Only 3 out of 10 individuals with disabilities are employed. Recognizing this problem, Synergies Work empowers people with disabilities by helping them build sustainable businesses. Jordan Levin’s guest in this episode is Aarti Sahgal, the Founder of Synergies Work. Everybody has a talent and a gift to offer to the world. When we work together to make a positive impact, we fill the world with love and respect. Tune in and learn how you can help make the world a better place for everyone!
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Building Sustainable Businesses For Individuals With Disabilities With Aarti Sahgal
I have Aarti with us. This is a wonderful woman who has taken it upon herself to create a business accelerator that works with people with disabilities and I am very fortunate to meet you because I feel that they are a lot synergies literally at work, which is the name of your company, Synergies Work. I wanted to get the messages and into what is it you do and why it’s so successful. Aarti, thank you for being here. It’s an honor to have you.
Thank you so much, Jordan, for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.
What I want to do while we start here, more power to what you do. I love your three principles, love, equity and respect. Let’s tell the readers why you go by and how you started Synergies Work.
I started Synergies Work some years back only because I was frustrated by the limited employment opportunities for folks with disabilities. The reason why I started and the reason why I work in the disability sector is that I have skin in the game. I have a young son who’s a young adult with Down syndrome and that’s the reason I pivoted my career to start working in this sector. I spent many years working with the state government as a consultant on building inclusive workforce policies and grassroots activities on building inclusive workplaces and communities. Years back, my oldest son quit his job and decided to do a startup. It was an a-ha moment for me because I realized that he has that choice, the choice of deciding what he wants to do and can do. That was probably taken away for many folks with disabilities because they have at least the support that we have and then the resources that folks with disabilities get are put in a box many times.
It was my way to find out that entrepreneurship, self-employment, which is a core value of our country and the backbone of the US economy and which offers flexibility and accommodations and so many opportunities suitable for everybody but also for folks with disabilities, is yet not in the choice bracket for employment. We are still stuck at 3 out of 10 folks with people with disabilities are employed. That number has remained stagnant for many years. That irks me thinking about that. If that number has not changed in many years, there is a need to rethink what are we doing and what can we do to change that number? Hence, the reason why I started Synergies Work as the name best suggests that I do believe that always working collectively and collaboratively is better than working alone.
I also believe that there are two worlds, unfortunately, and sadly that exist. One world for folks with disabilities and one for the rest of the community. In one world, you can fail, succeed and still be validated and said that you have tried and therefore, you are seen in a positive light. In the other world, the world of folks with disabilities, you are measured on every benchmark and if you fail then you are labeled as not successful. Therefore, how do we change that mindset? How do we connect the two worlds together where everybody can flourish? That’s what we try to do with Synergies Work through this business accelerator program.
I appreciate your analysis and philosophy of that because obviously, I can relate to that and when you talk about the two different categories without calling them categories but it’s true. I like your definition of entrepreneurship, where you are allowed to have that fluctuation when you’re with disabilities. I understand it because when I was born, I was given a specific label of I’m deaf. This is as far as I’m going to go but just like you, my parents also saw that that’s not an option. What can we do to make your son or myself part of the world and be able to be successful in their own way? We are all our own unique individuals. I got to tell you, you and your husband did a phenomenal job with your son to be able to allow him to have those opportunities. The fact that you saw that and you did not accept no, that’s a part of it.
Thank you, Jordan. I think that your case also, the opportunities that given to you were not what was offered to you by society but by the mindset of the family and your parents who raised the bar, who did not judge you by low expectations. It is what I call the soft bigotry of low expectations. It’s how we judge folks many a time who have been labeled in our communities. Therefore, breaking that label is important, redefining labels as I call it.
Working in collaboration is better than working alone.
Breaking down those barriers and there are a lot of people who are in a category of having those barriers but people need to understand that you need to be able to ask questions, look for support and I fear that a lot of people don’t have. They want to take the easy way out and they don’t want to work hard when you have to work hard. This step is how to be what I call to be patient and just keep plucking away what you’re trying to accomplish and eventually, you should be able to get there.
It also requires us to look at ourselves and look at others from the point of view or through the lens of talent. At Synergies Work, I personally believe that everybody has a talent and a gift to offer to the world. We define it as a gift of hands, that you create something with your hands or you can have a gift of heart or head. When we look at people who are talented and gifted then that’s where we are able to then tap into those talents, enable them to spread their wings and expand their vision of what is positive and possible for them.
I love that because positivity breeds positivity. When you are able to give with your heart and people recognize that, that is what I call and should you call it the same thing, being fulfilled and that’s what everybody is always looking for. Fulfillment is pretty sure how to find and truly understand what does fulfillment really means. A lot of us have disabilities but do not have disabilities, have a hard time understanding what that is. To me, I’ve been searching in that category. I’ve always had fulfillment but there’s always a greater sense of fulfillment when you reach a certain point when you want to be able to help others even more than you were before and I believe that’s what you’ve been doing in the last couple of years. I’m assuming that you have found fulfillment in doing this.
When you’re able to combine passion with purpose, that’s when you’re able to find your fulfillment, as you say. You just bring the two things together, normally what we call finding the true purpose in your life. You’re creating, using your talent, providing some goods and services that the community needs, getting paid for it and that you are also doing the greater good to the community. If we can combine all four, that becomes your true purpose in life and it’s a very difficult thing. All of us need to identify and find out what our purpose in life is and work towards that. If we can create a business impact through it so much better.
That brings me to one of my questions. I’m thinking about this. You have all these experiences previously when you had marketing in business and all of that stuff we talked about, working for the government and all of that. How do you think your previous experiences played right into Synergies Work?
I’ve always worked for the first fourteen years of my life in the corporate sector. I was in advertising and marketing. I started management and worked there so my life changed only when my youngest son was born and that’s when life pivoted. Angad, my youngest son, was born in India and we were in India at that time. There weren’t any special ed services or early intervention programs available to us at that time. We were told, at his birth, that Angad would be institutionalized and that was something that I was not ready to accept. My husband and I made a promise that we would provide him with the same opportunities that we would, our oldest son. As luck would let things happen, we got transferred from India to the United States when Angad was only four years old with Coca-Cola. My husband works with Coca-Cola and he came here to Atlanta with his job.
We were given a lot of support and was given a lot of reading material on the IDA and what the school system looks like. I must have read everything from back to cover to back, everything. I had found that the reality was different from what was written in the books and what the law says happens in the least restrictive environment. It was not as inclusive as I had thought it would be. He was put into a special class and he was not being co-taught as I’d hoped for him to be co-taught. We had to move houses to move into a school district that would allow him to go to his neighborhood school and not bus him to a faraway school, which was for the special children with his diagnosis. Thankfully, he got all the services that we were hoping to get in the elementary school, only to find that in middle school, everything changed. We had to rework and re-look at providing him services and we had to move him from the public school to the private school at that time.
I started my work in the private sector here to understand what the disability world looks like. I started working with a nonprofit here as a diversity coordinator. Within a couple of years, I realized that there was a lot of work that required to be done in this field. I became a consultant to the state government and spent the next many years working at the grassroots level, just trying to support families and individuals like mine. How can we build an inclusive world for everybody?
That’s very interesting being in that field but at the same time, you’re trying to take care of your son to make sure he got the opportunities so those experiences literally played right into the whole new venture you’ve been doing for the last couple of years.
It is why, Jordan, what I call, I have the skin in the game.
That’s how people become successful if they learn from the previous experience and they find that niche that you can just make sense and you can succeed with it and then it becomes a passion. It becomes a true passion with fulfillment and that, I think, is a very powerful thing. I have seen it with you but I’ve seen it with myself and the mindset of never giving up. Keep pushing away with it.
You know that trite statement you say, the glass half full or half empty.
Having said all of this, we’ll talk about many different things here. Who or what inspires you to keep going every day?
I would say it’s my son, Angad. He has opened our world for us in many ways. He just inspires us to go ahead and do it. I look at him and we learn from him every day and I do mean it in many senses because he’s the most loving person in our lives who embraces new opportunities. He embraces new people. He’s always willing to try something new and different. At the same time, he is the most competitive person I know. Give him a challenge and he’ll go for it. Everything has to be a challenge in our house, right from who gets ready first to who cleans up afterward. He’s a competitive guy who will not give up at any time. He became a black belt and it took him eight years to be a black belt in karate but he did not give up. That’s persistence.
That’s a huge accomplishment. I’ve never done that. I’ve never done karate before but I’m going to try because that is pretty good for the mental and physical aspects. It’s one of my next. I love a good challenge and that’s what keeps me going. It’s trying to challenge myself. How can I do something about it? To get coaching on who or what. Somebody asked me this. Who inspires me? I thought about it and I said, “I inspire myself because I’m my own unique individual and I’m not out there to impress anybody. I’m out there to impress myself and allow myself to get to where I want to go. That’s what’s been keeping me, allowing me to continue to push forward considering the couple of disabilities that I have, not just my hearing but I happen to have ADHD. I’ve got a little bit of that. The challenge of overcoming that and pushing forward, I can completely relate to. At what point did you realize that there was no stopping you into what you were able to accomplish? We’ve talked about multiple different things. How do you define, “I got this. I know exactly what I have to do to be able to keep going.”
I still don’t know that I’ve got it all. I’m still working at it. I’ll be honest with you on that but it is every day when we go out and somebody gives us feedback, “This has made a difference.” That’s what makes me get up in the morning and say, “This is what I’m doing it makes me happy.” It’s these small stories of impact that we are making in each individual’s life that resonates and that makes me do what I do. Do I have it all right? I don’t know. I don’t think so. There is a lot more that we need to do but whatever feedback I get, that’s the fuel for me to go on.
We are starting the i2i accelerator program and we have learned over the process. Certain things have remained constant in the program and that constant is that it is we invite a lot of business leaders from the CEO of Coca-Cola to all the speakers of our program. They are very experienced and valuable members of the business community who come in and lead these sessions for our cohort. From that is an eight-week program followed by every monthly or bi-monthly session to help individuals execute that plan. Further, close to two years of the accelerator program, that helps them maintain and come back and use the peer community that they had been part of and to create their networks and use us as a resource to build sustainability in that business. We provide them with impact grants so that they can use those micro-grants to have seed capital or as growth capital for their businesses and then use us as networks.
People that they are meeting use us as a conduit to increase their networks, expand, grow and flourish. All of this is at no cost to the participants that we provide. We see our role as startup catalyst and chemistry. If I have it right from my school days, a catalyst is that ingredient that burns when it brings two things together and it burns itself out. In my ideal world, there should not be a place for Synergies Work existing. If we succeed in doing this then there is no role for Synergies Work. That’s what we do.
Everybody has a talent and a gift to offer to the world.
I love the detail and simplicity of what you described because I’m thinking in my head, “I would have loved when I first started to be able to have the resources to allow people with disabilities to be able to explore, have those options and the support system.” It’s phenomenal. When I think about my own experience of the businesses that I’ve done through the years, a lot of stuff, I was on my own. I did my own research and figured everything out on my own. I had some support system from my family and friends and all that but I didn’t have a lot on the outside and that’s a wonderful business model to be able to do. I’m hoping that I can help with that a little bit, too. We can talk about that further and I think that’s a very unique perspective that I love to be able to experience beyond what we already have.
Thank you so much and we’d love to be able to be part of that programming.
Having set out there, just busy. You’ve got a lot of things going on. How do you stay sane? How do you decompress? How do you unwind?
I guess I unwind by taking long walks outside. Whenever things get too overwhelming and I get too overwhelmed with things, I need to be out in nature. In 2020, it was tough getting out. I must have explored every corner of my house from the back porch to the front porch, to the driveway and to every other end. I have sat down and worked under a big tree but sometimes just being out helps me. The fresh air and walking outside helps a lot.
That’s a very important thing and I have noted that every successful person has some form of an unwind program, if you will. Yours is going out for a walk. Mine is going to work out or go on the boat. Not even thinking about things you usually do to decompress. That’s important for us to check out a little bit before we check back in and understand how important that is. My last question is most importantly, what brings you joy? What makes you happy?
I think my work brings me immense joy. It is a very porous line between my personal life and my work life. They’re almost together so my work gives me immense joy. I am knocking on wood to say that I’m one of the few people who just enjoy my work.
Small stories of the impact we make fuel us to go on.
You have to be grateful for what you’re doing for you to be able to stay that you truly, really enjoy. It’s not even work for you because it’s a part of your life and you made that choice to do that. In order to be successful, you’ve had to make sure that you wake up every day and knowing that it brings you joy and that’s what keeps you going.
That’s true. Thank you.
This has been great. I’d like to let the readers know how they can get a hold of you and all the awesome things that you do.
You can reach me through the Synergies Work website, which is SynergiesWork.org or follow me on LinkedIn. You can contact me through that. We also are on Facebook and on Instagram but that’s the best way to reach out to me or send me an email at [email protected].
Thank you so much for being here. I look forward to our continued discussions.
Thank you so much, Jordan, for inviting me. I truly appreciated our conversation.
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About Aarti Sahgal
Aarti is the founder of Synergies Work, a nonprofit that enables people with disabilities to build sustainable businesses. Synergies Work is the only 2-year business accelerator in the U.S. (world?) that provides learning labs, individual coaching, and impact grants to entrepreneurs with disabilities at zero cost to them.
Synergies Work is a personal mission that stems from the life experiences of Aarti. Her younger son, Angad has Down syndrome and she has always challenged the soft bigotry of low expectations that excludes people with disabilities from living their true potential.
Aarti has worked for many years, as a consultant to the state government, working with businesses, individuals with diverse abilities and ethnic community-based organizations to build integrated and inclusive communities.
In her previous avatar, she worked for 14 years in advertising & marketing. She has a Master’s in Business Management from one of the top management schools in Mumbai, India.