Early onset Parkinson's disease cost Bill Evans his job in a placement agency and complicated efforts to grow Current Staffing, his basement-based startup. Then a cold call to Comcast landed the first of several blue-chip clients eager to work with a company whose founder is disabled. Here Evans talks about his lucky break, strategies for working around his Parkinson's, and plans to help others with disabilities find employment. --As told to Leigh Buchanan
In 2006, I was working for a staffing business in Connecticut when my hands started to shake. The doctors told me I had familial tremors--a common, benign movement disorder--and put me on medication. The medication caused depression. It slowed me down and interfered with my work.
Two years later, I learned I had been misdiagnosed. It turned out I have Parkinson's disease, which is very unusual in someone as young as 40. I stopped the wrong treatment and started the right one. The depression and slowness went away. But by that time, the damage to my career was done. The economy had crashed. For years, I'd been underperforming at my job. I found myself unemployed.
At my old job, I'd done work for the Pentagon. One of my contacts there had moved to a company in New York. One day, he called me and asked for help with some tough-to-fill tech positions. I found three great people in four weeks. When it came time to pay me, he asked, "What is your corporate tax ID number?" I said, "My what?" That is how my business started.
At first, I worked out of my basement, targeting companies that publicly state they make accommodations for people with disabilities. I landed a few clients but was barely making ends meet. If my son, who was a fussy eater, didn't want to eat what we'd bought with the week's budget, he didn't eat. No one should have to see that.
In early 2014, I cold-called Comcast and got L. Jay Burks, their manager of supplier diversity. The timing was perfect: Jay was scheduled to become the chairperson of the supply chain track for a nonprofit dedicated to disability inclusion. He wanted to prove that a company headed by someone with a disability could compete. Jay said, "Bill, you have been doing this for 20 years. You have convinced me you know what you're doing. I'm going to change your life. I am going to make you a tier one vendor for Comcast."
If you're a supplier for Comcast, other companies want to work with you. On the strength of that account, I've signed up The Hartford, Exxon Mobil, Center Point Energy, and Bed Bath & Beyond. Last year, I moved out of the basement and into an office.
People with disabilities represent a huge, underutilized pool of talent. So in addition to our specialty in IT staffing, we also help place members of that population. Sometimes I'll assist people even if they're not going to work for one of our clients. For example, I recently persuaded Amazon to remove the timing element from an online test to accommodate a job candidate who has PTSD and finds countdowns stressful.
I'm working on a spinoff business called Operation Able Inclusion that will put people with disabilities and their caretakers to work in call centers. Research shows companies can reduce the normal call center attrition rate by hiring such candidates and letting them work remotely with appropriate accommodation. The business plan won Microsoft's inaugural Infinite Perspective pitch competition. I am also talking to several Fortune 500 companies about building the first help desk where people with disabilities can call and get someone with the same disability to answer disability-related questions.
About half of Current Staffing's own employees have disabilities of some kind. I personally manage my Parkinson's by scheduling meetings for when I take my medication, which minimizes the shaking. I have an assistant, and there are several inexpensive tools that help me work. The speech-recognition software Dragon Naturally Speaking is phenomenal.
I'm a fifth-degree black belt and teach karate here in Southbury, Connecticut. Those lessons helped us survive financially when we were struggling. Now, there's new research showing that exercise can slow the effects of Parkinson's. So the fact I was forced to keep teaching is actually what made it possible for me to work. It's been a blessing in disguise.
When I call people, I have a standard line. I say, "I have Parkinson's disease. That makes it difficult for me to type and tie my shoes. On a positive note it is not painful, and it does not kill you early. Also, the shaking helps me keep my weight under control." That gets a laugh. I have just become a human being to the person I'm speaking to. I am no longer just a salesperson. And that is a big leap forward in the sales world.