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Deaf entrepreneurs around the world

deaf entrepreneurs
Many deaf individuals are following their passions and becoming their own boss. This is especially notable because it’s hard enough for anyone in this day and age, let alone being a deaf entrepreneur. We live in a time where economic, political, and social landscapes are vastly evolving, all amidst a global pandemic that drastically reduced job opportunities. For members of the deaf community, there exists a whole scope of other challenges to consider, including employers not complying with anti-discrimination laws.
This month Hearing Like Me set out to find deaf-led businesses around the globe. I was astounded at the accomplishments I encountered, and the brilliant people behind them. Here are the deaf entrepreneurs breaking down the stigmas that surround deafness and working life.

Mark Burke, Jon Cetrano, and Sam Costner 

First on our list of deaf entrepreneurs are Mark Burke, Jon Cetrano, and Sam Costner, the three deaf founders and owners of Streetcar 82 Brewery in Hyattsville, Maryland. Located just a stone’s throw away from Gallaudet University, (where all three of them graduated) the brewery has the support of a large deaf community.

After a brief stint away from home, all three men found themselves back on the East coast. One night when they were all together drinking their home brewed beer, they realized there was nothing stopping them from doing it professionally. From there, they did the necessary research and made their business pitch at Gallaudet. They didn’t win first place, but they did win Audience’s Favorite. This was proof that the beer brought the community together, and the push they needed to keep going. It wasn’t long before they opened Streetcar 82 in a converted auto repair garage. It has become hugely successful and remains the only deaf-owned brewery on the East coast.

All of the staff is deaf and use American Sign Language (ASL). In addition to providing job opportunities for the deaf community, the owners collaborate with Gallaudet to mentor younger students who want to build their own businesses.

In a video on their website, the owners recount how a customer came in who didn’t know how to sign. He found the situation awkward and left, not knowing what to do. Later he came back and began to sign. He had gone home and watched YouTube videos on ASL in order to be able to communicate with them. “We’re trying to create a place that feels comfortable enough for people just to try,” Mark Burke says in the video.

Sam Costner, one of the founders, told Gallaudet that people will come to get the experience they might not see elsewhere – “[an] intimate deaf community feel. It is our valued community that makes us special,” said Costner. “Bottom line, we value the deaf community. So far, our beer reviews have been positive. Deaf people leave with a smile. It is a good feeling for us.”

With both regular hearing and deaf customers, the owners found that as time went on they began to mix together and share what they describe as “the language of beer.” Indeed, the brewery represents a world that deaf people dream of – an establishment that lifts cross communication barriers and encourages hearing people to step into the deaf world, rather than trying to adjust us to fit their environments. These guys prove that it’s possible.

Read more: 6 Sign Language Cafes to Visit Around the World

Yvonne Cobb 

Yvonne Cobb, who has been dubbed “the deaf Nigella,” is the founder of Yumma Foods, a catering service for corporate and private events in Gloucestershire, UK. She is also a BBC anchor presenter for @BBCSeeHear.

Yumma Foods is also a social enterprise that aims to empower deaf people by teaching them skills that build confidence and focuses on improving their over all well-being. This is achieved through cooking classes taught to deaf students in BSL. Nutrition benefits are taught as well.

Cobb recognizes that the deaf community is a marginalized one. Because of the accessibility issues that exist within the nutritionist industry, she believes that many of us don’t understand good nutrition. She is also aware of the challenges that job hunting presents when deaf. As a result, she uses her business to offer employment to those within our community.

Cobb started Yumma as a pop-up event at the Gloucestershire Deaf Association (GDA) in 2016. GDA is a local deaf charity in Gloucestershire. They still do the pop up café every month, and people travel from other towns to attend. Both the café and catering menu offer high tea, breakfasts, colorful salad bowls, and a premium menu with plenty of vegetarian options. Since noticing that many of its deaf customers suffer from diabetes, Yumma Foods has expanded its menu to include lots of sugar-free options. Cobb explains that in the UK region, studies have shown that deaf people are actually more likely to have obesity than hearing people.

David Edgington and Dean Chester 

Deaf friends and fitness instructors David Edgington and Dean Chester founded The Deaf Gym, a UK based fitness center that focuses on  services tailored to the deaf and hard of hearing.

Edgington first had the idea for a deaf gym when he noticed his other deaf friends barely knew anything about health and fitness. After facing recruitment discrimination for years despite his qualifications, he finally landed a job at Xercise4less, where he worked alongside another deaf friend, David Chester. After realizing they had the same passions and ambitions, The Deaf Gym was born.

Their services include workshops for deaf people conducted in BSL by qualified deaf personal trainers. Clients learn lifestyle modification, time management, fitness tests, and health checks. The owners believe that we have been largely deprived of this for years due to the lack of accessibility, and that it is of the utmost importance that we learn more in order to improve our lifestyle.

The Deaf Gym offers a training course for fitness professionals, which covers theoretical aspects of deafness and trains them to work with deaf and hard of hearing clients. They provide the bespoke training at a venue of choice so you have the option of learning in your own workplace. A large range of topics is covered, including personal and fitness training demonstrations, facial expressions and body language, accessibility, and social media marketing. Access to their online sign language class is provided. Once a certificate is earned, fitness professionals will have the tools needed to adapt their practices in order to support deaf customers. A lower cost introductory module in working with deaf clients is also offered.

Read more: 6 Tips for Exercising at the Gym with Hearing Loss

Ebony Gooden 

Ebony is a deaf Black activist, filmmaker, and artist. In October 2020, amidst a global pandemic that closed thousands of independent businesses in the food industry, she and her husband took a leap of faith. They opened Mykonos Street Grill, a Greek restaurant in Calgary, Alberta.

The business is personal to them, as Gooden’s husband (nicknamed Aki) was born into the restaurant industry. His parents originally opened Mykonos Greek Restaurant. It was shut down after Aki’s father passed away and his mother struggled to keep the business going. Aki and his wife decided to reopen the business so they could rely on a stable income while Gooden focused on her art.

In an interview with the Daily Moth, Gooden was asked where she finds the energy to fulfill all of her outlets. Her response was: “The bottom line is representation. I remember when I grew up, I had no representation. Well, there was one – CJ Jones, Black Deaf comedian. But that’s only one person. I grew up hating myself, [and] always wished my hair flowed, wished I was white like others. I wished for many things. Now after I’ve grown up, I want to provide that representation for young generations so they don’t feel the same way I did when I was younger. I want them to look up to me and see more representation, resources and access, and know that you are beautiful and that you can do anything you want.”

Read more: Famous deaf black individuals you should know about 

An activist through and through, Gooden has committed to making the restaurant accessible to our community and encourages others in the industry to do the same. She is also working on an artistic animation project called “Miscommunication in Our Language.” Like most of her art projects, it has meaningful intent and addresses language deprivation.

Joshua Jones 

After graduating from The Art Institute in Seattle with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interior Design, Joshua Jones faced discrimination from multiple design firms who were more focused on how he would be able to communicate with clients rather than his design skills. He expressed his frustrations to his partner, who encouraged Jones to start his own business, JJones Design Co.

The business is is an e-design firm that communicates with customers over email. Using e-design means Jones is able to work with people all over the world. Hearing people are no longer hesitant about working with him as communication barriers have been removed. Since starting his business, he has been able to work with clients all over the US, Canada, and Europe. While coronavirus disrupted many businesses, thanks to his online platform, Jones has continued to boom. His personal design styles include Modern Eclectic, Bohemian, Desert Rustic, Mid-Century Modern, Industrial, and Modern Rustic.

“Design is about seeing, touching, and feeling – nothing to do with hearing,” Jones says on his website.

“Design is about seeing, touching, and feeling – nothing to do with hearing.”

Ahmed Khalifa

Ahmed Khalifa is a marketing consultant in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the founder and director of Khalifa Media, where he offers his skills as a WordPress SEO consultant to help customers build their websites.

He was born prematurely and had to receive a blood transfusion for jaundice. His hearing was not tested, so it was not immediately clear that he had any hearing loss. Khalifa explains on his site that back in the 80s, hearing wasn’t routinely checked. Even though his speech was slurred as a toddler and he was behind on his communication skills, he was not diagnosed as hard of hearing until he was six years old. He has mild to moderate hearing loss.

Khalifa moved with his family to the UK when he was eight years old and struggled to learn English. He was speaking Arabic at the time. He had to have lots of extra lessons and attend speech therapy. After graduating with a BA in Sports Management, he got a MA in International Marketing Management. Khalifa worked in several graduate jobs, including a role at a digital marketing agency. He also enjoyed helping other people build their sites. The WordPress experience he gained from this gave him the skills needed to start up his own business.

His main project is Hear Me Out! (CC), a website that promotes deaf awareness. The (CC) stands for closed captions. His services include Power Hour Deaf Consultancy, which allows you to organize an expert one-on-one virtual deaf consultancy. Khalifa allows you to discuss whatever you would like in this hour, but topics typically include how to make your virtual events more deaf accessible, podcast and video creation for deaf audiences, and how to make products more deaf friendly.

Khalifa can be hired to speak at events. On his site he lists the topics he can speak about, such as:

  • Make Captions Beautiful to Engage With Your Audience Better
  • Unleashing the Untapped Potential of Deaf Employees
  • Deaf and Isolated: The Challenges of Being an “Inbetweener”
  • The Emotional Story of Being Unwelcome by the Cinemas
  • How Teachers can Help Unlock the Potential of Deaf students?
  • Why Hearing Aids Should Not Be Seen as a Solution?
  • Being Shot Down Because of Accessibility Needs is Not Something Anyone Should Expect

He also holds workshops and training where he visits companies and teaches employees how to identify solutions within the organization that can help to improve their interactions with deaf people. On his personal website and blog, he writes that he is now focusing on BSL so that he can continue to overcome communication barriers for himself and others.

Zhuo Ma

Zhuo is a Tibetan Yarn spinner who runs an alternative sort of business from the Western world. Joel Barish discovered her while filming his documentary on deaf people in Tibet.

Yak fiber wool is durable and warmer than wool, but is soft and smooth like cashmere. Tibetan nomads have been using the wool to make everything from clothing to tents for over 1,000 years. Ma collects the wool herself. Then she washes and cleans it before it is ready to be spun into a product for sale. She also collects wood, flowers, and pine leaves from the mountains. Pine leaves are dried, chopped, and grounded. Just waiting for the leaves to dry can take up to six days, making it a long production process. People buy from her so they can burn the leaves during traditional praying ceremonies. She carries a huge load of them a long way home on her back, where she then assembles them.

Ma used to live with her brother. When he passed away from cancer, she was left to find shelter and food on her own. She serves as a reminder of the many deaf people are living within marginalized communities, without access to a website or social media, which most western companies use as powerful marketing tools to gain customers. Many must rely solely on locals in their village and word of mouth to keep their businesses and livelihoods afloat.

Sigurlin Margrét

Deaf Iceland Tours was founded by Sigurlin Margrét, who is completely deaf. The tourist service company offers tours delivered in sign language by experienced guides. Adventures hosted by Deaf Iceland include glacier hiking and climbing as well as city tours. All day excursions are offered, including trips to the famous Blue Lagoon – a tourist must see. Deaf Iceland also holds evening events at the Deaf Club.

Margrét lost her hearing at age eight from meningitis. Hearing aids don’t help her, and she calls sign language her guiding light in everything she does. Her Icelandic pride and love of travel led her to start her deaf tourism company. Guided tours in sign language have been among her most memorable experiences, but is rarely an option. She has often needed to gather information about each country, culture, history, cuisine, and so on herself before trips.

“Being able to get that kind of information in sign language gives the whole trip more life,” she says. “It becomes worth every penny spent. Meeting people abroad on equal footing is a big bonus for traveling.”

A startup accelerator helped Margrét and the other three founders get the ball rolling. She then studied guiding at a university level. That, coupled with a degree in international diplomacy in entrepreneurship, has been useful in her current career.

Margrét points out that Iceland never has the same landscape. “You can travel to Iceland again and again, yet every trip is like you are coming for the first time,” she says. The country even has someone with the title Deaf Chef 2012. Since it’s expensive to operate a tourism service in Iceland, Margrét hopes that Deaf Iceland Tours will move into a bigger travel agency called Prime Tours, where she and others will work as guides. This will allow for more elaborate tours. Services for other disabilities will be offered.

Read more: Traveling with hearing loss

Lisa Mills 

Lisa Mills is an Australian entrepreneur, author, actress, and a qualified teacher. In 2015, she launched Lisa Mills Online, an online school that teaches people to sign through a number of packages.

Mills has been deaf since birth. She is fluent in both Auslan and British sign language. She lived in Britain for 10 years, where she became very familiar with BSL and married a deaf British man. Courses are offered in both.

While the courses are mainly structured to teach sign, Mills also introduces customers to Deaf Culture. There are currently 11 courses on her website. Each one includes a student handbook with photos of each sign taught and is packed with lots of activities. There are no deadlines, so you are free to complete the course at your own pace. You can download a free finger spelling chart on her website too. Mills also offers more niche courses, such as baby sign language and Sing and Sign with Lisa, which teaches children how to sing popular children songs.

In an interview with Dynamic Business, Mills relays the story of when her hearing aids broke in 2010: “Technology can be a wonderful thing, but sometimes our reliance on it, even on something as simple as being able to use the telephone, limits our ability to communicate.” After her analog hearing aids broke, she had to switch to digital. This meant she had to begin the long journey of reprogramming her brain to learn a new way of hearing. Her business at the time, Honeybee Creations (a training and consulting agency for Auslan) began to suffer as she could no longer make sense of what people were saying on the phone. “I felt powerless and like a bad businesswoman,” she told Dynamic Business.

Mills had to find creative ways to overcome this barrier. She did so by setting up a voice-to-text service on her mobile phone and purchasing new technology to accompany her digital hearing aids to enable her to take phone calls. She listed herself as SMS only on her contact page, and set up a Skype account so that she could see her customers’ faces to lipread. In her current business, she has all the control.

Manveer Singh

Manveer Singh is the deaf CEO of Maharajah Coffee. During his enrollment for British Royal Air Force Cadet School, Singh was in an accident that left him 95 percent deaf. This affected him emotionally and socially. He has expressed in interviews that he sometimes doesn’t feel like communicating due to the anxiety it can cause.

Singh discovered his passion for coffee production when he visited a coffee farm in Brazil. Upon his return, he began perfecting roasts he had discovered. Soon after, he started Maharajah Coffee. Due to his hearing loss, the process of roasting coffee involves using a cardiologist stethoscope to feel the vibration of the coffee bean cracking.

Singh’s brand focuses on creating positive changes for the environment and its people. He has partnerships with the Amazon Conservation Team and Eco-Sikh, with portions of the profits going to them on a monthly basis. He uses biodegradable cups and bags, and the lids are compostable.

You can keep up with Manveer’s incredible social entrepreneurship work on his website and his blog, where he writes beautiful segments that include his deaf experience:

“As I sipped my pour over coffee, all around me, I felt the Earth move. Despite my hearing problem, I could sense vibrations in the African plains: hyenas laughing, birds chirping, the hoofbeats of gazelle & antelope running, a lion roaring to his pride. For some reason, these vibrations did not make me feel afraid, but carried with them a sense of peace. This moment was like any other: a reminder that we must embrace the unknown.”

Singh plans to open a café and hire people with disabilities where instead of coming to work, they can feel as though they are coming to a second home.

Author Details
Beth Tingle is a 27-year-old English graduate, and currently resides in Bristol, UK. Beth was born with congenital deafness to an otherwise all hearing family, and is currently navigating life with new sound after receiving cochlear implant surgery in April 2021. She is currently learning BSL.