Entrepreneurs

This Leader Is Making It Easier for Members of the Deaf Community to Start Their Own Businesses

The deaf community is often left out of conversations on diversity. Learn how one group is looking to change that.
This Leader Is Making It Easier for Members of the Deaf Community to Start Their Own Businesses
Image credit: Communication Service for the Deaf
Entrepreneur Staff
26 min read

How Success Happens is a podcast featuring polar explorers, authors, ultramarathoners, artists and more to better understand what connects dreaming and doing. Host Linda Lacina guides these chats so anyone can understand the traits that underpin achievement and what fuels the decisions to push us forward. Listen below or click here to read more shownotes. 

Chris Soukup understands the frustrations the deaf community faces. He’s seen deaf children put in schools that isolate them and deaf adults struggling to get work. A third-generation member of the deaf community, he knows the unexpected roadblocks that can emerge during any task -- from placing a phone call to even applying for a loan.  

But Soukup also understands what’s possible -- and he’s working to make a global impact.

Related: Podcast: When PowerPoints Weren't Working, This Powerful Exec Passed Out Comic Books Instead

In 1975, Soukup’s father launched Communication Service for the Deaf, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting people with hearing loss. Today, as CEO, Soukup is working to build on what his father started to expand opportunities for the deaf community. This has meant retooling the organization with scalable impact in mind. His group’s innovation center in Austin, Texas is leveraging technology, even developing a key marketplace to better match interpreters with deaf people.

CSD has also launched one of the first social impact funds for the deaf community. Paired with an incubator program, it helps deaf entrepreneurs get the funding and support they need to launch their own businesses. In turn, Soukup predicts these entrepreneurs will create jobs for others in the deaf community.

Related: Kathryn Minshew of The Muse: Decide Who You Are, or Have it Decided for You (Podcast)

“Brick by brick, it’s a way to change that broader perspective,” says Soukup. “We can create an economy to support our growth.”

To learn more about Soukup and how he’s scaling CSD, listen to this week’s podcast of How Success Happens.

Full Transcript

LINDA LACINA: Today we're excited to have a very special guest, Chris Soukup, the CEO of Communication Service for the Deaf. It's a nonprofit dedicated to creating opportunity for the deaf community. What started as a grassroots organization has grown into one of the largest organizations of its kind. One that this year added a special Social Impact Fund to help deaf entrepreneurs get the funding and support they need to start businesses. He'll talk about transforming this organization to meet the challenges facing the deaf community today, the important role entrepreneurship can play and how we can all think differently about creating opportunity. How are you Chris?

CHRIS SOUKUP: Hello, it's a great pleasure to be here.

LINDA LACINA: Chris, tell us a little bit about yourself but also about CSD. Can you get us started, get us all on a level playing field?

CHRIS SOUKUP: We opened our doors with the very first service that we provided to the community with fine language interpreting services. Through the years, we've taken on additional dimensions and have grown to become a worldwide organization continuing to be dedicated to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. We provide today a broad range of products, programs and services all engineered to elevate the quality of life experience for this population. I've been involved with the organization myself my entire life, and I'm very, very proud of our journey as a company and the impact that we've been able to have and our continuing commitment to the ideas that we know are possible for the deaf community.

LINDA LACINA: The organization was founded by your father. You're a third-generation member of the deaf community, but you've also had a really diverse experience. Can you tell us about all that -- which is a very big question -- but just sort of give us a 360-view into your background and your unique exposure to all the aspects of life that people in the deaf community have and how that helps you with CSD?

CHRIS SOUKUP: Dad was working at a meat-processing plant in South Dakota and back then, that was a popular place for deaf and hard of hearing people to work -- one of the few places that they were able to get jobs and make good money, good enough money to be able to support their families' needs. But it was a very dangerous work. One day over the lunch-hour a group of deaf men were sitting together, and they noticed there were a change in their pay stub. There was a new deduction to their paycheck that they didn't understand and the company didn't make any sort of effort to communicate. They really didn't have a good way to get information from the company. So, they were talking about generally the lack of communication and the need for an organization to advocate for getting better information and communication to the deaf and hard-of-hearing population. So, a result of that conversation -- just the frustration about not being able to fully participate in the workplace -- is where the idea for CSD was born and so that kind of started the journey. Myself, growing up in kind of a mixed environment where I come from a deaf family, and so the deaf community has always been home for me. But I grew up in the mainstream and went to public and private school and have a pretty diverse background myself just in terms of life experience. And then later went to Gallaudet University and graduated from Gallaudet. So, I've had, I think, the privilege of experiencing life as a deaf person from a number of different perspectives and those perspectives have really kind of helped me to give me kind of a broad understanding of what the world is like for deaf people.

You know we know today that 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing families that have no background or familiarity with deafness, and so 90 percent of children, they end up being very isolated. They're in school districts that have maybe one or two other deaf children, they're just kind of disconnected socially. I think they grow up without a clear sense of identity with a distorted perspective of their capabilities. I think that is something that I had some exposure to growing up in the mainstream. Just that sense of isolation. And so that has stayed with me my whole career, and it's something that I always kind of embed into the kind of change that we want to create and the solutions that we're engineering as an organization, as one example. Later, I became a parent. And so now I have a child who is both deaf and autistic, and I'm thinking about the world that I want for him and the opportunities that I want him to have later in life. So, all of these different experiences and points of exposure have shaped my own perspective and has driven my passion for the work that we do now.

LINDA LACINA: That's amazing. I think some folks listening to this may not have full exposure to some of the little things that they take for granted, that may not be in place or how the experience might be different. Can you give my listeners a couple examples of things they might think are in place for the deaf community that aren't?

CHRIS SOUKUP: The best way that I like to frame this part of the dialogue is to provide a little bit of background. Advocacy organizations that have worked with the deaf and hard-of-hearing community for much of the past 40, 50 years have been largely focused on overcoming barriers to information and communication. So much of the work that we have done has been about opening up the world to the deaf community and giving them the opportunity to be full participants in the world -- from a communication and information perspective.

A lot of the laws and legislation that has been passed over that span of time, including the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, really has been focused on ensuring that there are functionally equivalent access to communication and information. And the world has changed so much in that time and technology and the Internet and just the introduction of a multitude of new channels for accessing information and communication is we've come a very long way in terms of opening up the world for deaf people.

The unfortunate thing is that the life experience for deaf people really hasn't changed. The economic reality for deaf people really hasn't changed. We still have just an abysmal rate of employment within the community and there still significant negative impression in terms of what the outside community believes that deaf people are capable out, which has a very significant impact on their opportunities.

LINDA LACINA: I think that's interesting and I had read elsewhere that your grandfather's bank wouldn't give him a loan can you. Can you talk a little bit about that? I mean I think it was some time ago, but it's so interesting.

CHRIS SOUKUP: In the late 50s or early 60s, my grandfather, my dad's dad, was a farmer in Wagner, South Dakota, kind of the central, southcentral part of the state of South Dakota. He was very proud to be a farmer and to have his own land and ran that farm successfully for a number of years. Then one summer there was a terrible storm, and it really devastated the farm. Demolished the crops and the buildings. So, my grandfather went to the bank to get a loan to rebuild the farm and the bank told them that they didn't believe that a deaf person was capable of running a farm and felt that he would be too big of a risk. They refused to give him a loan, and they lost the farm. So that was an early experience for my father that he took with him and what kind of the fuel that inspired his passion for building CSD and for helping to elevate just the way that people are perceived.

LINDA LACINA: It's incredible, and I think it's so interesting also to be talking about this community, because so often when people talk about diversity they maybe talk about gender, maybe they talk about ethnic background -- things like that. But very rarely are people talking about the deaf community for instance or the differently-abled at all. You know you've also said that there's diversity within diversity and so let's talk about this. What does that mean and why does this sort of get overlooked?

CHRIS SOUKUP: I think it would surprise most people to know that there's over a million people in the United States that use sign language as their primary means of communication every day. I mean it's a significant number and so the community is very sizable. And that doesn't include the people with hearing loss who don't sign -- that's an even larger population. We're talking about 30 million when you factor for people that have significant hearing loss. It's a large community. Even going beyond that, you look at the broader section of people with disabilities and now you're talking about 20 percent of the population. That's one out of five people. And over the course of your life you have a 50 percent chance of becoming disabled. It is fascinating that disabilities are not a larger part of the conversation about diversity and inclusion. And that gets overlooked so much in our national narrative about diversity and inclusion.

But specific to the deaf community, when we talk about diversity within diversity, it's really fascinating. It used to be years ago that you could kind of couch a deaf person into one of two silos: either you were deaf and you signed and you went to a deaf school or you were hard of hearing and you used hearing aids and an amplified phone and you relied on captioning. So, you were kind of in one of two buckets. And for CSD, during the early part of our history, we had our solutions kind of engineered to the core that there were two different categories of deaf but that has changed so much. Part of that has been the advent of cochlear implant technology and other innovations supporting assisted audio and just other innovations in technology over the last decades. So, now there's there is just tremendous diversity within the deaf community. We have people who you know I talked about 90 percent of deaf children being born to hearing parents, and so they will go out into the mainstream with a cochlear implant, and they may go their whole lives not really knowing another deaf person. Then there is exposure later in life, and they find their community, they find their home. There's a large number of stories about people who grow up in the mainstream and then they go to a deaf college, and it changes them. They find themselves, they find their identity and they just kind of find their place in life. There's a range of experiences with them that sort of that mosaic of what makes up the deaf community.

LINDA LACINA: When we talk about creating opportunity not overlooking anyone, what I think is really just exciting, but I love the venture fund. Can you talk a little bit about entrepreneurship and the venture fund and why it was created?

CHRIS SOUKUP: Absolutely. We have been very focused on the employment issue for some time now, and we've got a range of other programs within CSD that are focused on supporting placement of individuals into the workplace, working with corporations and government agencies to support identifying opportunities for deaf individuals and to support the training that's required them to be successful in their new employment. We have been saying for a very long time that addressing the issue of under unemployment rate within the deaf community is a battle that we have to fight on many fronts.

We know one of the integral ways that we need to do that is to create opportunity to support others that aspire to own their own business. Right now there are no resources for deaf individuals who want to run their own business. With that in mind, the first social impact fund specifically for the deaf community was paired with an incubator program to provide support and resources for those new entrepreneurs as they begin their journey.

LINDA LACINA: I know from our own work that having that training and that exposure to the nuts and bolts of running a business is pretty essential to entrepreneurs of any stripe really, because it demystifies everything. It unlocks this financial language that sets people apart in so many ways. But it's particularly important for it for the deaf community as well. Can you talk about why this is even more important to you to be able to empower these individuals?

CHRIS SOUKUP: Well I think there's a couple of things that I would offer up. First, I think coming back to the idea of changing perspective and attitude and helping to broaden the larger perspective of what a deaf person is and is capable of, this is really integral. Success stories I think will go a long way. The more success stories that we can generate as a part of this program, you know brick by brick, it's a way for us to hope to change that broader perspective. Secondly, you have deaf entrepreneurs who, as their businesses are growing, are going to be looking to hire. There's an exponential opportunity to have an impact on job creation within the deaf community, and so as they succeed that success gets passed on. We strive to build an economy within the deaf community to help support our growth.

LINDA LACINA: You've also done a lot of work to transform CSD in a lot of other ways, including focusing on helping to scale the organization and also in sort of working on technology -- just updating it to what people need right now. Can you give us a sense for some of the stuff you guys have been working on in that transformation? So, give us a sense of like here's what it was like before and here's what we're what we're attacking, here's what we're doing.

CHRIS SOUKUP: So CSD, part of our growth through the years...we've had a lot of organic expansion that's come about as a result of trying to address a specific need, or there might be a grand opportunity or there might be something on a local level where there's just an opportunity for us to get involved and make a difference. So, over the years, we have this sort of constellation of programs that were valuable but not scalable.

It created some challenges for us in terms of wanting to have the sort of global impact that we were looking to create and so that created a circumstance where we needed to take a step back and look at how we were structured, at where our resources were going and you know how we would be in a position to really innovate the next generation of solutions for the deaf community and to be able to scale their solutions so that everyone could benefit equally from the solutions. To have programs that are fantastic in one part of the country but everywhere else not being able to benefit from that isn't sustainable. That's not achieving our mission as a company. That's really what has driven a lot of the transformation over the last several years within CSD. So, creating an innovation space was integral to that and we started that six years ago. We started working on an innovation center in Austin, Texas. I like to share this story, because when I personally moved to Austin, we used an existing office there that was primarily being used for frontline programs and services. It was right off the interstate and with a very accessible location, but it wasn't a premier officer or anything like that. We got there and then we thought, "Okay, we're going to go and we're going to build a new software development organization. We're going to go out there and we're going to find the brightest software engineers we can and have them come and be a part of what we're doing. Well, in Austin you have Facebook and you have Google and you have Apple -- I mean you have all of these companies with gorgeous facilities and they're able to offer these perks and amenities.

So, trying to position ourselves to be able to recruit was a challenge initially. Then the story became, well, you can you can go to work for a larger company and the impact of your work, the contribution that kind of goes into this sort of larger machine and get your code kind of gets dropped into a giant silo, and it's not always easy to see where or how your work is impacting change. Or you can come here to CSD and be a part of engineering solutions that are going to change people's lives. That was that was kind of the approach and it worked. We have a phenomenal team that I'm very proud of that are working on engineering these types of solutions and are very, very passionate about it about the work that they do.

LINDA LACINA: It's amazing. Can you walk us through some of the solutions that they're developing?

CHRIS SOUKUP: The one that I'd like to showcase is in the interpreting space. Sign-language interpreting agencies historically have operated a little bit like travel agents, sort of a concierge. You know, if you have a need for a sign-language interpreter you call the agency and then they work it out and they send an interpreter to your location. It's been operated that way for decades -- that's just been kind of the model. We saw an opportunity to improve upon that and to create essentially a marketplace where deaf individuals, interpreters, interpreter agencies and customers were actually paying for the services would all be a part of the experience and we could do a better job of matching interpreters to the end users of service and to provide better tools for all of the stakeholders to be able to manage experience.

The other part of that is video interpreting has been on the rise. This type of interpretive support is becoming very common within that unit, and it's wonderful, but it is not appropriate for every circumstance. So, helping to responsibly use video interpreting and making sure that it's there as an option that is not being forced on deaf people in situations where maybe it wouldn't be appropriate is also part of that solution. I think we're innovative and very disruptive to a longstanding market and model for service delivery.

LINDA LACINA: In driving any sort of change there's always a moment where you think, "Well gosh, maybe I can't pull this off. Maybe this is a lot harder than that I imagined." What was that point for you. I mean it's a natural point for anybody trying to do anything big and anything challenging. Can you tell us a little bit about that moment for you and how you pushed through it?

CHRIS SOUKUP: I think you know when we started to rebuild CSD 2.0 we kind of started that process in Austin and launched in 2012. It was a blank page for us. We literally put together the blueprint for the new organization and kind of defined the different components that we felt like CSD 2.0 would need to be able to engineer the solution have it be the resource that we wanted the company to be in the future. It was daunting.

We did that while we were supporting all other things that CSD 1.0 was doing as an organization and so kind of you know engineering the new organization while we were supporting the legacy parts of the organization and then merging them you know at the time that we thought was appropriate. That was a gargantuan effort and juggling that with the community and making sure that we have the support of the community, that they understood what it was that we were endeavoring to do,  and building the relationships that we needed to be successful -- you know there were lots of moments of uncertainty.  Is this the right direction for us? Is that going to pay off in the way that we're hoping? And then are we going to find the trajectory that we need to get to the point that we need to be to make the kind of impact that we want to be able to create. I think this is sort of the largest period of uncertainty, for me, is just kind of driving through that transformation. But certainly, within you know all of the things that we have been trying to do from a product service and program level, we've had similar moments where you know we put something new out there and then it doesn't have the exact response that we're hoping for. So, we take it back and iterative process. "Okay that didn't work exactly the way that we wanted it to, let's make some changes and try again." And there's been a lot of that, as well.

I think what kept us going is the compelling vision for what we want to be able to create and the kind of impact that that we want to have.

LINDA LACINA: Is there also a sense of a change in yourself? Like you have been part of this organization forever. You have a vision for what you want to do to contribute to the organization, a thing that you think, "Gosh I'm the custodian of this group now, here's what I want to add to it." How has this changed you, Chris?

CHRIS SOUKUP: I think what has been interesting for me is that I've had you know sort of this personal evolution kind of in parallel to the professional evolution. For example, becoming a parent. You know, it bolstered the desire to see the kind of change that we we're working to create at CSD. It just became this natural fuel for me. So, coming from a deaf family and having grown up in the deaf community and just seeing how that community has changed and just having had that direct exposure. You know, that kind of carries through into the work that I do at CSD and you know sort of the mindset that we have in how we shape and the narrative of the organization.

Some of big messaging that we put out there is we talk about the disability framework and how the the word disability has been destructive and there's sort of this broader negative connotation that gets associated with the word disability. When somebody says, "I have a disability" automatically you think something negative. And that's been part of the problem. We don't see diversity -- human diversity -- as a strength. We don't see it as the opportunity to bring new perspective, a different way of looking at the world into the things that we do and how we become stronger because of that. And so that has been, I think, something that I have tried to instill into our mindset, into our messaging and that has been an evolution from the way that even CSD has talked about the deaf community. And it's something that I think needs to happen.

LINDA LACINA: How do you do that? You've got folks all over the country that were thinking and doing a certain way, and you want to help them evolve -- you have to evolve thinking as well as doing. What's your approach to help people update how they're thinking about how we need to change and create opportunity?

CHRIS SOUKUP: It's not easy! [laughs]

LINDA LACINA: That's why I asked it! [laughs]

CHRIS SOUKUP: I think one thing that is really compelling -- this interview with an example. Getting out there and telling our story. We have created films with a message that we've embedded into those films to kind of showcase the idea of disability and how flawed some of the perception around disability is and really that in a broader sense disability is a reflection of society and not the individual. They're so much focus on trying to...I think none of us wants a plain vanilla world where everybody is the same and there are there are no differences between us. I think we all are quick to agree that diversity of perspective, that diversity of experience is what gives life texture and meaning and color. Without that, what would what would the world be? We don't apply that to ability. We don't apply that to you know the other kinds of differences that we have. That's a mistake, it's really tragic. I think it's a part of that storytelling, helping to kind of represent to the world and hopefully you know we change some perspectives along the way.

LINDA LACINA: I have just one last question for you sir and then I can release you back into your day and that's, What do you want people to take from this chat? Is it about finding your fuel? Is it about tapping into your mission? Is it about understanding diversity that you may be missing and overlooking -- what would you like people to take away from here? What's the lesson that they can apply in their daily lives?

CHRIS SOUKUP: I think that the most important thing is there are no template. You know everybody is different. Everybody has a completely different experience. So, don't put people into buckets. Take the time to get to know the person and their background and their capabilities. Don't make any assumptions about what they can or can't do because of a label that happens to be assigned to them. I think that's the biggest mistake that we make as people. We're very quick to assign labels, and we miss opportunity that way. I think having an open mind and an open heart and being more willing to go deeper in terms of getting to know the people around us I think is the most compelling message that I can leave.

LINDA LACINA: That's wonderful. Well Chris, it's been a delight. Thank you very much for being part of this chat. I know that your insights will be just compelling for so many of my listeners.

CHRIS SOUKUP: Thank you so much. It's really wonderful.

LINDA LACINA: And before we go some short announcements for our listeners: How Success Happens comes out weekly. To make sure you don't miss a single episode, subscribe in iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, in SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. And don't be afraid to leave us a review. It helps us improve and reach more listeners just like you. For more stories, just like this one on the mindset that you need to start and grow a business, go to entrepeneur.com and to let me know what you think about the show. Find me on Twitter at @LindaLacina. Thanks for listening, we'll see you next week.

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