Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in personal development but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Joyce Bender, Founder of Bender Leadership Academy, located in Moon Township, PA, USA.

What's your business, and who are your customers?

The Bender Leadership Academy is a not-for-profit that focuses on work preparedness, leadership, public speaking, community engagement, and dealing with bullying. Our goal is to see high school students with disabilities no longer face diminished opportunities when compared to high school students without disabilities.

We create sustainable programs that focus on building work readiness competencies that focus on the value and competencies that our students can contribute to the workforce. The Bender Leadership Academy also has a component that focuses on mental health issues the Mary Brougher Mental Health Initiative.

Tell us about yourself

I was misdiagnosed with fainting spells as a result of a female hormonal problem in 1982. When these fainting spells occurred, I would fall and become very ill. One night in 1985, I fell and hit the floor hard as a result of a seizure. This fall resulted in life-saving brain surgery and a hearing loss, and the realization that I was, and always had been, living with epilepsy.

With this profound realization that I had disabilities, epilepsy and hard of hearing, I began my journey to provide competitive employment for people with disabilities. I founded a now nationally known for-profit company, Bender Consulting Services, Inc., with headquarters in Pittsburgh, PA.

I became an internationally recognized expert in the area of disability employment, both as the host of the international talk-radio show, Disability Matters with Joyce Bender and through the work I have done with the U.S. State Department supporting informational exchanges with countries such as South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, and others. However, it was through my work at Bender Consulting Services that I first learned of the need to address work readiness for high school students with disabilities transitioning into the working world.

During that time, 20 years ago, I received a call from one of my customers asking if I would be willing to volunteer to teach high school students with disabilities about what it takes to find and maintain employment. After the first year of delivering this program, my life was changed. These students had an immense impact on me.

Watching them learn and grow over the course of the program and learning about their barriers – including relentless bullying, gave me a new perspective and widened the scope of my personal crusade to affect change in the area of employment for people with disabilities.

Impassioned in making a difference, this volunteer program expanded to serve school districts in both Delaware and the greater-Pittsburgh area. The more I presented the program, the bigger it became. In 2018, I founded the Bender Leadership Academy as a 501(c)(3).

What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?

Successfully building Bender Consulting Services, Inc., against all odds. When beginning my work in the area of disability employment, the Americans with Disabilities Act had not even been signed yet. Through my pro-bono work connecting people with disabilities seeking to start a career in information technology, I understood the attitudinal barriers that prevented people with disabilities from having the opportunity to participate fully in the workforce.

I started Bender Consulting Services just five years after the signing of the ADA with a singular customer commitment to hiring six people with disabilities. There were many people who advised me against taking the risk of starting Bender Consulting Services, but I had come to know the disability community and their desire to achieve the dream of competitive employment.

I knew that if given a chance, these people would do what it took to be successful – and they did not let me down. I always tell people it is my employees who make the difference. They are the ones out there every day doing a great job and changing the perception of what it means to include people with disabilities.

What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?

The hardest thing is being persistent and never quitting. Without cultivating these skills, you limit your success. You have to learn to always keep going – especially when it is something as important as the work we do at Bender Leadership Academy. Not everyone is going to believe in you. You have to believe in the product you are putting out there enough to get past the disbelievers.

What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?

There are three tips I would give to anyone thinking of starting their own business.

The first is to make sure you have a plan that is well thought out.

Then, before you go out on your own, make sure you have at least one large customer.

Finally, remember, being an entrepreneur is so exciting, but know it is a 24-by-7 job. You have to make the commitment to yourself up front and understand the amount of work involved

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

Providing hope to high school students with disabilities seeking employment and watching them realize how awesome they are is a treasure to me. Each and every one of them makes me so proud as I watch them grow into young advocates and young professionals.

Where can people find you and your business?


If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.

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