Rich Donovan: Unleashing Different, Achieving Success

Rich Donovan is the founder and CEO of Return on Disability Group, a company dedicated to helping companies strategize how to engage with customers and employees with disabilities. He is one of the most influential and successful people with disability, and just published his first book, Unleash Different: Achieving Business Success Through Disability. He was featured in the Winners’ Circle of a past issue of The Edge, and this is an excerpt from that interview.

You were once told that you would never be a trader. You went on to do so for 10 years at Merrill Lynch, only to move on to bigger things in your career. What provided the motivation for you to endure and adapt after hearing something like that?

I’ve always set goals in my life independent of what anyone else believed or assumed about me. Those goals were supported by education, experience, and sometimes taking risks that were probably bigger than I should have taken. I’m a firm believer that anything is possible as long as you’re willing to commit the time and resources that it takes to achieve that thing. The reality is, when you have certain issues that others perceive as weakness, you have to strive to be better than everyone else, all the time. While that sounds difficult, all it takes is a certain level of talent and a relentless commitment to those objectives. Most people simply won’t make that kind of commitment. I did, and I continue to do so.

What inspired you to go into the business and finance sphere?

I enjoy complexity. Business, economics, and finance represent one of the most complex systems on Earth because it has 7 billion variables – people. It’s a nice combination of behavioural science, math, and creative design that tickles my brain in ways that other things don’t. I also like the concept of measurement of success. In business, you quickly know whether what you’re doing is working or not, and you can adjust to fix mistakes quickly based on those measurements. I am also fascinated by the concept of risk. It can be applied in almost any context, both to measure outcomes and to cause an outcome. Risk represents a very powerful driver of human beings, including how and why they do things. I think there’s still quite of bit of runway to squeeze an enormous amount of value out of our economy. This is driven by massive inefficiencies in how we allocate resources and it gives me a great deal of excitement for human growth in the next 25 years.


In 2008, you founded the Return on Disability Group. Can you describe how it can benefit a company? What inspired you to create it?

Companies are now sophisticated enough in disability markets to ask the question, “How do we attract and delight people with disabilities as customers and employees?” The Return on Disability Group answers that question for each of its clients. We show them specifically what works for other companies, build a unique strategy for them, and help them execute in the marketplace. Our goal is simple. We want to put products on shelves that delight people as customers and put talented people with disabilities to work. The ultimate goal is to act in ways that add value to shareholders by activating in disability markets. We know that’s the only way to change the behaviour of a profit-seeking company.

I was inspired by what I perceived as a glaring hole in the market. As Lime was successful on the talent side, I realized that there were specific things companies could do to grow revenue on the customer side. My initial research showed that people with disabilities represented a market the size of China – 1.3 billion people. After translating that large macro opportunity into a model for individual companies to grow value, it was clear that we could scale this to every company and government in the world.

With over 1.3 billion disabled people around the globe, why are some companies hesitant to appeal to or engage this market?

For over 40 years, the disability market has been dominated by charities using a “can’t do” image of people with disabilities to raise money. They use very effective marketing tools to create a “radioactive brand” of disability that still persists today. Leaders of companies are largely not aware of this market as a growth opportunity. They generally rely on their employees to uncover opportunities such as this. For a middle manager, highlighting disability as a market opportunity carries significant perceived risk. That’s a real human problem. It’s a human organizational problem. In addition, prior to the development of our model, there was not a set of metrics to build strategy and track progress that was directly connected to revenue and cost. Now we can be very specific with clients on what they need to do to achieve profitability by attracting and delighting people with disabilities.


What can companies do to be more accommodating? What are examples of companies that are accomplishing this?

The first thing to do is to stop using the word “accommodating.” Consumers prefer to be delighted – they’re more likely to part with their hard-earned dollars if they are delighted. People with disabilities want to be wooed. They want brands to seduce them. They want to feel respected as valued consumers that carry over $1 trillion in disposable income around the world. Just like every other consumer. To do this, great brands must follow a three-step path: 1) talk to your customer – understand what makes them tick relative to their disability functionality; 2) infuse design with these insights – this means going beyond one-offs into robust process development; and 3) execute in-store to enhance customer experience for both people with disabilities and the core consumer. This is not magic. Roughly 20 global corporations (mostly technology firms) are doing this today. The best in this field are firms such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft. They all deeply understand disability functionality and design their products and services to make them easier to use for everybody based on this functionality. They use messages that are customer-centric and focused on value-adds for people with disabilities.


Alex Correa | Staff Writer



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