By Claire Chauvel
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017
What would happen if all businesses knew how to value and leverage all of society’s talents? Unparalleled progress. While people with disabilities represent 8.4% of those actively searching for jobs in France, the disability community has a 19% unemployment rate, or double the national average rate of unemployment in 2016. Globally, these numbers are even more disappointing.
Two inspiring French graduate students, Lea Hardouin and Laure d’Harcourt, are on a mission to address this issue. Lea and Laure met while volunteering with ABIIF, an organization that supports the disability community in and around Paris. Touched by their experience and the friendships they created with members of the ABIIF community, they started Premier Pas on the premise that difference is not an impediment to innovation; rather, difference creates value and is a source of innovation. For six months, Lea and Laure will interview business pioneers that have placed inclusion at the centre of their business models. By sharing conversations and research, they hope to connect inclusive businesses in Europe and Latin America with the public, making inclusion the norm.
Social Connectedness Fellow Eloise O’Carroll and I had the opportunity to sit down with Lea and Laure.
How did you two meet? And what inspired the mission behind Premier Pas?
Lea: “We became friends with them [the disability community ABIIF supports]. Some of them were young, starting to look for professional opportunities. We followed their stories and were struck by how difficult it was for them to find a job and their place in a company. With this in mind, we wanted to create an association to do reports and give a voice to this topic.”
Laure: “Through research, we noticed that many great projects across France successfully integrate the disability community in their structures. As students, we are the leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. So we want to promote that integrating disabled people can be a way to innovate and add value. We want this belief to be the status quo. We want to make the first steps, or Premier Pas.”
In 2005, France passed legislation stipulating that if a company has more than twenty employees, at least 6 percent of employees need to be from the disability community. However, Lea and Laure noticed that in practice 73% of companies choose to pay a penalty tax rather than enforce this law.
What is it like for the disability community to enter the workforce in France?
Lea: “In France we have a very rigid system when it comes to employment. For some it is a vicious cycle and for others a virtuous cycle. The studying trajectory is about ticking boxes: you must have attended a certain kind of university and have certain kinds of internships to gain access to the ‘best’ jobs. It’s not like in North America where they are more in the mindset of looking at you holistically and in terms of competencies. If you are not part of a certain track and do not have the right kind of diploma, it can be very difficult and discourages a lot of people. We need to create a more accommodating system. We want to start a conversation about why this is the case and what can be done to change these realities.”
So, through media, your aim is to promote the principle that the inclusion of the disability community boosts creativity and adds value. How did you establish Premier Pas and what advice do you have for budding social entrepreneurs?
Laure: “Yes, our aim is to show that including people with disabilities is a lever for innovation and success. It was quite hard to know how to go about this project. What were the steps? Do you find funds first? How do you communicate your project to the public? We took every step together and set goals. We were both doing internships while creating Premier Pas and very busy. There was so much to do from the logo to the communications packet but it was very stimulating because we knew our objective.”
Lea: “It was important to be very clear and specific. The first step was determining the message we wanted to convey. The second step was administrative, things like opening a bank account and registering the organization. We started to look for feedback from friends and family for constructive criticism. We also met with people, NGOs, and institutes working in this domain to gain an understanding of the legal context and aims of other actors.”
Laure: “Then, we looked for great projects in France and got in touch with them to know if they would be receptive to our idea. We started to raise funds around this time, too. We were calling and emailing a lot.”
Lea: “We have received funds from local community initiatives, l’Institut de France, and have a mentorship agreement with the Secrétaire d’État chargée des Personnes handicapées. We organized a Christmas concert and partnered with a theater group to raise funds and involve the public in the project.”
Laure: “The content that we will create will help inform a few projects the Secrétaire d’État chargée des Personnes handicapées is working on and shed light on the companies doing ‘good.’ At the moment, the government is following an agenda that is pushing inclusivity and so we share a vision.”
After discovering examples of solutions to success, Lea and Laure are meeting companies from all kinds of industries that puts inclusion at the heart of their businesses. One company is Ecodair, which recycles computer parts and then sells them for profit. Wanting the disability community to play an integral roll in his company, 80% of employees have disabilities. Furthermore, they have adapted the work environment to suite employees needs by namely reorganizing the workday to be more conducive for them. Dans le noir? is another example of a company they have already connected with. Managed by a blind entrepreneur, the restaurant group introduces diners to an in the dark dining experience.
How and why did the manager choose to structure the enterprise the way he did? What is the advantage of placing inclusivity and/or the disabled community at the core of a business plan?
Laure: “He did not want to build a company for people with disabilities. He had his project and noticed the disabled community had the right skill-set. He told us, ‘I choose them not because they are blind but because they are the best in serving in the darkness as they have excellent memory.’ He is promoting their competencies and creating unique experiences that engage all members of the community.”
Lea: “We are also meeting companies that create innovative products for the disabled community to become more integrated, which in fact ends up helping the entire population.”
Laure: “I do not know if you knew (I did not), TV remote controls were created for people with disabilities. Today, who does not use remote controls? Disabilities are anything but constraints. This logic that disability is an asset that helps everyone is a truism we want to promote.”
Lea: “People with disabilities are more creative. Their innovations and collaborations are useful for the whole population. Other examples are automatic doors and SMS. So, we will be doing this kind of work for three months in France and then we are going abroad to Germany, England, Colombia, and Ecuador.”
How do you hope to make Premier Pas impactful in the long-term?
Laure: “Our vision is to build a website and to work with organizations that will use the content we create to promote our message.”
Lea: “One of these organizations we are working with is New Cityzens, which is an associations that is promoting citizen-led initiatives. For them, we are creating specific videos on companies who are integrating people with disabilities in their structure.”
Laure: “New Cityzens is developing workshops about how you can engage in community on a number of topics. We are all working for an inclusive society. Our videos will be used during workshops to help people think and spur action. In the long-term, this is an example of our projects impact.”
Lea: “Media outlets we are working with include Journal des Grandes Ecoles, one of the main student-led media outlets in France. We are also trying to collaborate with and publish our work in the local press in each area we visit. We want people to know what is happening next to them and hopefully get involved.”
Lea and Laure have only just begun their journey so make sure to follow their encounters and developments. You can follow, email, and support Lea and Laure. They encourage any aspiring entrepreneur and social activist to start his/her own mission. If you want to follow suit, find, support, and report on your local companies that are leading the charge for inclusion. We wish Lea and Laure the best of luck!