It was 2008 and Rich Donovan had just crunched the numbers on how many people live with disabilities worldwide.
The United Nations at the time reported the number around 600 million. His analysis pegged that population at 1.2 billion.
“I actually had to do the analysis three times because I didn’t believe the numbers. They were just too big,” he said. “It’s a pretty ballsy statement to make that the UN’s wrong by a factor of two, right?”
But he was right – and that’s the moment Donovan, founder of Return on Disability, author and past winner of the Women’s Executive Network’s 2018 Inclusion Vanguard Award, knew there was a huge, untapped opportunity touching 53 per cent of the world and worth an estimated $8 trillion.
We are proud to partner with Accenture for the Inclusion Vanguard Award, a prestigious part of our annual Top 100 Awards! In 2018, we had the absolute pleasure of honouring Rich Donovan for his extraordinary and notable actions towards diversity and inclusion in Canada. At our 2019 Top 100 Awards on November 21, we will celebrate a new winner of the Inclusion Vanguard Award, recognizing a leader who has made a remarkable impact in driving real, lasting change. The Inclusion Vanguard Award symbolizes what we all strive to achieve: a stronger, more inclusive Canada!
Today, the number of people with disabilities has grown to 1.7 billion people, yet it’s an entire market that’s historically been overlooked. “From my perspective, this is the reason why every company that faces an end consumer, every government that faces an end citizen, should put [disability] at the core of their experience design,” he said.
That’s why he’s changing the conversation.
Building a new approach
In a world where companies talk about diversity and inclusion, Donovan is talking about something else entirely: markets and delighting customers.
Not surprising, given he used to manage about $6 billion in equity as a Wall Street trader. “The trader in me decided to treat disability as a market. I went about doing the analysis as I would for any other trade,” he said.
Trading is where his diversity journey starts, first through Merrill Lynch where he helped with on-campus recruitment efforts for women and visible minorities. “But we weren’t recruiting people with disabilities. In fact, nobody was. And so we decided as a group to add disabilities to that recruiting process.”
That led to Lime Connect, a third-party recruitment organization he founded in 2006 that grew out of those efforts. They connected with other big names like PepsiCo, Google and Goldman Sachs. It’s also where Donovan learned a key lesson: “It’s not about numbers and quotas; it’s about people. And people have desires to be the best that they can be.”
Therein lies the problem with a lot of diversity and inclusion programs, he said. “They haven’t taken the time or the effort, or made the investment, to really understand how those dimensions impact their revenue formula. They haven’t started to build these changes in demand into their product mix, their R&D mix, their customer experience.”
Now, with Return on Disability, he’s leading the charge on a new way of approaching the conversation. “This is more about, how can we best serve our customers? How can we best delight our customers?” he said.
“And the way you do that is you deliver to them what they want.”
Donovan’s decision to start a business focused on that premise was a huge risk, especially since no one else was having those conversations ten years ago.
“When you take a risk like we did, leaving a pretty good job and building something that was totally out of left field at the time, you realize that not many people do that,” he said.
That made winning the Inclusion Vanguard Award that much more meaningful, he added. It honours Canadian leaders, both male and female, who champion change and outstanding commitment to a broader diversity agenda within their organizations, clients and communities.
“At the end of the day, professionals don’t do things for awards; they do things for rewards. They do things for profit. They do things to better their business. But between today and the realization of the market, which could be ten years, you need some steps along the way to say yeah, you’re headed in the right direction.”
The award also signals that the conversation he started is becoming mainstream and reduces risk for others who want to follow his lead.
“It’s helpful for other companies to see this is something that you too can be successful at,” he said.
Building the future
Today, Return on Disability has 15 clients globally, ranging from multi-national banks to governments that embrace people with disabilities as valuable customers who drive growth and revenue.
Donovan’s also become an author, publishing Unleash Different last year, which chronicles his journey to Columbia Business School and beyond as a person living with a disability himself.
When he looks back on his accomplishments over the past 13 years, he’s encouraged by the change he’s seen… even if it’s slow-going.
“Organizations and brands are incredibly complex. They’re full of people with different needs, they’re full of corporate mechanisms that we navigate,” he said. “Change on this scale is a very difficult thing to do.”
He’s seen change pick up pace for those 1.7 billion people with disabilities worldwide and the people in their lives, in products like Google’s autonomous car, Amazon’s Alexa and even Disney characters that put accessibility first. He’s seen it in his own work and the work of his clients, too.
“We’ve proven our model and our work…Our clients have put packaging and commercial machinery and technology on shelves globally,” he said.
But there’s still work to do in the market – and he’s ready to do it. “We’re still talking 15 companies out of 5,000, and that doesn’t even include government. So the opportunity’s still there.”
To learn more about the Accenture Inclusion Vanguard Award and our Top 100 Awards, visit our Top 100 page.