Back in the early 1960s, my grandfather was a self-sufficient farmer in central South Dakota, until one summer, a storm came and wiped out his farm. He tried reaching out to banks for a loan to get him back on his feet and running again, but they denied him as they did not believe a Deaf person like him would be able to rebuild the farm and repay his loan. My father was there as a child to witness this scene, which burned itself into his memory.
That memory provided the impetus for my father’s founding of Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD) with the mission of building a future where no Deaf person would ever face a similar fate due to misconceptions about their abilities. I continue to carry on this mission and vision as CSD’s current CEO.
The Case for a Deaf-Centered Fund
If the case for supporting Deaf-owned or Deaf-run businesses was strong then, it is even stronger now. CSD, though its programs and services, is tackling issues in technology, communications, policy, education, and employment. In addition, CSD continues to advance bold and progressive ideas about Deaf people and their abilities, directly addressing the biggest barrier to Deaf people’s advancement: unnecessary biases and misconceptions that put Deaf people at a disadvantage. The need for this societal change is reflected in the employment gap, where 70 percent of the Deaf population are un- or under-employed.
Fortunately, we have identified Deaf-owned or Deaf-run businesses as an optimal point of focus for our efforts, simultaneously tackling both the issues of employment and societal attitudes about Deaf people.
Last year, I was proud to launch the CSD Social Venture Fund (CSD SVF), a social impact investment fund that is dedicated to supporting Deaf-owned businesses at any stage of growth. The CSD SVF is the culmination of all that we have done at CSD, except now, it is us putting our money where our mouths are, or rather, our hands—we are investing actual dollars into our own entrepreneurs and business owners with the purpose of growing a pool of empowered, self-actualized Deaf people and strengthening the economic viability of our collective, while creating positive social change.
Expanding the Bottom Line
The CSD SVF is more than about investing with the goal of ensuring businesses are able to survive and turn a profit. Our priority is building a stronger business ecosystem that values Deaf workers and business owners while reducing the stresses of competition and discrimination. We’ve experienced challenges as far as Deaf people’s lack of access to resources and information, particularly those in ASL, and are trying to bridge that gap by providing mentorships, trainings, and consultations through ASL in an attempt to level the playing field.
Most entrepreneurs have likely experienced some sort of bootstrapping phase where they take a risk going all-in and working full time to ensure the success of their young company, often without pay or financial support. We believe that bootstrapping means different things to Deaf people, as there are many barriers to fully taking advantage of support networks due to language differences and doubts about our abilities.
Our counter to this is direct investment in and ensuring that Deaf people are visible as successful leaders in various fields and markets, actively contributing to the economy and society. We want to tell their stories, knowing that other Deaf people will be inspired to pursue their own future success, and equally as important, that hearing people will be compelled to reevaluate their own thinking about Deaf people and work with us. While hopeful for people to come around, we’re moving forward and investing in our own people.
The CSD SVF currently supports three Deaf-owned businesses: reFort, an eco-focused startup looking to expand their reach in the Washington, D.C. area; DeafTax, which doubled their clientele through improved marketing; and Mozzeria, a San Francisco pizzeria looking to expand to new locations in the U.S. We are currently exploring our next series of investments and are excited about adding more Deaf businesses to our portfolio this year.
At the CSD SVF, it is clear that the stakes for us to ensure the success of Deaf-owned businesses are extremely high. The pain from when one of us loses is so acute, it is as if we all lose. Therefore, it’s on all of us to make sure that we support one another as best as we can, that we share information and resources. We want to be the place where it all comes together. These businesses each have a story to tell, and we want these to be stories of Deaf success.
Christopher Soukup is CEO of Communication Service for the Deaf, the world’s largest Deaf-led social impact organization. He also is an advisory committee member for Disability: IN’s Disability Equality Index; a board member of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf Development Foundation; and a graduate of Gallaudet University, where he served as student body president.