Derek Walker and his wife Anna are the driving force behind Natnoot, producers of organic wheatgrass and cold-pressed juices based in Letterkenny, Co Donegal. Walker is vision impaired due to Stargardt disease, a rare degenerative eye condition which was diagnosed when he was just 12 years old. He set up Natnoot in 2014 because, despite valiant efforts to find work, he found himself frozen out of the labour market due to his sight loss.
“I wanted to take the power out of other people’s hands to say no to giving me a job,” says Walker, whose company now employs eight people and sells its products all over Ireland.
“I got the idea for the business when I was growing and using wheatgrass to reduce inflammation after knee surgery. Growing the grass was a bit of a pain so I looked to see if there was someone doing ready-made shots. I couldn’t find anyone and that’s how it all started.”
Entrepreneurship is one way that those with disabilities can create their own employment. However, the number of people doing so is small for cultural, societal, financial and logistical reasons. On top of this, conventional start your own business and entrepreneurship programmes often don’t work for those with disabilities which makes creating a start-up even more difficult.
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In 2020, Prof Tom Cooney head of entrepreneurship at TU Dublin co-authored a report — Pathway to Entrepreneurship for People with Disabilities in Ireland — which showed Ireland to have one of the lowest employment rates in the European Union for people with disabilities. Prof Cooney is passionate about inclusion and developing the entrepreneurial skills of people with disabilities. Last year, with the support of AIB, he launched a first-of-its-kind entrepreneurship programme specifically designed for this cohort.
“Self-employment helps people with disabilities to participate socially and economically,” he says. “It also allows them to choose their own hours or work remotely, providing more flexibility than paid employment. However, despite the benefits, there is limited awareness of self-employment as a career option for people with disabilities within their own community and within enterprise agencies and disability advocacy organisations.”
There were 38 applicants from all over the country for the 20 places on last year’s pilot and, by the end of it, six people had firm start-up plans. However, Prof Cooney says the ambition is not to encourage all participants to start a business but to give them the opportunity to evaluate the viability and long-term sustainability of an idea.
“If the idea is not sustainable, then they are not encouraged to start and this evaluation process is supported by the business mentors every participant receives through the Local Enterprise Office network,” he says.
Following the success of the pilot, the course is being run again this year. However, potential applicants would need to move fast as the closing date is September 4th. Application details are on TU Dublin’s website.
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One of the unexpected outcomes from last year’s course was that almost every participant said it had boosted their self-confidence and affirmed their belief in their ability to find and pursue a career. “Even if they were not establishing their own business, they felt more confident about going back into the workplace and getting a full-time job,” Prof Cooney says.
The course is flexible and runs online to allow participants take time out if required for health reasons. All of the lectures are recorded and can be viewed (repeatedly if necessary) at any time.
“The content is customised to address the distinctive challenges facing people with disabilities in starting a business,” Prof Cooney says.
“For example, the biggest challenge is the welfare benefit trap. So, one lecture is dedicated to discussing the myriad of social welfare supports available and how a person might be affected if they started their own business. Guest speakers from the Department of Social Protection, Citizens Information and other relevant agencies highlight the realities of the welfare support system and how their circumstances might be altered by becoming self-employed. Each week we also feature a different entrepreneur with a disability as a guest speaker. They discuss the realities of starting a business and become role models for the participants and show them a pathway to self-employment.”
Derek Walker was one of the entrepreneurs who spoke to the course participants and, like many food start-ups, he tested the water at his local farmer’s market where his wheatgrass shots sold out within a few hours. “I was surprised but delighted that people wanted to buy the product, so I just kept going and learning as I went as this was all new to me,” he says.
Like most business newbies, Walker was apprehensive about approaching the bank for money, but his business plan went down well and he was able to expand and improve profitability by buying in bulk and producing in larger volumes.
However, running a small business is rarely a smooth ride for any entrepreneur and, in 2020, Walker’s company suffered a major blow when its distributor went out of business.
“It was a question of do something or die so we decided to take control of our own distribution at that point,” he says. ‘We set up a new company called MiiKrate and it handles our distribution but also acts as an online shop and a distribution service for other small, quality, Irish producers and we’re now dealing with retailers all over Ireland.”