Step Up Ireland’s Eric Lambe talks to Barry Walsh about empowering adults with disabilities to become entrepreneurs.

Describe Step Up Ireland, why did you start the business?

Step Up Ireland is a social enterprise that empowers adults with disabilities to become entrepreneurs. We want to provide business courses that are accessible and tailored to the needs of each person decided by them. How Step Up Ireland got started was in 2018 when I was working with an individual with a disability who had a passion and was interested in setting up a business.

“If I want to start a business tomorrow I can and there are supports out there for me, but adults with disabilities face many barriers often barriers that many people would not consider”

The barriers that this person faced straight away for having a dream of starting a business was shocking. I just felt that it was so wrong and started to see if there were any organisations in Ireland supporting entrepreneurship for persons with disabilities. I did not find anything in Ireland that provides accessible training and supports for persons with disabilities. So, I felt if it’s not there, why not start it and we are still working hard to make sure that everyone has a chance to follow their dreams.

What is your background, how did it inspire you to start Step-up Ireland?

My background is working in the social care sector. I have been working with adults with disabilities for over five years and previously was working in counselling and support services. I have always had a very strong sense of social justice and feel when something is not right that you need to call it out. What inspired me to start Step Up is simply equality.

“I was told many times to not re-create the wheel as it was too hard. But the wheel didn’t exist in Ireland for disabled entrepreneurs, so I knew I had a very difficult road ahead”

If I want to start a business tomorrow I can and there are supports out there for me, but adults with disabilities face many barriers often barriers that many people would not consider. It is time that they are given business supports that are tailored to their needs. Accessibility is not just a nice word but needs to be followed through with real tailored supports based on the opinions of the individuals that need them.

How long did it take you to get from having the idea of starting the business to launching it?

I had the idea in late 2018 and was began looking into it in early January 2019. Now I had absolutely no clue how to achieve it. But just like fate I saw an advertisement from social entrepreneurs Ireland saying ‘Don’t let a good idea go to waste’

I thought about that for a good week and thought ‘Why not’ So I applied and was accepted to pitch to a panel for a place on the Social Entrepreneurs Academy Programme bootcamp. Out of 300 application Step Up Ireland was accepted on to the academy programme 2019. This was a game changer for me and Step Up. The academy helped me to take my idea and begin to plan the steps needed to make it a viable business. Throughout the Academy the training, mentorship and peer support from other social entrepreneurs really helped me to hone my idea.

What were some of the major hurdles you had to overcome on that journey?

There were many struggles on the way. Some were internal and some were external. Internally I had a huge lack of confidence in my abilities. I was at the time suffering from imposter syndrome and I did not know it. I felt trying to affect such large change was going to be way too much. I was told many times to not re-create the wheel as it was too hard. But the wheel didn’t exist in Ireland for disabled entrepreneurs, so I knew I had a very difficult road ahead.

“I had to plan every aspect of my life out including rest. I used different techniques like mind mapping, Eisenhower method and an old-fashioned diary”

Externally it seemed that everyone thought that Step Up was a great idea. But there is so much more to an organisation than a good mission. You need to create a business from scratch and that involved every aspect of the business. We have had many times when we thought ‘This is the big break’ and it turned out to not work out. Looking back, it was very difficult. But you develop a thicker skin and you continue to take the feedback and apply it to the solution.  

How do you juggle having a full-time job and running Step Up Ireland?

That is a work in progress. Working full time as a social care worker and full-time founder/CEO has not been easy. Time, energy, and rest are very real, and I found from very early on that I had to be very conscious of that. I became something that I never thought I would be, a planner. I had to plan every aspect of my life out including rest. I used different techniques like mind mapping, Eisenhower method and an old-fashioned diary.

But I also learned that I needed to set goals that are achievable and that I needed some self-compassion when they were sometimes not achieved. But one thing that really helped to push Step Up Ireland forward and helped with planning is my team. I have a fantastic team working with me since early this year, they believe in the mission and bring so many different skills sets to organisation. This has really helped to move us forward.

One of your early successes is being on the Social Entrepreneurs Academy Programme? How did you find the programme, what are some of the biggest learnings you came away from the program?

Yes, the Academy programme was a game changer. It really gave me the confidence to pursue my idea. They believed that this idea was good and that confirmed in me my own belief. The training, support, and community I got from the Academy programme was inspiring.

“Many people are already isolated and excluded before they even get in the door. This is what needs to change”

Being in a room with fellow social entrepreneurs looking to make the world a better place. It just doesn’t get more inspiring than that. I learned so much from fellow academy participants one of the most important lessons I learned was that people affect change. Every conversation, every networking event and every coffee could be the conversation that will drive your business forward. Many of the best opportunities and wins we have had have come from simple conversations over coffee.

The Coronavirus has had a massive effect on Irish business, how has the pandemic effected Step Up Ireland? Has there been any benefits from it in the last six months?

There is no doubt it has affected everyone; Step Up Ireland had originally planned to do face to face workshops. But given the pandemic we have pivoted our business and we are now looking to do our workshops online. We have also moved all our meeting and events online. That was a challenge, but unfortunately change is inevitable in life and as horrible as Covid-19 is, we tried our best to use this time to reflect on our organisation, our mission, and our solution. So, we have found some positives amongst the very many negatives.

In your view what are some of the biggest barriers in people with disabilities starting businesses in Ireland? What changes would you make to make it easier for this group?

I will always say that I am not the best person to ask this as I do not face these barriers daily. But from speaking to many people, they feel the biggest barriers are attitudinal barriers and accessibility barriers. Attitudinal barriers are a broad barrier, but it effectively means that we have this perception that persons with disabilities cannot achieve the same things as the general population.

“What’s exciting in the start-up space is that there are so many organisations that are really going to affect change in Ireland and they are not going to let this pandemic hold them back”

This manifest’s in so many ways and can be seen and felt in every aspect of a person’s life. Accessibility barriers are also so broad and can encompass inaccessible transport, buildings, pathways, language, education, documents, and many inaccessible systems.

One conversation I had with someone about this very area really sticks in my mind. I was told ‘All business courses are open to people with disabilities. The response I gave was that ‘some individuals may not have access to a computer, they many not be able to download the application form, some are unable to read the document for many reasons, some cannot access an appointment for business supports due to transport or the building itself’. Many people are already isolated and excluded before they even get in the door. This is what needs to change.

Conversely what are some of the biggest misconceptions from people with disabilities who are thinking about starting their own business?

The biggest misconception is that they won’t be able to run a successful business. The reality is that there are already entrepreneurs with a disability running businesses. But they are doing so in adversity. There is a massive fear around supporting persons with disabilities to become entrepreneurs. But this fear is causing real harm to the hopes and dreams of many budding entrepreneurs out there that just need a chance and some tailored support.

What promotional activities have you been able to do? Do you have any up coming events that are planned?

We are currently offering webinars looking at different areas of business. Right now, we want to build a network of entrepreneurs. In August we ran an event looking at the welfare barrier to starting a business and the end November we are holding a networking event with a theme of ‘Marketing yourself online’ We want any entrepreneurs or anyone interested in this field to come along and share ideas and make connections. Because you never know when an idea for a business could strike.

Who are your biggest inspirations in the diversity and inclusion start-up space in Ireland?

That is a hard question but there are so many start up’s really looking at inclusion in so many areas in Ireland. Dignity partnerships, who are looking to support refugees into entrepreneurship are fantastic. BacktoWorkConnect are providing a much-needed support to many individuals who are out of the workforce. Also, DiverseIn are a great organisation looking to really bring change in diversity and Inclusion and The Together Academy are also a fantastic organisation looking to really change people’s lives.  But what’s exciting in the start-up space is that there are so many organisations that are really going to affect change in Ireland and they are not going to let this pandemic hold them back and neither is Step Up Ireland.

Interview by Barry Walsh

Published: 29 October, 2020

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