With more than 85,000,000 people living with some form of a disability in China, only 9,000,000 of these individuals are “working.” Therefore, we decided to focus this month’s evening forum on the opportunities for socially minded entrepreneurs to create solutions to problems related to the challenges and stigmas that this segment of the population faces.
Believing in the power of entrepreneurship and innovation to inspire change, we invited Marina Kalnitski, Head Job Coach at Taicang Inclusion Factory (TIF) and Shiyin Cai, Founder of Dialogue in the Dark (China) to speak about their stories of building their organizations, with the goal to inspire and equip the more than forty participants to take their own first steps forward.
“Without a barrier there is not disability”
Initially, TIF was meant to be a dignifying workplace for people with mental disabilities, but it eventually became the first industrial workshop in China to provide vocational and social training to prepare these individuals to enter the traditional workforce.
For Kalnitski, the work of TIF is important as it breaks barriers and probes to customers that the “disabled” are able.
For there to be a “disability,” there needs to be an impediment and a barrier, with an impediment being the slightest difference among individuals and a barrier being what complicate the lives of those living with such impediments.
For Kalnitski, barriers range from physical spaces to mental judgments, and they only need to be removed to provide people with the same rights. She acknowledged that there is still much work to be done, but much progress has been made already, thus keeping her inspired and enthusiastic about the initiative.
TIF is a facility that does not employ disabled or less abled individuals, nor asks for donations as a business model, but rather it relies on a labor pool that is “differently abled,” but still produces high quality products that have a market value to their customers; customers who are paying the same price for their goods as they would pay anywhere else.
“We don’t want sympathy we want empathy and respect”
The conversation continued with Shiyin, a social innovator that put aside a successful corporate career in order to make a real difference for those visually impaired. She started by explaining that disable means less capable, making the term disability unfit for anyone living with an impediment.
Shiyin then shared her journey as a social entrepreneur, and how she ended up bringing Dialogue in the Dark (DiD) to China. After spending time in Tibet witnessing how very smart, but visually impaired people had no other career choice but to become a masseuse or own a massage business, she realized something had to be done. Interestingly, she is convinced that the key to become more inclusive is not simply providing people with employment opportunities, but rather, changing the mindset of society, which is the goal of DiD. DiD provides the public with the opportunity to experience the dark, as to make them understand that “an impairment does not define who one is”.
Shiyin’s initiative has grown, and now she offers corporate leadership training and academic education for the visually impaired and runs marathons for the blind. She strives to be the best in the market and show that the people she works with are simply different and their impairment does not have to get in the way to a normal life.
Shiyin also talked about the struggles of establishing a social business in China, as well as touched upon the challenges of working with people that have been treated differently for most of their lives. Shiyin finish her talk by reminding the audience that “business is not about making money; it is about creating meaning.”
Discovering one’s purpose in life
After Shiyin and Marina’s inspiring conversation, Richard opened the floor to Q&A by asking the speakers what their main motivations were and what kept them going despite the many challenges of social work.
Interestingly, for both Marina and Shiyin, the main motivating factor is seeing how their work truly changes people’s perceptions, and how that change in perceptions also changes the lives of those that for many years were neglected. Both speakers talked about different challenges in their own businesses and their particular experiences, but they are also hopeful for the new generation.
Richard closed the session by reminding the audience that social entrepreneurship is definitely not easy, but neither is it impossible. For instance, 15 years ago none of these initiatives existed, and now thanks to passionate individuals like Marina and Shiyin, life is changing for many.
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