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A lesson in becoming your own boss



Photo of Daniel Pilote

Becker muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that causes muscular degeneration, confines Daniel Pilote, to a motorized wheelchair. But that hasn’t stopped him from becoming what he’s dreamed of being since his youth – an entrepreneur.

As founder and president of three companies, Pilote says being his own boss is demanding, yet it affords him enough time to manage his daily challenges.

“It’s not easy having your own business. You need to allocate time for its development and autonomy, which depends on the disability of the leader,” says Pilote, who relies on adaptive technology.

Maureen Kelly, community programs manager for Toronto Business Development Centre (TBDC) assists entrepreneurs with disabilities. She says it’s attitude that propels her clients to success. “People who are entrepreneurs have a certain mind set. In order to go through all the paperwork required to apply for the program, they’re committed and focused.”

Running a company requires knowing how to combat failure in the pursuit of success, a concept not lost on Pilote. “It takes perseverance and patience to develop a project that initially may seem unclear,” says the entrepreneur.

A failed business venture in the early 90s motivated Pilote to join Mode d’emploi, an employment assistance service run by the Paraplegics’ Association of Quebec.

After Pilote completed a nine month training program in financial services, the Bank of Montreal (BMO) hired him as an intern in 1995. But five years later, mounting financial difficulty forced him to quit.

“At BMO I worked in a branch that arranged for me to deal with my disability. After many production problems and several ventures in various part-time positions and after discovering that with a house and two children the income was insufficient…I was forced to seek another alternative.”

In 1999 Pilote founded Télénation, an Internet advertising company. After its success he started his second company, Vision-Clip Inc., a placement agency for film actors. Pilote’s third business venture, Services Personalisées Philia Pro, also a nonprofit organization, hits much closer to home. It arranges services for people with disabilities.

Although there are sacrifices that go along with juggling three businesses, Pilote says managing his own companies affords him a freedom not easily attained in many work environments. “Difficulties arise for disabled employees and we have to meet several constraints when it comes to being productive, adapting the workplace and relating to other staff members. When you manage your own company, all of these things are easier to do.”

Pilote being your own boss is hard work, but acknowledges the support of others is key. “If I had not had the help I got, I do not think I would have held up so far,” says Pilote.

Steps to independence

Brian Aird, executive director of the Entrepreneurs with Disabilities Network (EDN), based in Nova Scotia, says individuals often put up roadblocks even before pursuing entrepreneurial dreams. “One of the biggest obstacles might be the fear of leaving the steady payments they’re receiving. Generally those amounts are really low, but they’re something they can count on.” What EDN offers is more than a stepping stone, says Aird. EDN allows aspiring entrepreneurs to flourish while encouraging outside business lenders to recognize the success of any entrepreneur, regardless of a disability, is based upon drive and an ability to market a viable business idea.

“We work with different lenders to help them understand that an entrepreneur with a disability is not an anomaly,” says Aird, adding some entrepreneurs in the program make over $150,000 annually.

Networks similar to EDN exist across Canada. Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD) in partners with Entrepreneurs with Disabilities (EDP), helps entrepreneurs to access a variety of business services, including mentoring, equipment upgrading resources and business loans to help kick start their entrepreneurial goals.

Susan Bater, provincial EDP coordinator for rural Manitoba, notices everyone from beginning to seasoned entrepreneurs use the support of programs like EDP. She explains EDP is geared towards a casual training approach, even offering services via video conferencing.

“There’s no classroom with intake, it’s open-ended and people come and go,” she says.

Last year the program gave out 18 loans, totaling over $662,000, to entrepreneurs in rural and northern Manitoba, something Bater calls more than a financial boost because it helps people to accomplish a lifelong dream.

“They can always get support from us whether or not they choose to get a loan or if they’ve started a business. (For many) it’s been their dream and now they’re fulfilling it.”

That’s good news for Daniel Pilote, who has more plans for the future.