Q&A with Dana Marlowe
As the founder of Accessibility Partners, Dana Marlowe is a leading force in her disability and accessibility advocacy IT consulting firm. Dana Marlowe directs a team of skilled accessibility engineers with and without disabilities. Her firm focuses on the removal of extraneous barriers in technology, with an ultimate corporate goal to make opportunities available for every individual using technology. Accessibility Partners boasts a roster of established clients spanning from Federal Agencies, Fortune 500 businesses, retail organizations, educational institutions, and non-profits to help them test, consult, and train on accessible IT products.
Can you tell our readers about your background?
Wouldn’t you know it, but my first involvement in the digital space was when I was having a problem with a computer. Amidst my frustration, I was still excited to be in a space so focused on improving technology and making devices better for users. So, on Tuesday, a fifteen years ago I walked into a random computer store to seek help on a computer problem that needed to be fixed.
By chance, I happened to witness customers and staff using sign language in the store (cue the proverbial “aha” light bulb above my head). I immediately inquired and discovered that they also sold accessible IT products to the government to help employees with disabilities.
I soon recognized an opportunity to merge my two passions — disability advocacy and technology. Therefore, immediately I knew what I had to do. A week later, I went to pick up my computer from that store. I arrived in a business suit with my resume firmly planted in my hand. As I was later told, I sold myself to the owners. I was ecstatic to receive an offer.
Flash forward to 15 years later, and now I’m the principal partner of a company that helps make technology accessible for people with disabilities. We empower those with disabilities to gain access and communicate in the digital space when previous barriers may have hindered usage.
What inspired you to start your business?
When I was seven, I fondly remember an encounter with a friend at summer camp who was Deaf. I so badly wanted to strike up a conversation with my new friend but was unable to do so. Even as a young camper, I felt the urge that I should be able to communicate with everyone. I took classes through a local community college in sign language to springboard that communication.
I jumped from there to attending a technical university with a huge Deaf population. Majoring in communications made me realize the importance of technology in all facets of human interaction.
Where is your business based?
We are based in Washington, DC but everyone in the office works remotely. We have offices spanning the country, from Nebraska to Pennsylvania, Florida and Connecticut, Ohio and Indiana, and others.
How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?
As a small company starting off in the rough economy of 2009, I recognized that our biggest investment had to come from within the human capital. I knew our employees beyond the partners had to get behind the concept that the compensation might be small in the beginning. The long-term investment came from disability advocacy. It was a risk worth taking. Accessibility Partners bought in with the intent to make the world and its technology a more accessible place.
As our success great, we shared our on-boarding plan of telework, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), hiring staff with disabilities, and advocacy with the companies we were working within an attempt to encourage them to do the same in their workforces.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?
At Accessibility Partners, we like to practice what we preach. That comes in the way of accessible social media. We factor in how a user with disabilities would see our posts. Our communications staff will caption or provide a transcript for any audio or video we share. We also provide captions and alternative text for any image shared. Marketing is only as good as it is by the people who can read it. Accessibility Partners uses mainstream platforms, but puts accessible coding into our website and anytime we publish anything.
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
We opened our doors, relatively, in the rough economy of 2009, when most small businesses were encouraged not to begin. I knew that we had to make some smart money choices if we wanted the company to take off.
Step one was operating on an agreed-upon telework model. This was non-negotiable. Our employees are spread across the country. Naturally, communication was the highest priority. Then, I proposed the idea of BYOD—Bring Your Own Device. That put the geographic and financial limitations to a halt as our staff picked the most accessible technology choices for them. We saved a lot of time and money not standardizing, and we empowered our workers with disabilities from the get-go.
How do you stay focused?
I like to stay grounded by mentally staying present in the here and now. But it’s not just on the now, I strive to be forward thinking in my focus. One question that always shapes my next thought is: “What will folks be talking about next year as it relates to disabilities and technology?”
On another level, I hone in on our team’s successes and look for future ones. The internal monologue is always going, but sometimes I need a burst of energy. Personally, I try to stay focused when working by rocking out to my Indie music.
How do you differentiate your business from the competition?
Without a doubt, our customer service. We always have our finger on the pulse of each project, and try to understand our company’s corporate culture. Each client engagement is personalized, and I try to help them find the unique way accessibility fits into their company’s practice. Even after we’re done, I love to reach back out.
What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?
Word of mouth is very strong for marketing my accessibility consulting firm. We attend a variety of conferences and present on numerous topics about accessibility, disability employment, and similar themes. We use a tailored web advertising campaign, including Google Adwords. On a person-to-person basis, we hand out business cards and marketing materials. In order to make sure our promotional materials are in the best format for everyone, we made sure we took some extra steps. First, we emboss all of our paper in Braille with our website and telephone number. On the back of our card, we provide our contact information in larger font for those with low vision. In addition, we’ve made sure that our cards have good color contrast and clear font.
What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?
I value my strong social support network now but realize just how necessary they help you through the stress of tough times in a business. It’s easy to talk to friends about your personal life, but business is an interesting grey area. I wish I had taken advantage of them when I started Accessibility Partners. Diverse advice is so valuable with a start-up, and a varied set of insight could have saved me weeks of stress if I just had another perspective.
What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?
I found that the book “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath really helped me with my idea formation and making process. It helped me break down ideas to their core, or simplicity as they call it. It is a realistic book that offers sound advice-anyone can benefit from it. I jump around from blog-to-blog, so I could pick a favorite, but my favorite app is Slack. It keeps me accountable and informed, and works really well for remote purposes. At Accessibility Partners, we also use Skype for tandem testing with screen share, and their instant messaging interface is always more accessible than others.
What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?
Surprisingly, the one tool I use every day isn’t a piece of software but a standard pad of paper. I doodle on this every time an idea springs into my head. There is something comforting about putting an idea onto something tangible-like it is already real and possible.
Who is your business role model? Why?
I couldn’t be more inspired by Frederique Irwin. She is the creator of Her Corner, a nationwide women’s business accelerator incubator of dedicated space and advice for female business owners. She has two values that I try to emulate: she is supportive, but she also holds others accountable. She’ll listen to your business struggles and empathize, but give actionable advice. And you better follow-up on it. I like how she can see an issue and use it as a springboard for growth. She’s not stagnant either: Frederique has updated her business practice and life plan with the times.
Tina Tchen was the Assistant to President Barack Obama; Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama; and Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. She is my role model as well because of her tireless work to promote progressive values and put women at the forefront of a nationwide conversation where their voices hadn’t been heard as loudly before. She has promoted technology education for women and worked for workplace fairness with respect to wage parity.
My biggest personal inspirations are from various times throughout history, but they include Harriet Tubman, Madeline Albright, and J.K. Rowling. All powerful women who looked injustice and unfairness in the face, and made their mission their own.
What do you have planned for the next six months?
Our regulations have been recently updated in our industry. A lot of the disability laws of the past are being taken to the web, as e-commerce is replacing a lot of the brick and mortar stores. We are hoping to help our clients become familiar with these newly revised laws, and use them to their competitive advantage to be more inclusive with their product and service offerings. Accessibility Partners plans to accomplish this through auditing services led by our team with disabilities, as well as helping reshape our clients’ accessibility postures through better marketing language that shows inclusion in practice.
How can our readers connect with you?