Entrepreneurs with disabilities are not really visible in the intellectual, political, and economic spheres. This makes it difficult to identify them in order to carry out research on their activities. How can one develop a strategy to meet these specific entrepreneurs? The article explores the various strategies we used to meet entrepreneurs with disabilities. Their names have been changed to respect their anonymity.
Research on entrepreneurship and disability
the type of disability, gender, age, social origin, ethnic minority, and occupation.
Although conducting research on entrepreneurship and disability is of scientific interest, it is not easy. Entrepreneurs with disabilities are not really visible in the intellectual, political, and economic spheres. This makes it difficult to identify them in order to carry out research on their activities. So how can one develop a strategy to meet these specific entrepreneurs?
Contacting disabled entrepreneurs
The first network we use to find these entrepreneurs is associated with our respective friends. So we canvass our academic peers. We mobilise our entrepreneurial networks and contact different incubators. The manager of a university incubator says, “Our communication manager will publish your project description on our social networks! It’s great if your project is going well!” The message is relayed on the incubator’s social networks. Someone who saw this message contacts us and recommends that we interview an entrepreneur: “If I can be of any help to you and to your work, I would do it with joy”.
Contact with entrepreneurs also takes place through various companies. Finally, various associations we are members of are mobilised to put us in touch with other entrepreneurs.
We take advantage of our first meetings to ask each entrepreneur we meet if they know people who would like to participate in this research, to put word of mouth to work. This request is eventually reiterated in a “thank you” email. If the entrepreneur sends the contact information of one or more entrepreneurs who might be interested in participating in the research, a message is sent to them. A follow-up message is also sent to entrepreneurs who have not followed up on the subject of their potential contacts. We also ask these entrepreneurs to share our research presentation on their social media, especially when they have very active accounts and a large number of subscribers.
Brahim (the entrepreneurs’ names have been changed to respect their anonymity), a visually impaired entrepreneur, tells his friend Jean about the research. Jean agrees to talk with Julien: “The easiest way would be by phone.” Jean also puts us in touch with a blind entrepreneur named Tristan. This shows that word of mouth and networking work among people with the same type of disability. Tristan agrees to be interviewed. He shows his interest in this research: “I hope you have received enough responses.” Meanwhile, Brahim remains very active in finding entrepreneurs. He put us in touch with Gabriel, another blind entrepreneur, who is a physiotherapist.
Malik, an entrepreneur with a motor disability, sends us the contacts of four entrepreneurs who are in wheelchairs, like him. The four of them are also of the same ethnic origin. It seems that, in this case, word of mouth works by type of disability coupled with ethnic origin. It turns out that the first entrepreneur out of the four we contact, Rafik, has in fact never created a business, so we do not arrange an interview. Another contact given by Malik never answered our solicitations. However, the other two disabled entrepreneurs we contact, Kader and Marwa, agree to participate in the research.
Jessica, an entrepreneur with a hearing disability, recommends that we have lunch at a Moroccan restaurant whose manager, Samir, is deaf. Following this lunch and this first informal meeting, Samir agrees to participate in the research. Jessica comes back to us: “I’m sorry for my late reply. Please, it’s a pleasure to help.” She puts us in touch with another deaf entrepreneur, who agrees to be interviewed only if it is done with the help of a sign language interpreter. As we cannot contract an interpreter, the interview does not take place. Jessica also introduces Oscar, who agrees to participate, even though he is very cautious about the results of the research.
This wind of solidarity allows us to move forward with our research and to meet 20 entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs were selected according to different variables in order to get a diversity of stories, and to understand the complex relationship between disability and entrepreneurship.
These networking strategies allowed us to meet different profiles of entrepreneurs by accessing a relatively closed disability network, even though that network is well connected by word of mouth. The meetings were gradually refined and diversified as the fieldwork progressed. It is based on the personal characteristics of the entrepreneur, such as the type of disability, gender, age, social origin, ethnic minority, and occupation. We also took into account geographical parameters related to the locations and types of workplaces, and specific territorial resources. The sector of activity, the stage of development, and the size of the enterprise were also selection criteria. The status of the entrepreneur, as well as their position in the entrepreneurial process and whether they were starting up, scaling up, or even retiring, were also considered.
Constitution of a rich and diversified group of disabled entrepreneurs
Conducting research on entrepreneurship and disability is not an easy task. However, the fact that we had to solve difficulties related to meeting disabled entrepreneurs was for us a source of scientific enrichment.
Our research has thus contributed to the structuring of a networking strategy that allows us to integrate the disabled community in two steps: mobilisation of our professional and personal networks, and networking through entrepreneurs via word of mouth. This strategy favoured meeting entrepreneurs over time and the constitution of a rich and diversified group of entrepreneurs with disabilities. The criteria for selecting these entrepreneurs are multiple and distinct, in order to consider their differences that can be brought to light through research.
About the Authors
Julien Billion, PhD is a professor at ISC Paris. He wrote Je ne dors pas à la maison: histoires de jeunes sans domicile à Paris et à New York and produced a documentary on homeless youth, “Comme tout le monde”.
Claire Doussard, PhD is a landscape engineer, urban designer, and assistant professor at the Ecole Speciale d’Architecture in Paris, France. She is now a freelance expert. She is involved in several international research collaborations dealing with sustainable development in urban design.