Case

Dana S. Marlowe & Accessibility Partners, LLC
From Exotic Entertainers to CEO: Stripping Down the Essentials of Entrepreneurship

Introduction

 How do you feel about taking your clothes off in front of other people? Maybe in the locker room it's acceptable, but could you slowly strip down to your bare assets and parade around? And if you did, how would you feel about yourself? It was with those questions in mind that Dana M. remembers working on her thesis entering the first of many strip bars with the goal to figure out how the audience and the entertainers perceived each other. Dana was curious about the lives and the meta-perceptional accuracy of exotic entertainers and the people who watch them. Not the typical research topic but she did what she always did; she took a creative and calculated risk. Was it risky research? Definitely. Boring? NO WAY!

For as long as she can remember, Dana's decisions have never been conservative, especially when she rode to work on a motorcycle and would go skydiving for happy hour. (She rates around an 80% risk taker on risk personality surveys, like www.Queendom.com). By leveraging her early relationships with teachers and family members, she recognized the value of forging her own creative path with guidance from her network of supporters. She parlayed this creativity and risk taking into different personal and professional pursuits. Sometimes she was successful, other times she chalked it up to learning experiences.

 Background

Part of Dana's childhood was spent in hospitals with her dying father. One day while enjoying the finite time they had left, a particularly poignant conversation occurred regarding taking risks and living life.

Dana's Dad: "How is your school project on Ancient Greek life?

Dana: It's a snoozer. I'll just draw something."

Dana's Dad: "Why do something boring? You have your whole life to do boring if you choose. You can decide to do a humdrum project like others, or you can do it differently. Spice it up a bit with creativity. Have fun. Don't be boring – leave that to the other kids. When you go home with mom tonight, do something different."

Once home, Dana rummaged through the basement. Her treasure hunt resulted in a complete Greek house replete with pottery, furniture, and dolls, leaving the pictographs for others. For years that conversation haunted her thoughts and guided her actions. No school project or childhood activity was immune to the "don't be boring" mantra. In college, for a visual communication project called "StereotOypes", Dana reversed stereotypical gender roles by the use of a dollhouse. She equipped Barbie with a tool belt and GI Joe sported an apron and gripped a frying pan.

Dana also studied Sign Language Interpreting as her first profession. Loving languages and people, this was an ideal fit getting to communicate with folks in another culture. And while she loved interpreting, one very important thing was lacking. Interpreting by definition is to pass on a stranger's thoughts and never your own, which bothered Dana. Interpreting lead Dana to the discovery of her true passion and future business endeavor, providing access for people who have disabilities.

In college, enter the senior thesis, and cue the strippers. She interviewed over 100 male and female exotic entertainers and strip club audience members and found out that perceptions and reality are not always what they seem. The topic was riveting water cooler talk for the staff and students alike. It was also a great icebreaker at parties and no one ever suspects Dana of having visited more strip clubs than a fraternity guy. She took a creative risk and learned about a socially deviant and maligned profession that breaks typical puritanical norms.

Professional issue

 

Dana was able to clearly define her goal: To make a comfortable living providing access to the 58 million people with disabilities (within US, according to 2000 Census) while using her own thoughts and creativity and having fun. The problem was this is not exactly a profession that is easy to come by and only a handful of positions exist.

 

It's great being in love with the area of disability rights and advocacy, but there were not many communication positions available at those related associations or organizations. It was a tough decision: follow one's passion (disability access) or focus on paying off one's student loans (marketing communication). She continued with the latter, since it paid the bills and had good benefits... but there was always something missing.

 

It was time to make something happen and take a risk. She witnessed her father dying young, and decided she wanted to make the most of life because as the cliché goes, you never know when you might get hit by that proverbial bus. So on some idle Tuesday, Dana walked into a computer store to fix her computer when she saw people using sign language. )Cue the "aha" lightbulb above her head.) After finding out they also sold products to the government to help employees with disabilities become more accessible she knew what she had to do. When she went to pickup the computer she was in a business suit, resume in hand, and sold herself right then and there to the owners to hire her. Finally, a position doing communications at an accessibility company, she was ecstatic.

 

After continuing there for a while, she wanted a larger challenge. She wanted to do things differently, make it her own, hybridize her passions and build it bigger. But how? She knew she didn't have all the tools in her tool kit yet, but she had a gut feeling that when she got there, she would know (check out entrepreneur's recipe in the Notes). For all her mission-oriented goals, sometimes it comes down to brass tacks. She lacked basic business math skills. She has outsourced her finance needs to a bookkeeper and CPA. But...she wonders if that was the right way to do things versus hiring others (see Appendix). So after years of trying to learn from different industries, she decided to work with a partner and start her own accessibility consulting firm. Again there was a challenge, the economy was in a terrible recession and the market was already had competition. By most standards this was not the best situation to start a fledgling business, but conventional wisdom normally originates in the conservative.

 

Confidence with accepting calculated risk is cumulative. It started small with a school project but building upon each educated risk, she decided to take a leap and opened the door to Accessibility Partners (www.AccessibilityPartners.com); their focus is to make technology accessible for people with disabilities. They are now one of the world's leading accessibility consulting firms providing Section 508 compliance (www.Section508.gov) and electronic and information technology accessibility solutions for clients in the public and private sectors. With her company, breaking down the accessibility barriers is a reality.

 

With 1 in 5 people in the US with a disability (www.AAPD.com), making technology accessible is essential. There is no doubt, our society is taking steps to become more accessible as evidenced by traditional physical accommodations such as Braille on restaurant menus, curb cuts in the street, and captioning on TV. However, building those "ramps" to the technology everyone utilizes daily is not quite there yet.

 

Personal issue

 

While clearly accustomed to working long hours, the world of entrepreneurship had been rough. Hard on Dana, tough on her supportive husband, and challenging for her son. "Owning my business has enlightened me to different aspects of daily corporate undertakings, from the rewarding to the mundane," Dana remarked. She continued, "It's not just closing the million dollar deals which can make my arm hair stand at attention, but bookkeeping and accounting. The lack of facility with business math has cost me even more hours I don't have left in the day." Traveling for a week at a time can be painful. It makes for some really long days into the wee hours of the morning to get everything done. And some days she can't get it all done, let alone shower or pick-up the dry-cleaning.

 

Dana's feeling of not enough balance is common enough. Her unrelenting push to be there for her son each day stems from her concern that you never know how much time you have left. "My dad passed away when I was twelve and was never able to walk me down the aisle," Dana said. She doesn't want to miss a moment with her family because of this, but the balance to keep all plates spinning simultaneously requires her to be an acrobat.

 

Wrap-Up

 

As Tim McMahon said, "Yes, risk taking is inherently failure-prone. Otherwise, it would be called sure-thing-taking." Dana's aware that with each recipe (see appendix for full recipe) for creative risk taking she follows, there's potential for failure. She knows she will keep taking risks and making mistakes because she doesn't just think outside the box, she dances wildly around the box and then wears the box as a hat.