• Krystle Bernier

BETTER TOGETHER: VIABILITY team graduates from Innovation Accelerator program

VIABILITY staff, Cody Andrews, Julie Lococo, James O’Neill, and Monique Whiting recently graduated from the Innovation Accelerator program, a Western Massachusetts-based initiative aimed at helping nonprofits build a culture of innovation and maintain financial sustainability through diverse funding opportunities. Our four VIABILITY teammates are 2019 graduates of the program, which challenges nonprofits to formulate an idea that meets an identified customer need and then

develop their concept into a service or product. Our team chose to create a web-based training on disability inclusion for the customers of VIABILITY’s Corporate Inclusion Solutions team.

From left: Cody Andrews, Julie Lococo, Monique Whiting, and James O’Neill on May 6 present their product in a pitch to a panel of funders and members of the business community, similar to what is done on ABC’s “Shark Tank” TV show. (Photo by Derek Fowles)

The Innovation Accelerator program is derived from an idea to market a technique that originated in the Silicon Valley. The purpose of Innovation Accelerator is to challenge nonprofits to think outside of the proverbial box and work toward securing unrestricted revenue streams. This is directly in line with VIABILITY’s strategic goal of regularly introducing innovative and emerging services that diversify our portfolio. The program allows our staff to tap into their ingenuity and leadership skills while representing our organization in a well-developed pitch to funding sources that are an alternative to state monies; this serves the dual purpose of providing professional development opportunities for our staff while creating strategic ways to reach our revenue goals.

“It was a lot of work, took a lot of time, and we did a lot of interviews and presentations,” said Cody, Pre-ETS program supervisor. “This program pushes you out of your comfort zone, but it’s rewarding, and I gained so many skills in a short amount of time.”

The group first came together in October 2018 and met every other week. They attended classes and lectures by guest speakers, conducted research, and collaborated with the other participating organizations and group facilitators on ideas and strategies. Our VIABILITY team participated in the course with Community Education Project, a nonprofit based in Holyoke, Massachusetts looking to provide English to Spanish document translations; and Xernai, a for-profit start-up business based in Florence, Massachusetts that focuses on mindfulness, meditations, and motivations. The groups, on several occasions, presented their product in a pitch to a panel of funders and members of the business community, similar to what is done on

ABC’s “Shark Tank” TV show.

To illustrate their pitch, the VIABILITY team told the story of Tom Gustafson, Sephora Human Resources Logistics vice president. Their distribution center in Mississippi had seen high turnover and low productivity. As a result, the bottom line had been negatively affected. Tom heard about our disability inclusion training program at the Walgreens Distribution Center in Connecticut. After an initial tour of the Walgreens center and seeing the program in action, Sephora partnered with us to implement the training program at their Mississippi center.

More than a dozen companies nationwide are impressed with our disability inclusion training program and have contacted us to begin implementing our specific training model. To meet this growing demand, our Corporate Inclusion Solutions staff flies across the United States regularly for onsite trainings. While it’s working for now, the team noted in-person trainings are not a permanent solution. In fact, our processes could be streamlined, and our most up-to-date trainings could be experienced by more people if they were available online.

Through Innovation Accelerator, Cody, Julie, James, and Monique conducted research and interviewed more than 80 people to find a way to scale our disability inclusion training. The team identified their competitors and had a dozen of their hypotheses disproven. They then reworked their plan several times before finalizing their strategy, which includes various levels of web-based training and customer support that allows us to scale our business appropriately while maintaining successful outcomes. One of the panelists our team presented to was impressed by the outcomes data we shared and commented on the transformative cultural shift that corporate partners were experiencing through our inclusion training; they’re not just seeing better outcomes from people with disabilities that we are placing there, employees without disabilities are performing better as well. Overall, the team had a strong final presentation and

readily answered questions posed to them from the panelists.

Following the team’s final presentation with the “sharks” on May 6, which was also graduation from the course, there was an open forum for comments and feedback. During that time one of the panelists commended VIABILITY President and CEO Dick Venne for encouraging his staff to participate in the Innovation Accelerator and said, “all nonprofits should be doing what you are.”

Since graduation, Cody said VIABILITY leadership is in contact with funders about backing the project and next steps include recruiting a consultant to create and test a pilot version of the web-based training.

For more information about the Innovation Accelerator program, go to unrestrictedrevenue.com

For more information about Corporate Inclusion Solutions, go to viability.org/corporateinclusion-solutions