Turning Problems Into Businesses With Jessica May

Today we are joined by a very special guest, Jessica May! Founder of Enabled Employment, mother and 2015 Businesswoman of the Year, in this extensive interview she shares with us her story about how she got started, challenges she overcame and what inspires her.

Hi Jessica! What you’re doing is very inspiring. Tell us a little bit about Enabled Employment.

Hey Mitch! Enabled Employment came about after my own experience as as a highly skilled person with a disability and not having many options available that would help me disclose that to my employer, or offer any flexibility. I had been working in the public service for over 10 years, I was in an executive position for six of those years and in the public service that is quite high up. I was doing really well with my career.

One of the reasons I was doing so well is because I have really high anxiety and I prefer to work rather than be anxious! I prefer to think about someone else’s problems rather than my own, so I became a workaholic. But when I had my daughter I ended up with a disorder called Postpartum Thyroiditis, which is where you end up with an overactive thyroid, meaning all the medication I had to control my anxiety just stopped working. I ended up just being completely anxious all the time, unable to cope with anything, so I decided I had to go back to work as soon as possible.

My doctor agreed but I could only go back three times a week, and so I had to tell them about my issue to justify my reduced hours. Even though I told them it hadn’t changed me and that I had it before, they started to make assumptions about what I could and couldn’t do, and basically decided that I couldn’t do anything. They stopped giving me work, stopped talking to me, pretty much excluded me entirely. 

So I thought to myself, I have seen this happen to many people before and I had always been told they were an ‘under performer’. I didn’t think I was an under performer, I had literally just won two Prime Minister’s awards for my work and I was doing really well, so I realised the real issue was the stigma behind having a ‘disability’. I began looking around for what there was for people that don’t need or want to be a on a disability pension, but who need to be able to tell their employer that they have a disability. There were some providers, but they were focused almost entirely on severely limited people who get offered entry level jobs. There are four and a half million people in Australia with disabilities, and I’m pretty sure most of us don’t want to do entry level jobs!


"There are four and a half million people in Australia with disabilities, and I’m pretty sure most of us don’t want to do entry level jobs"


I couldn’t find anything like it so we created an online employment agency that focuses on flexibility and disclosure up front. We don’t mind what disability people have, what we care about is what they need to be the best at their job. People are more than welcome to tell us about their issue but what we focus on is helping them thrive in a place suitable for them.

You recognised a clear problem. How did you translate that into a real business? Did your software background come into it?

Very much so, what I did for the government was pretty much work on things that had never been done before, meaning I worked on a lot of startups for the government. I really understood how they worked, and my background is in Organisational Change Management and Software Development. I had also recently been working on Medicare doing Super for the first time ever from start to finish, and that made a huge difference for small businesses. So for me it was very much a normal exploration - I had this idea, it was a solution for myself, I knew a lot of people with disabilities who were interested, and so I put it together!

I’m also a project manger so I went nuts on all the planning, and unlike working on a government project, this was my own so I really got stuck into it. I still have endless stacks of handwritten notes! I was fortunate enough to get assisted by the Lighthouse Business Innovation Centre in Canberra who helped me get a grant to build the site. Then I really had to do it!

My original plans back then still correlate with what I do today, except one main expansion is including service men and women from the defence force, veterans, police force, paramedics and also their families and carers. This week we’ve also just launched a new website where we are helping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders because we had a lot of people reaching out for a service like that as well.

Anxiety is obviously not something nice to deal with, although perhaps a blessing in disguise because you did all that endless work!

(Laughs) Haha yes indeed, I can’t do anything unless I’ve analysed it from every single possible angle, and that comes from my anxiety. I have what’s called Disassociated Anxiety which means if I have a panic attack I don’t look like I’m freaking out, I look liked I’ve gone to sleep. I completely disengage. I get very anxious about things I can’t control, so now I’ve written project plans about things I can’t control, and if I can’t change the outcome I just have to let it go and stop worrying. It actually works really well, I always follow the plan and if the plan says let it go, then that’s what I do! 

That’s interesting because business success is about having clear systems, but also the flexibility to move when things go wrong.

Absolutely! I remember I was sitting in front of a panel and they were saying ‘What’s going to happen if you have a mental episode’ and ‘the whole business is going to fall apart’ and more comments about how 'risky' it all was. I had to explain that people with disabilities are actually the best people to put in stressful situations because we have been at the absolute lowest we can possibly go, and we got back up again. When you’re doing a startup, if you’ve never been to the bottom of the barrel and you get knocked down, it’s harder to get back up! Business knocks for me are really quite minor compared to things that have happened in my life, and so we’re really resilient which a lot of people don’t understand. We know our limits, we know how far we can push ourselves and what we can do in terms of taking on stress. For a startup, disabled people are amazing assets to have!


"For a startup, disabled people are amazing assets to have!"


Getting knocked back is just part of it. We chose the profit route to try and instigate social change which meant it was a lot harder. I could have got philanthropist money but instead we went down the VC route. We are very values driven and we know that we are going to do this with everything we’ve got, so you just have to deal with it! I originally thought it would just cost $15,000 a year to manage as a relatively small project, little did I know that I year later I would be working full time on it! My point though is that the long term plan was never to fail. 

We’re in the valley of death at the moment, we’ve proven our model, we showed our traction, we’ve done a seed round for $560,000, we’re doing our series A for $1,000,000, we’ve secured a Government tender but it’s still so hard to get funding. That’s what’s tough about Australia - You can be as successful as possible but if you can’t find the right investors, it makes vert difficult.

We chose the profitable route and proved that people can still make money from helping others even in the Non Profit realm. But people still question my mental health and if there’s money to be made in assisting people with a disability and those sorts of questions still come up a lot…  Whereas if you’re you going for philanthropy money it’s more like ‘Fantastic how much do you need!?’


"You can be as successful as possible but if you can’t find the right investors, it makes it very difficult."


How do you overcome an investor’s hesitations?

It comes down to finding the right investors, both our seed rounds were with the angel investors we already had. That’s because they are value based investors and they understand the business. We’ve had a lot of interest from funds but what we find is that you’ll spend months on a deal and at the last minute they either say yes or no (and a lot of the time it’s no!). That’s why we prefer angels that have a personal interest in our business. You’ve got to find people that understand impact investing and unfortunately there’s not that many in Australia.

Have there ever been times that were so hard that you completely considered giving up? How did you overcome that?

This is a beauty! For our first seed round we had three funds interested. I pitched $500,000 on a two million dollar valuation. I had 500k secured from angels already, and combined with the other funds we had 1.2 million committed. After the end of the four month process, one of them decided they didn’t want to proceed. So that made everyone else nervous, so the other funds pulled out and so did the angels! We ended up pretty much losing everything when we had been overcommitted. I remember I had a whole entire Doona Day in bed, thinking how on earth I’m going to make this work. I came up with all these radical ways, I was so frustrated because I had shown it could work, we just needed the money! 


"We ended up pretty much losing everything when we had been overcommitted."


I remember one of my mentors called me and left a message saying ‘I know you're in bed! Just talk to me.’ So I spoke to him and he took me through this great story about how his business was paying $200,000 in wages a month, and when he went to the bank to sign his overdraft to pay them the whole entire floor was empty! The whole bank was gone. That bank was the only place he could organise the overdraft and he thought his business was totally ruined. As they talked about it at a cafe, a man who overheard the conversation approached them and said how much he hated banks, and then he said ‘Right! I’m going to write you a check and you can pay me back. Come see at my office and you can pay me back later.’ And he did! 

That story made me get out of bed! I went back to our angel investors, dropped my valuation because I had wasted so much time and closed it quickly. It’s all about what you learn along the way. I’m not even sure how this series A coming up will turn out! It might result in a another Doona Day (laughs).

Would you say persistence was the main contributor to your success? 

Definitely. It hasn’t been easy and the biggest struggled we’ve faced is the funding. We’ve literally shown time and time again how it can work with real figures and it’s still tough. 

Culture is a big part of any business. How does your business reflect you as a founder?

We practice what we preach. We all work flexibly, we ensure that all of our staff are reflective of the people and the candidates that we’re trying to help place. We’ve been in their shoes so we can understand them better, and it also means we can explain their services better and helps to break down that initial barrier with businesses to what they think a ‘disability’ is. 

As long as the team is delivering on their deliverables I really don’t care what time or where they work from. You would know too having your own startup that it’s a lot of responsibility when you’re bringing people in. I give staff shares in the company to give them the opportunity to take on some of their own responsibility and have the business play a part in their own journey. 

You have an impressive background full of awards. But how does Jessica define success?

Ha! Another beauty. I was talking to Sharon (my media person) and we said to each other ‘When does it end??? When can we sit there and not feel like everything is so stressful and we aren’t constantly under the pump!’ There’s gotta be a moment somewhere when we just sit back and have a glass of champagne and we can say ‘Yay we did it!’.

When we first did an accelerator program we thought it was intense. Then we did a funding round and thought that was hugely intense. Then we tried to do growth and then it just kept getting more and more full on! So there must be some point where we take a breath and realise we’re all good. Although we haven’t found it yet! I met a guy with a company valued at 110 million dollars and even he was just as stressed so it made me feel like it will never end! (Laughs).

I thought helping 100 people get jobs would be amazing, then we employed thousands, and then it’s just onto the next target! Maybe my expectations of myself are too high, because I don’t know when ‘success’ is.

That being said we are a tech based business which is fully automated so we just need people to talk to employers and candidates. Once you put that into the system, the system does it all. I really don’t need to be there in terms of that, and after two years I finally trained my staff to do payroll which freed me up a bit. The system just needs to be maintained and I can focus on our expansion.

If you could travel back in time to the first day of your business, what would you tell yourself? 

That it’s going to be okay. I was really mentally unwell at that stage, and I had taken my leave so I could do the Griffin Accelerator. I had applied but I didn’t end up getting in, and I was being bullied really badly by my manager at the time. Once she found out that I didn’t get in, she pulled my leave and that pushed me over the edge. Although the next day I found out that someone had dropped out and I ended up getting in! 

So just know that everything is going to work itself out. When I look back to where I was to where I am now, my life has changed completely. I’ve been through ups and downs, lost money and a list of other things, but most importantly I am so happy. 


"Just know that everything is going to work itself out."


What would you tell your 20 year old self?

That’s a really interesting question, because that’s when I joined the public service. I’ve always been a really big values based person, I’ve actually got my values tattooed on my back in the Enabled Employment font because they were such an integral part of why I started in the first place (Fairness, Kindness, Gratitude, Love and Learning). I remember back then I would see things that I thought were really unfair, but as I moved along and just became another grey suit, I would overlook bad things all for the sake of my career. When I had my daughter I had to look at my values again, and then I saw what was wrong. That’s why I created Enabled Employment.

Getting really clear on your values is really important, and so much research (and my personal experience) has shown that if you don’t align your values with what you do in life you’ll be unhappy. I was earning a lot of money and I took a massive 50% pay cut to come and do my business but the biggest difference is that I’m happy. 


"If you don’t align your values with what you do in life you’ll be unhappy."


Who inspires you?

The people that we help. We hear such bad stories about their life, they have faced some of the worst crap you can imagine and they still bounce back. This one blind woman worked for 10 years at the Centrelink call centre, which is the hardest call centre to work on in Australia. She got made redundant when they updated their computer software, so she started looking for a job. She always felt that she had the job over email, but she got knocked back from 165 job interviews in 6 months, just because she walked in with a guide dog. Those kinds of people inspire me!

Also my staff, because they can hear about those horrible experiences but use that one person’s story to help thousands. 

. . .

Wow, what a terrific story. A big thank you to Jess for her time, keep up with her and Enabled Employment at their website, and be on the lookout for all the wonderful things Jess and her team achieve! Don't forget you can join The Exceptions Facebook forum any time to chime in with the conversation. Enjoy!