan


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If you discovered a new market comprising 53% of the world’s population, would you act to invest in it?

There are 1.3 billion people around the world who identify as having a disability. When you include friends and family, the disability market touches 53% of all consumers. It is the world’s largest emerging market.

Unleash Different illustrates how companies like Google, PepsiCo, and Nordstrom are attracting people with disabilities as customers and as employees. Replacing “nice to do” with “return on investment” allows market forces to take over and the world’s leading brands to do what they do best: serve a market segment — in this case, the disability market.

Business managers will come to understand

  • how taking a charity-oriented approach to people with disabilities has failed,
  • what action is required to capitalize on the world’s biggest emerging market, and
  • how their organizations can grow revenue and cut costs by attracting people with disabilities as customers and talent.

Rich gives the reader a peek into how he rose from a Canadian school for “crippled children” to manage $6 billion for one of Wall Street’s leading firms. He makes it easy to relate to the business goal of serving disability — because he has actually done it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781770414488
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)
Lexile: 950L (what's this?)

About the Author

Rich Donovan is Founder/CEO of The Return on Disability Group and is an expert on the convergence of disability and corporate profitability. He has been named one of the Top 50 Most Influential People with Disabilities in the world. Rich holds an MBA from Columbia Business School. Rich lives in Toronto, and is an avid sailor and proud parent of his son, Maverick, along with his wife, Jenn. Rich also happens to have cerebral palsy.

Read an Excerpt


The Short Bus

I grew up in the bedroom community of Newmarket outside Toronto, in a modest beige split-level home. We had just a small front and back yard and a driveway — but to me, it was home.

When I was five, in 1980, my day started earlier than any other kid on the block. I took the long ride to kindergarten. That's just the way it was. Rain or shine, slush or snow, at seven a.m. my mom and I watched for the short yellow bus to come around the corner and pull in front of our house. Then I pushed my walker down the driveway and boarded for the hour-and-a half bus ride to Toronto.

The bus disgorged us at the Ontario Crippled Children's Center (OCCC), an antiquated name for an institution that was progressive in its time because it worked hard to treat each child as an individual who could reach his or her full potential. Twenty-two women had founded the school in 1899 for children with chronic illness and disability. By the late 1970s it became known as the OCCC and then the Hugh MacMillan Center and as of 2017 the Center is Canada's largest children's rehabilitation hospital focused on improving the lives of kids with disabilities.

Until I left that school after third grade, I knew I had a different life than the other kids in my neighborhood. No one else rode a bus for ninety minutes twice a day. That sucks up a lot of time. We did typical school activities — painting, jumping around with gym equipment, learning to read — the only difference being that every child had a disability. I grew up thinking that disability was pretty normal. My younger brother Mike didn't understand disability until he was five or six. He tells the story about one of our neighbors telling him that we couldn't go somewhere because I was crippled. Mike was devastated at the time. To me it was no big deal. Mike remembers having that conversation with my mom and of course she told him, "Well, you know, he kind of is."

As a kid with cerebral palsy I would engage in 'therapeutic' experiences like swimming and horseback riding. The thing that sticks with me from those is not the activity itself, but the car rides back and forth with my dad. They were full of conversations about what business success looked like. Dad talked to me about how you drive quality, what process is. I had a good grasp of the precepts of Six Sigma before my tenth birthday.

Dad was trained as an engineer and worked as an executive with Tyco, a global industrial company that made electronic connectors. He eventually went on to run the Americas manufacturing division. The way that he thought, focusing in on process and quality, influenced me tremendously. It formed the foundation of how I became so efficient at doing things so that I could keep up with everyone else. His process-oriented way of looking at things was incredibly powerful for me; it still informs everything I do.

Now that I look back on it, I can see that Dad was working with me so I learned how to engage with my world as a participant. Never passive, never a victim. Dad fostered learning wherever he could. He put benchmarks in front of me and said, "Go do this." I think he knew that the world I lived in would be very different from his world. Instead of finding low hurdles to jump over, he set goals for me that were wholly unrelated to disability. If you ask him about it now, he would say that he just got out of my way, but that's Canadian humility talking. He pushed me. He didn't do it by kicking my ass. He did it in such a way that it broadened my horizons. I'm doing the same thing with my child. I point out things that are beyond his current concept of reality — to stretch him and push him. It's good parenting for any child — with a disability or not. I never remember Dad saying, "You can't do that." He didn't treat me any differently than he treated my younger brother Mike. In those days, no one would have expected someone with cerebral palsy to eventually make it to the trading desk of one of the world's greatest investment banks — except my Dad, Mom and Mike.

That's one key to how I was raised. My parents helped me see my life as composed of bridges to cross, not barriers to keep me away.

Parents of children with disabilities approach me all the time wanting to know what to do with their kid. "Do what you do with any other kid," I tell them. I think that's the mistake that most parents make. They think they must adapt and change — I don't buy that. Of course, every child is different, and parents ultimately will decide what's best for their kid. That said, never let your own perceptions of your child's disability limit them.


Blowing Up Barriers

During the 1970s and 1980s, it wasn't easy for kids with disabilities or their parents. If you were disabled or had friends or classmates with disabilities during those years, you know what I mean. Kids with "special needs" seemed to have a spotlight shining on them — for better or worse. As policy changed to "allow" kids with disabilities into school, many were watching to see what would happen. Parents, teachers and lawmakers. Policy is a piece of paper. I and millions of other kids were managing the day-today realities of the successes and failures that accompany change.

As someone with a disability, I had no obvious role models to follow. I didn't know any people with disabilities I could look up to; there was nobody to say, "He did that, she did that, you can do that." I owe a big thank you to my parents and to many other kids' parents who threw dynamite at the granite walls that existed in the educational system. That's what changed institutions to include people like me.

Mom and Dad talked to us a lot about what people think and say versus what they do. And it's true. What comes out of your mouth rarely matches what your hands produce. I suppose that Dad recognized some basic level of intelligence in me and thought to himself, 'Hey if that kid's going to succeed in life he's going to need to harness that intelligence.' Knowing how his brain works, he was preparing me for that: simple life lessons to prepare me for what I thought was going to be an engineering career.

If Dad is the rational, process-oriented influence in my life, Mom is the one who gave me my feistiness and appetite for risk. She's an extraordinarily passionate woman who likes to live a little bit on the edge. She wanted to push everything all the time, but in a very Canadian way. Mom is very polite, very nice. A teacher by trade, her role was keeping things on track. From her own upbringing, she has a profound sense of family. Mom was one of thirteen brothers and sisters from Chicoutimi, a town in northern Quebec. I remember visiting her family in this town surrounded by the Canadian boreal forest and the Saguenay and Chicoutimi Rivers that flowed to the St. Lawrence. We had good times relishing Quebec's culture and enjoying family and friends in a unique setting for North America.

At eighteen, Mom had left for California to work as an au pair with just a few words of English. She was the only one in her family to leave Quebec. Imagine what it would have been like: doing what no one else had done in her family, travelling all the way across the continent alone, not speaking any English. Mom always had a real hunger for discovery. She probably said to herself, "Well, I can stay here and join the family motel business, become somebody's wife and that's it for the rest of my life, or I can set my own path."

The Donovan household was always technologically advanced. We were one of the few families in our area that had a computer in our house in ... I think it was 1981. In fact, we didn't have one computer, we had three. Dad had access to all this technology because his company was starting to build computer components. At age seven I was playing Football Manager on my brand-new TRS-80, a forerunner microcomputer first sold by Radio Shack in 1977. For writing, I used an electric typewriter with a key guard. You would put your finger in a hole to hit each key. I typed everything, because I couldn't write. OK, technically I can write, but good luck reading my scrawls. I got into video games before most people knew what they were, but I was also into sports, especially hockey.

Ours was a big hockey town; Newmarket had every level of hockey up to the NHL until the Saints left. My brother Mike, who is eighteen months younger than me, grew up playing minor league hockey and baseball. I loved going to his games. He was a pretty good minor hockey player and freakishly tall for a Donovan. We are not known for our physical stature. My grandmother was 4'11" and two of my aunts are 4'10" and 4'9". Mom is just over 5'. My Dad is probably 5'7". Somehow Mike ended up being over six feet tall.

I had no access to organized hockey because it wasn't available for people with disabilities at that time, but I got my fix on the driveway and on the street. I couldn't run without crashing, so I always played goalie. I'll never forget getting goalie pads for Christmas when I was eight years old. I slept in them for days.

I was, and still am, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. As a kid, my church was Maple Leaf Gardens, the historic arena in downtown Toronto. You would come into the Gardens and be surrounded by 16,000 people and I was in awe. Those games were my favorite memories. I did the same thing at those games as at my brother's games. I yelled and screamed at the refs and at the other team. I loved those games and I always enjoyed coming to Toronto to see them and getting 'wowed' by the buzz of the city. Streetcars and the CN Tower, huge buildings ... I've always been a city guy. I was small enough that my dad would carry me. It would have been a disaster to walk the streets of Toronto with my walker. Because I never really walked. I ran everywhere. In fact, I modified my walker to get places quicker. Most walkers have two posts and two wheels. I had my dad put four wheels on it. It didn't have any brakes and I went through shoes like race cars go through tires.

Mike and I were both rambunctious, physical kids. We bonded fast in early childhood and spent our formative years messing around out-of-doors. The Donovans loved sports and competing. Dad played football at the Montreal Institute of Technology — he used to kid us that he went to MIT — where he was a punter and a kick returner. "Not in the same play, obviously," was our running joke.

Part of being physical was taking risks. Not stupid risks, but all the same I probably spent half my childhood with one injury or another, which just about drove my mother up a wall. By eighth grade, I had acquired an electric scooter so I could "walk" further and faster. At my wedding Mike told the story of us riding it — how he would jump on the back and I would let go of the brakes and take off down a hill. One day we did it on a curve, took it too fast and rolled it. I never broke anything, but I pulled muscles, sprained ankles, and strained shoulders playing sports and messing about.

One of the things we loved to do more than almost anything else as a family was boating. I pretty much grew up on a boat, first sailboats and then powerboats when my mother got tired of waiting to get where we were going. Dad and Mom figured out early on that sailing was something we could do as a family because people with mobility issues can function well in the small space of a sailboat. Mike and I picked up sailing easily. Dad entrusted me at an early age to running the boat safely. A few hours north of Toronto, Georgian Bay, which contained a Canadian National Park, offers thousands of islands and narrow channels for cruising but it also contains lots and lots of rocks. When handling a sailboat, you needed to focus one hundred percent. For me, it was a helluva lot easier and a lot more fun than walking.

When my parents first decided to buy a boat, they also bought an inflatable dinghy with an outboard motor. Mike and I had a blast taking turns driving and bombing around the water. One day we were jumping waves and the air above us exploded because a Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet fighter jet flew about 150 meters (500 feet) above our heads. We went wild waving at the pilot as s/he made a few high G-force turns directly above us. To exit, the pilot decided to go vertical right above our dingy. I thought the roar would split the sky.

We liked to go sailing for a week at a time among the 30,000 Islands of Georgian Bay. We'd sail up the east coast of the Bay up past Parry Sound. We had a few close calls, but one time crossing on the North Channel was particularly hair-raising.

We were due to have our chartered sailboat back at the marina the next day, but there was a storm brewing. The other couple with us were experienced sailors, so my dad and his friend decided to go for it and make the return trip. If we'd had better information, we probably would not have made the decisions we did, but as sailors will tell you, anything you live through makes you a better sailor. We had 30-foot waves and 60-knot winds coming at us. You know, the kind of weather where you put the storm jib out and suddenly you're doing six knots. It was scary. On the Great Lakes you get short wave intervals a few seconds apart. No sooner do you hit the bottom of a trough than you're immediately going back up in something like thirty-foot chop.

Mike and I thoroughly enjoyed it, laughing at Mom who was anchored in the gangway, terrified. But Mike also made sure I was stable, ensuring my butt stayed planted in the cockpit while the boat was heaving up and down. When we arrived at the marina, ambulances were taking some guys off their racing sloops who had sustained broken bones and concussions getting thrown around their boats by the pounding waves. "I'll never forget that day," Dad has said more than a few times.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I want you to understand that I had a wonderful and, in so many ways, very normal childhood.

My parents wanted me to have every opportunity to be successful at whatever I wanted to do, and that occasionally meant pushing me in certain directions. The first big push came in third grade. It was 1982 and the province of Ontario had passed a new law offering mainstream integration, i.e. making it easier for kids with disabilities to be educated in the public schools along with everybody else.

Not only was Canada the first country in the world to protect persons with disabilities in its laws, Ontario became the first province to add these provisions to its laws.

The Human Rights Code was amended to protect against discrimination "because of handicap." The law said that "handicap" meant "real or perceived physical, mental retardation or impairment, mental disability or a disorder." Today, the law says that people cannot be discriminated against because of "disability." Notice the quotes. This was accepted language from the most forward-thinking government globally in the 1970s. The language makes me cringe now and that "cringe" is a tiny sign of accomplished change.

My parents faced a big decision: was I going to continue with the 90-minute ride from Newmarket to Toronto every day, or go to a local school? The question came up partly thanks to Mrs. Post, a tough German woman who taught me at Sunnyview Public School (attached to the OCCC). She was a character. If you screwed up, you had to memorize a poem and recite it for the class. I was a bit of a wild child in that school — I thought I owned the place — so I memorized a lot of poetry.

Mrs. Post never minced words, and she didn't mince them when she told my parents what to do. "Get him out of here," she said. "He doesn't belong here." They took her advice and set about having me start fourth grade in the mainstream environment of St. Paul's in Newmarket.

When they first contacted the principal about transferring me there, the principal put up a fuss. "Oh, he wouldn't be ready," he said. "That's too much too soon." But my parents went down to the local school offices for a meeting about me, and when they returned home it was all set. While one might assume this was an enormous change for me, that is not how I remember it. I was 8 years old. For me, it was a new school, not a new world. That is the reality of change.


Excerpted from "Unleash Different"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Rich Donovan.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Prologue: Just the Beginning
  • Part One: Growing Up Different

    • Chapter One: The Short Bus
    • Chapter Two: Blowing Up Barriers
    • Chapter Three: Hockey Helmets and Tennis Balls
    • Chapter Four: Bad to the Bone (for a Geek)
    • Chapter Five: Wall Street Calls, University Begins
  • Part Two: Unleashing Different

    • Chapter Six: Running for a Seat in Parliament
    • Chapter Seven: My Introduction to Public Finance
    • Chapter Eight: Columbia Calling
    • Chapter Nine: Empire State of Mind
    • Chapter Ten: The Recruiting Game
    • Chapter Eleven: My Golden Key
    • Chapter Twelve: Fly Me to the Moon
    • Chapter Thirteen: Mother Merrill
    • Chapter Fourteen: 9/11 and a New Path Forward
    • Chapter Fifteen: A Big Day in the Life of a Trader
    • Chapter Sixteen: The Physics of Markets
    • Chapter Seventeen: Rebranding Disability
    • Chapter Eighteen: New Horizon
    • Chapter Nineteen: Close Encounters: Finding Love
    • Chapter Twenty: Rites of Passage: From Fiancé to Fatherhood
  • Part Three: Getting a Return on Different

    • Chapter Twenty-One: A Market the Size of China
    • Chapter Twenty-Two: Getting Real about the Economics of Disability
    • Chapter Twenty-Three: Pepsi, Please
    • Chapter Twenty-Four: Engineering a New Stock Index
    • Chapter Twenty-Five: Going Public
    • Chapter Twenty-Six: The Charity Fallacy
    • Chapter Twenty-Seven: A Billion Bells
  • Acknowledgments
  • About the Author
  • Copyright

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