There’s a certain irony in the phrase “climbing the corporate ladder.” It suggests everyone trying to grow their career is able-bodied. But the problem of removing barriers in the workplace extends beyond retiring clichéd phrases.
The latest StatsCan figures reveal nearly 4 million Canadians between the ages of 25 and 64 identify as having a disability, yet only 59 percent of them were employed. A joint report from MaRS and CIBC confirms that people living with disabilities are typically overlooked for career advancement opportunities. In fact, nearly a third of those polled experience a lack of career growth, while 75 percent say they’re overqualified for their position.
These staggering numbers inspired the creation of the MaRS and CIBC Inclusive Design Challenge: a series of four competitions designed to develop solutions to dismantle these employment barriers. The latest challenge focused on career advancement.
Skill Squirrel, a company that helps people of all abilities grow their careers, took home the grand prize. Its cloud-based community hub develops people’s skills through one-on-one career coaching and pairs them with employers, helping marginalized people find meaningful work, while ensuring companies are hiring the perfect candidate.
Here, Skill Squirrel founder Kathleen Webb talks about the biggest obstacles facing people living with disabilities and what it takes to create more inclusive opportunities.
What was your inspiration to launch Skill Squirrel?
As a serial entrepreneur, time and time again I saw the challenge of making timely and relevant connections with talented people. Throughout the interview process, I’d meet people living with disabilities who really wanted to play a productive role in society, but it was challenging for them. I want people to succeed in their preferred career. Everybody has something to offer. Everybody has skills. It’s just about making the right connections.
How does Skill Squirrel support people living with disabilities?
Current employment and training practices are too rigid to bend to the needs of people with employment challenges, whether it’s because of their level of academic achievement, physical disability or otherwise. We took an inclusive design approach because we believe if you design something to benefit one segment of society, it will benefit others as well.
What are the biggest obstacles facing job candidates who are living with disabilities?
The hiring process is geared toward employers as opposed to people applying to a job. It’s all about what the employer wants, not the other way around. So if all career opportunities are round holes and candidates are square pegs, it’s just not going to fit. Don’t forget — not all people are born with a disability. It could be physical limitations from an accident, or a mental health challenge like depression. Sometimes what works best for them is flexible work, and a typical 9 to 5 doesn’t fit those requirements. What Skill Squirrel is trying to do is give people the autonomy to manage their own time and promote themselves, whether that’s a side business, a period of transition until their next full-time opportunity, or a passion that turns into a career. We want to offer that level of flexibility.
What’s the biggest misconception employers have about people living with disabilities?
That they won’t be reliable, or that it will take too much time to train them, or that they won’t last long in a role.
What’s the most challenging part of scaling your company?
When I’m pitching Skill Squirrel, so many investors think people living with disabilities have no value, and that there’s no value in what we’re doing. They want to work with companies that are selling to other companies because those are the things that get funded. We have the mission of a non-profit organization, but we’re a company. We’re self funded, we’ve had to bootstrap and it wasn’t easy.
How did you come up with the name for the company?
It’s funny. I was struggling to think of a name for my business, and out of nowhere the concept of a squirrel crossed my mind. “Squirreling” away skills for when you need them most. During the logo design I chose purple, my favourite colour. By sheer coincidence, “purple squirrel” is a term used in the HR world for the elusive candidate — the one person that checks off every box an employer is looking for.
What does winning this challenge mean for your business?
Winning the challenge means so much for our business. We’re going to do a complete accessibility review to make sure our product is as accessible as possible, including making our career workshops sign-language friendly. We’re going to engage marketing support we couldn’t otherwise afford and bring awareness to what Skill Squirrel is doing.
What’s the most rewarding part about your job?
It’s my passion — it’s what I really care about. When you’re an entrepreneur you have no choice but to try. No matter what challenge you come across, you just have to find a way through it. There’s so many people on the poverty line who need help growing their career and to simply be given the chance at an opportunity. Everybody needs an opportunity. I just really want it to work and make a difference.
Learn more about Skill Squirrel and the runners-up in the CIBC and MaRS Inclusive Design Challenge: Career Advancement.
Photo credit: Skill Squirrel