Launched in 2013, VieAbility is one of Cincinnati Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired (CABVI)’s most visible social enterprises. With over 150 active customers, VieAbility’s selection of over 40,000 office supplies are delivered the next day for free. And, CABVI “delivers” social impact by providing meaningful employment to individuals who are blind or have severe vision loss. We sat down with Rachel Doellman, Marketing Manager at CABVI, to learn more about Vie Ability.
What is Vie Ability and how does it work?
Vie Ability is an office supply social enterprise. It’s a website that is completely operated by people who are blind and visually impaired. The website has over 40,000 office supplies with free next day delivery on no minimum purchases. We have a warehouse here at CABVI where we’re fulfilling orders and delivering them with our own Vie Ability delivery van. The mission is really to help people who are blind and visually impaired get professional job training and we’re providing them job opportunities as well. Many of the employees are people who’ve had careers that were already established, then later in life lost their vision. They then found themselves having trouble working. So we’re here to provide opportunities for them to continue working and to continue growing their careers.
Why should customers use Vie Ability’s services? What sets you apart from your competitors?
Our mission definitely sets us apart. Someone could go to Staples or Office Depot and get the same office supplies. But we have a mission. When you shop with us you’re helping these people live independently, you’re giving them a job. You give them a place to come to everyday. We provide training so that if they want to move on to another business they can go work somewhere else. We consider some positions transitional, so we’re just doing the training here. On top of it, we have a great selection of thousands of supplies and we offer next day delivery at no charge.
How many visually impaired people are employed at Vie Ability and in what capacity?
We have nine total employees. [laughing] Eight of them are visually impaired because our delivery driver we definitely wanted to have sight. There are five communication center coordinators, one manager, and two transitional employees. The communication center manager and coordinators are really operating the whole backend of our website. They’re taking orders each day and making sure they’re fulfilled on time and that customers are getting the correct orders. If a customer calls looking for a specific item, they’re the ones searching for parts or products. They look up products to make sure we have it. They’ll find the best prices for customers and source the products. They really work on anything involved in the processing of orders, customer service, and order fulfilment.
Why are programs like Vie Ability important to Cincinnati’s visually impaired community?
I think they’re essential to the local community of people who are blind and visually impaired. There are places where people who are blind or visually impaired can work in manufacturing and doing assembly and things like that, but there aren’t many opportunities for professional employment and training. Not many computer jobs, not much customer service, so this is really filling a gap that was needed in the community for people who are blind or visually impaired. We have a huge wait list of people looking for jobs and just waiting for something to open up here. As we grow were able to bring more of those people on board.
How did you first get connected to Flywheel?
Flywheel was really essential in starting the social enterprise movement in Cincinnati. It also helped start the Social Enterprise Alliance [Cincinnati chapter], of which the Cincinnati Association for the Blind was one of the founding members. By creating those partnerships with social enterprises, we were all able to start sharing best practices. Flywheel gave us a time and a place to connect and facilitate.
How has a relationship with Flywheel been an asset to Vie Ability?
One of the events that helped us a lot was the Fair on the Square event at Fountain Square. [Fair on the Square is a public gathering of local enterprises that informs the community about individual organizations as well as encourages visitors to “Buy Social.”] We’ve participated in the event a couple of times. We made connections with other social enterprises participating and we were given a venue for the public to interact with us and to become a household name. It showed people that social enterprise is something they should be aware of and support. Flywheel has done a lot to promote the concept in Cincinnati.
How has Cincinnati’s growing social enterprise community help Vie Ability grow their business?
We’ve learned to support each other from a reciprocity standpoint. For instance, Talbert House has a social enterprise catering lunches. So we’ll buy lunches from them and we’ll ask them to buy office supplies from us. So there’s the actual business part of it, but what’s really essential to any business starting out is honest feed back. Let’s say you have a small business that starts, well that first big customer that they get isn’t only about the dollars they bring in. It’s the phone call that says, “hey you messed this up and we’re not going to fire you, but we’re going to tell you what you did so you can improve. We have a lot of customers that are good customers, not because they buy from us, but because they give us honest feedback. They help us to improve and continuous improvement is really important.
What’s it like being a part of the Social Enterprise Community in Cincinnati?
The Cincinnati Associate for the blind started in 1911. For us, we really don’t know what it’s like not to be apart of it. We started as a social enterprise. There were individuals who were blind living in downtown Cincinnati that really wanted to work. Without opportunities they were standing on the street corner. We began as a social enterprise, employing people who are blind. We’ve always done that. Now 106 years into it, we’re still doing the same thing. We just don’t know what it’s like not to.