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A Father's Cause Aids Disabled Entrepreneurs

One Florida man's efforts to establish a business network for persons with disabilities is expanding to a national level.
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Peter Schoemann, a practicing lawyer in Orlando, often works late nights, early mornings and weekends, but he's not just hunting down evidentiary support. Because his two sons are diagnosed as high-functioning autistic, Schoemann's been toiling away for the Advocacy Board for Persons with Disabilities. It was on this board that he formulated the idea to launch a chamber of commerce geared toward entrepreneurially-inclined people with disabilities.

"With my background, I thought I could help make a difference, certainly one that could be available to my children [when they're older]," he said.

Now two years in the making, Schoemann's Chamber of Commerce for Persons with Disabilities has provided a place where business owners and their direct caregivers can network. In March, it partnered with the Disney Entrepreneur Center, and relocated its offices to Disney's downtown-Orlando facility. The center also houses the Small Business Development Center and SCORE "Counselors to America's Small Business." But Schoemann doesn't want to settle for only a regional influence. He plans to take the Chamber to a national level, rolling out other offices by the end of the summer.

"I want the national organization to be the true umbrella for the local chambers so they can [compete] for the national sponsorships and national grants," Schoemann said.

He likened the expansion process to a business franchise, a method that would allow new chambers to replicate easily in different cities, following a template.

The other arm of the national organization would function like a typical chamber of commerce, allowing Schoemann and other leaders to seek legislative change in favor of disabled entrepreneurs.

But he knows he can't achieve it alone, which is why Schoemann is looking to partner with the Berkeley, Cali.-based Center for Independent Living and another organization with a similar mission out of Portland, Ore., the Differently-Abled Business Association.

"Working together we can accomplish a lot more a lot quicker," he said. "We're starting to see some success."

Right now Schoemann says the chamber's main program is to develop this simple system for the local level. The Central Florida Disability Chamber is the test site for the system, having already met with entrepreneurs to help them solve their business-launching problems. The CFDC will also network with other local chambers of commerce to promote the successes of the CFDC's entrepreneurs.

His success might also be reaching into higher education. Schoemann is in the beginning stages of negotiating a public-private partnership with the University of Central Florida's engineering program. Its students would be assigned the creation of a product to benefit disabled entrepreneurs, thereby helping Schoemann's cause in return for the CFDC's business services.

"The hope would be that a person with a disability with an idea to create technology has a much improved chance to create the technology and commercialize it," he said.

He's already established focus groups to discern what the entrepreneurs would like to see from the service and has seen interest for programs like the CFDC in Tampa, Denver and in some areas of New Jersey.




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