Self Employment: the Spirit of Individual Enterprise, Part II

About This Episode

Sue Babin founded and runs a self-employment business incubator called “Self Employment: the Spirit of Individual Enterprise” in the state of Rhode Island. In this two-part interview, she goes over all aspects of the program: how the idea came to her, how she started the program, how she secured funding and transformed a pilot into a permanent program, how she produced customized training materials for people with disabilities on running your small business, marketing, the markers of success, case studies of people with disabilities who have created successful businesses for themselves and her advice on how to start such a program in your state.

This is part two of this two-part interview. Part one in this series can be found here.


A portrait of Sue Babin. She is a white woman with short, shoulder-length hair and narrow rectangular tortoise shell glasses. Behind her is a cabinet and an office plant.Sue Babin has been working in the field of developmental disabilities for 40+ years. She was the administrator of the Office of Quality Assurance for the State Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD) for 30 years advocating for the human rights of people with disabilities and overseeing investigations on abuse, neglect and mistreatment; administrator for supported employment statewide grants; program manager for Rhode Island’s Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) waiver; and responsible for designing and implementing monitoring and quality improvement programs for DD community agencies. For the last 10 years she has been a Special Projects Coordinator for the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council (RIDDC), staff to the Systems Advocacy Committee (SAC), and founder and Project Director for Rhode Island’s Self-Employment Business Incubator Project since 2018. Sue has a Masters Degree in Public Administration (MPA), is a graduate of Leadership Rhode Island’s Omnicron Class, and was a recipient in 2021 for Providence Business News (PBN’s) annual “Rhode Island Leaders and Achievers” Awards.

A portrait of Donald Taylor, a man with a medium smile and a mob of curly dark hair in a black collared shirt against a pattern of a blue pained wrought-iron gateDonald Taylor has been with TASH since 2014, where he is the Manager of Membership & Communications, responsible for membership and chapters, data systems and communication, and collaborates closely with other staff to make sure TASH systems support their work. Donald comes from a background of data systems, operations and business analysis, going back to the 1990s. Donald came to the world of disability while pursuing a degree in history. The history profession is deeply interested in the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century and fellow students studying biomedical systems of oppression inspired in him the desire to make a contribution to this aspect of social justice.


Announcer: You’re listening to the AoD Disability Employment Technical Assistance Center podcast, where we learn from people who are working to improve competitive integrated employment and economic outcomes for people with disabilities.

This is part two of our two-part interview with Sue Babin, the Special Projects Director with the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council, where she founded and runs the program, Self Employment: the Spirit of Individual Enterprise. We go deep into the nuts-and-bolts of how to run a self-employment program and the value of self-employment for people with disabilities.

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Sue Babin: Yeah. I can talk about some lessons that I learned early on. When I mentioned that that family, a couple of families had approached me I’ve always had some pretty good research skills and I had been in touch with Griffin Hammis and I knew a bunch of people from Griffin Hammis. And so I reached out to them initially and I asked, who are the states that are doing anything in the area of self-employment? And I also Googled self-employment and found some stuff on the small business administration and a few other national site site sites that had listed a couple of states. And I contacted them. So I talked to people over the telephone. I didn’t just look at what they had, but I actually called them and said, Hey, can you talk to me? And I asked a question that you asked, which is, what are the things that you would’ve done differently?

What did you learn that from running this project that you didn’t have up and running? And what the number one thing that people said is it’s not so much about helping people to learn the business development skills as it is figuring out how to provide them with the ongoing support that they need from the purchase of materials to the selling platforms, to the assistance in thinking creatively about marketing and changing your marketing strategy, depending upon the needs of your customers. And then how do you provide people with the individualized support that they might need through staff or through a specific business expertise that they might have. And so, as I had said, we found that people that had self-directed supports had the most flexibility because they could hire somebody themselves that had marketing experience or business experience or someone that had strong community connections.

So that type of ongoing support was really, really necessary. The other thing that, that we learned is that you need to hire the right staff that work in your project. You need to hire people that are good with folks with disabilities and could communicate with them and get them motivated to believe in themselves and inspired. You gotta be, you can’t be monotone. You gotta be, show that passion to come out in the way that you speak so that people are interested in what you have to say. I found that hiring family members, like I hired Claudia, who I mentioned, I hired Michael’s mom, Sheila, and I hired another mom. Why? Because they had firsthand experience in helping individuals with disabilities to start their own businesses. So they knew better than me what the challenges were. They lived it every day. They also knew how, what the shortcuts were, what worked and what didn’t work.

So when you hire the right staff, that’s helpful. I mentioned that I hired a communications agency. That was really a helpful thing to do because I got individual stories like the one I mentioned for Renee. Michael has been on, he’s been on TV stations, he’s been in local newspapers, he’s been on national news. That’s really important stuff. And we hired, as I mentioned, Brian La Fauci, the person that was the former director of the Veterans Business Outreach Center, as well as other staff or other instructors that work worked for the small Business administration. Those are the right people. Hiring people from human service industry doesn’t make sense. That’s my background. You know, I know all about the DD world, but I don’t know too much about business development. So you need to hire people that come from that world, not necessarily human services. I think the other area that has always been an issue and will continue to be, is addressing family concerns about loss of SS s I benefits.

You know, there’s a lot of myths out there, whether the person obtains a regular job in the community, or whether the person obtains employment by owning their own business, families are concerned about losing ss. S i, so there’s two components to that. One is the medical benefits that people have that’s covered under Medicaid. That one is a little bit easier because people can earn somewhere around $36,000 a year and still have Medicaid coverage for medical. So talking to families and letting them know, you don’t need to really worry about those benefits unless the person is approaching, you know, in $30,000 range of a business. Now we gotta talk about another alternative. The other aspect of social security, the income that people are concerned about is when you have income from a job or from owning your own business and your hours change every month, you, and even if they don’t, you need to report on a monthly basis to social security what your earnings are.

When you own a business, you can deduct your expenses from allowable expenses from what it is that you report to Social Security. But then what will happen is your Social security check will be reduced in subsequent months. So that reporting stuff, parents get really nervous about that, and I think that they don’t understand that. The bottom line is when a person has a job or they have their own business and they’re earning more money than getting an Ss s I check every month, that’s more money in their pocket, which will help them to have a better quality of life to pay their bills, to then be able to buy other things that they need or want go on vacations. And just the same kinds of things that other people do in the community when they have income, that’s their own. And so addressing those social security concerns that families have is a really big issue that needs to be addressed upfront.

The other lesson that we learned is constantly asking the people that are in our classes, what can we do better? You know, we ask that every after every class, what did you think of this class? What did you like about it? What did you learn? What didn’t you like? Is there something that we didn’t cover? And sometimes we hear from people about different things that help us to add something else on to our project. Like I mentioned about the outside marketplaces, we learned that as people said, well, I’m, I, I have a Facebook page, but nobody is buying my stuff. So we ask the question, well, how many people like your Facebook page? If it’s only a hundred people, that’s not a big market. You need to get more word out, you need to get more likes. Maybe you need to be selling your things in storefronts.

Maybe you need to consider some outside marketplaces. So helping people to figure out how they can do those kinds of things is really important. And as the the group that organizes the self-employment project, you gotta be flexible and shift. Another thing that we learned, and through Covid, we were having in-person classes up until Covid, and sometimes transportation was an issue of getting people to be able to come, even despite the fact we live in Rhode Island and anybody can get anywhere in 50 minutes, 5, 0, 50. We don’t live in California or Florida where it’s really hard to get here. You can get here fast. And we were holding the classes in the central location within the state. When Covid happened, it put a stop to our program. We put our thinking caps on, and we said, let’s run them online. Nobody here ever heard of Zoom five years ago.

It wasn’t something that people did, right? It, we do it every day, like it’s part of our every day. So we said, let’s try running these classes. With Zoom, we were able to get connect with a another project in another state that was giving away. I b m used computers to people to help people to be able to go online through Zoom chats. And so we were able to get a bunch of computers that we gave out to people that said, Hey, we wanna be in your class. I wanna be, I wanna stop my own business. And so we would distributed those computers to individuals and we showed them how to get online. And you know what? We found that online was better than being in person. Why we didn’t have to deal with transportation for one thing we had, it was much easier to be able to organize the classes and be able to have the person with a disability sitting there with their staff person than have worrying about transportation or other issues.

And then we would just ship out the workbooks to people so that they were able to have the workbooks right in front of them. I think the other thing that is really important is making sure that your business development materials are in a format that people can understand. Lots of graphics, lots of pictures of other folks with disabilities holding up or showing what their business is, what they’re selling to the public so that people can see that not too many words on the screen. And staying in touch with other states to kind of rally support and also talk in general about, well, what are you doing and, and what problem areas are you’re running into? And even better, what are some solutions that you’ve thought of? So we are in touch with, I don’t know, five or six different states that across the country that are doing self-employment and just constantly asking them, how are you doing?

What’s what? How would you handle this? What’s going on next? So you keep learning from from states as well as from some successful businesses such as John’s Crazy Socks out of New York or Cotis Cookies from Boston, Massachusetts to very successful entrepreneurs that do really well with marketing. And we actually have John and Mark Cronin from John’s Crazy sos socks teach One teach the social media class that we run because they do such a good, they, they’ve got a million dollar business that they’re running right now. And they market their socks not only all over the United States, but in other countries as well. So I think that they have creatively figured out how to utilize social media in the best way possible. So why not learn from people that know more than you? I think the other thing that we learned is that when you publicize success stories, you’re also creatively thinking about sustainability for your project.

The more people that know about it, the more people that see it as a successful project, the more likely it is to continue to be stable and to grow and to be an entity for more people that are out there. Now, we’re at a point because of our visibility. We’ve got entities such as Skills for Rhode Island’s Future approaching us and saying, Hey, do you wanna be a partner with us? We need to have some partners that are connected with underrepresented populations, and you guys have a great track record. What a great compliment that is for people to reach out to us, the DD Council and say, will you be our partner? The other partners are all business groups. You know, all entities that run, you know, human resource organizations or business development programs, or run website agency, you know, all agencies that have nothing to do with human services, but everything to do with business support that people need. And when you publicize what you do, we’re also helping the, the individual entrepreneurs to be able to make, generate more income from themselves. And that’s really what this is about, showing that people with disabilities are small business owners and that they have value and can make contributions to the local economy, as well as improve their own individual financial futures.

Donald Taylor: Tell us a little bit about your philosophy. Why self-employment?

Sue Babin: As I mentioned earlier I got involved with self-employment because a couple of families had approached me when I first started working. Well, actually I wasn’t. I was there for a couple of years at the DD Council, and they had approached me about where do, how can I get some support from my son or daughter for self-employment? I have found over the last five years that self-employment is one of the best customized employment options that there are for an individual because it’s really looking at an individual’s hobby or interest or something that they’re so good at, and turning that into something that can be marketed to the general public and generate income from them for them. What happens lots of times with traditional employment for people is while people can do the job and get the job, they have difficulty socializing with their peers, and people feel isolated.

They don’t necessarily feel like they’re part of that particular business. And many people get frustrated with that and, and are the first sometimes to get laid off or fired or when Covid happened, so many people lost their job here in Rhode Island and across the country, and that reverted people back to, you know, times that they hadn’t seen in years of just being depressed and not feeling like they were good enough. What happens with self-employment is that the person is the center. They’re passionate about their skill or their interest in a particular aspect of work. We’ve got, I got this young man, Nathan, who’s a podcaster. He loves it, and he does such a great job. He’s interviewing people that have gone through our project and helping them to create podcasts to put on their website. Sometimes they’re short, they’re five minutes, sometimes they’re like 20 minutes long.

And he’s, he is absolutely loving that. He’s also getting some visibility from people without disabilities that are saying, Hey, I heard you got a podcast business. Can you help me to to expand and show my business on your podcast? So people are becoming, you know, seen as just regular folks. And that’s really the goal of why anybody should be in human services. I get in this business years ago because my cousin had cerebral palsy and my family at the time, the doctors were all telling my family, she’s not gonna amount to much. There are no community options for folks with cerebral falls or people who have disabilities. They’re gonna have to go to a spec special school. And my aunt didn’t wanna buy that. She said, absolutely not. She’s not going to a special school. And she fought for her to be integrated within a school system.

Today, my cousin is employed, she’s married, she has a child. And so I grew up around that philosophy of believing that anything can happen for people if the right support is built around that individual, reach for the stars and you can get it. I was also very fortunate to go to a high school that was awesome at building the self-esteem of the students and teaching us to go for the sky, reach for the sky. You know, don’t give up, believe in yourself, figure things out, problem solve, teamwork, all of that stuff. And so when I got in the field of disabilities and I saw how folks were treated and bullied and victimized, I, my whole life work has been as an advocate for people with disabilities. Like I mentioned earlier, I ran the quality assurance unit investigating abuse of adults with disabilities as well as overseeing employment and the waiver.

But the thing that really got me the most was how victimized people with disabilities were and just all of the myths out there from the general public who had limited contact with folks with disabilities. And what self-employment does is show the world that people with disabilities are no different. They have the same needs and wants as anybody else, and they’re great business owners with the right support. But that’s the same as with me. As I said on that restaurant, I could not have run that restaurant if I didn’t have all of those other people around to be able to help me with the areas that I had limited experience in.

Donald Taylor: Where do people find out more about self-employment? The spirit of individual enterprise?

Sue Babin: People can find out more information about the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Project by going to our website, www.riddc.org. Click on the employment tab. You will see a bunch of general information about our project. You’ll also see a really cool page that’s a collage of individuals. And under that collage of individuals are some individual newspaper stories that were have been on, on various small business owners, as well as some small short videos, two and three minute videos that we’ve created for people. You’ll also see a business directory that has about 50 of our businesses in there. Now. We just started with this business directory. It’s a work in progress and it’s categorized by areas of, of the business from home and garden to crafts to to soaps and candles and services house cleaning, pet sitting, podcasting, those kinds of things.

So you can see that on our website as well as an event that we run called Small Business Saturday Shop ri, which is in November. It’s an event that’s open to the general public, and it’s it, the, the event that’s held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which is the big shopping week of the year. And in a day that American Express started 10 years ago to 11 years ago to focus attention on helping the community to support small businesses. And what most states do is have small business Saturday and have people from the legislature and the governor kind of go around to areas throughout the state, highlight what they’re doing. There’s a, there’s some hype about it. A couple of days before. What we did was, besides having that, we rented out our biggest hotel in the state.

And we have an event every year. We rent space out to entrepreneurs. We’re already sold out this year for this year’s event in November. We have 162 vendors, and 34 will be people with disabilities, which is really cool. So you’ll see all of, you’ll see a great five minute video about that event, and that is something that any state in the country could replicate, and it’s a great way to help support the individual businesses. Most of our businesses make at least 500 bucks that day in selling their goods and products and services to the general public. Last year we had over 4,000 visitors come to that event. So again, on our website you’ll see that as well, as well as specific information about the individual classes and a brochure and just all sorts of other information and ways that you can get ahold of me personally.

Donald Taylor: How does a prospective small business owner get referred to your program?

Sue Babin: We get referrals from individual family. Well, first of all, what we do is develop a one page flyer that announces upcoming classes about six weeks before that business series, new business series is about to start. And so, as I mentioned earlier about the importance of keeping in touch with your partners, and one of the groups of, of agencies that I said is our partners is the community agencies here in Rhode Island that support individuals with disabilities, whether it’s on the adult services side or transition centers or high schools special ed programs, whatever. Those are partners, we get referrals from those agencies. So we send our flyer out to those agencies, we send the flyer out to family groups, to advocacy groups. We speak at community forums. Our state developmental disability agency runs quarterly forums. So we speak at that quarterly forum to let people know that there’s an upcoming business series.

We put it up on our website, we utilize other social media. We typically ha we will have a newspaper story and some local newspapers. That upcoming series is, is about to happen. And so we get referrals from all of those kinds of, of, of entities as well as from individuals themselves. We sometimes will post those flyers in different community locations, grocery stores, churches healthcare facilities, and people will see the flyer. And it’s also by word of mouth people telling their friends, Hey, you might have an idea. Do you have a business? Or, why don’t you check this out? Why don’t you just talk to these guys? And they can help you to even think about whether or not you have a, an idea or something that could turn into a business.

Donald Taylor: Sue Bein, thank you for talking with us today about how people with disabilities can pursue self-employment.

Sue Babin: Thank you so much for having me on the show, Don. I really appreciate it. And I would, you know, also say to people, if you wanna get in touch with me, my email is suebabin@riddc.org, and my phone number is (401) 523-2300. And one more thing I didn’t say is we also have a speaker’s bureau with people with disabilities, almost 20 folks with disabilities that are entrepreneurs from Rhode Island that speak about their business, how they got it started, lessons they learned, advice that they would give to others, and how the business series has helped them. We speak to people all the time, we pay them for those speaking presentations, and we are happy to do that in any state that may be interested in listening to or connecting with us to hear more about hear more directly from individuals as well as some family members.

Announcer: You’ve been listening to the AOD Disability Employment Technical Assistance Center podcast.

This is part two of our two-part interview with Sue Babin, a Special Projects Director with the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council, where she runs the program, Self Employment: the Spirit of Individual Enterprise. You can learn more about the program at riddc.org/self-employment-project.

The AOD Disability, Employment Technical Assistance Center, or DETAC, is a project of the Lewin Group and TASH, created by a grant from the Administration for Community Living to provide evidence based training and technical assistance to Administration on Disabilities grantees aimed at improving competitive integrated employment and economic outcomes for individuals with disabilities across the nation. To learn more about DETAC, visit AoDDisabilityEmploymentTACenter.com for news and alerts about upcoming webinars and podcasts. You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Music for the DETAC Podcast is an original composition and performance by Sunny Cefaratti, the co-director and autistic self-advocacy mentor at the Musical Autist. You can learn more about the Musical Autist at www.themusicalautist.org.

We’ll have another episode on competitive integrated employment for you in the near future.

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This discussion was originally recorded on June 26, 2023.

This audio recording and transcript has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

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