When International Development student Aanuoluwapo Omoleye entered the Bison Tank competition last year, she had a great idea for a business. She wanted to create books for African children featuring positive depictions of disabled characters. But that did not mean she had any idea of how to run a business.

Most people don鈥檛, says Russell Stein, 鈥95, Director of the Gallaudet Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute (GIEI). And it can be tough to figure out, especially for Deaf individuals, who typically start at a disadvantage. 鈥淎 lot of people assume we have access to information that we don鈥檛,鈥 Stein says. 鈥淲e need to bridge the gap in terminologies so we can get people to the next level.鈥

That is why GIEI鈥檚 Bison Tank not only awards funding to winners, but also provides a robust mentorship program to set up all of the competitors for success. A panel of Deaf business owners, who bring first-hand experience to the table, work one-on-one in American Sign Language with the budding entrepreneurs. It is a transformative experience for the participants, and one that GIEI has been trying to expand so that more people in the community can benefit. Through funding from the National Disability Institute, GIEI has been able to roll out mentorship services to all students (to register, visit gu.live/mentorship).

Abby Haroun, ’94

As part of this outreach, Stein wants to help more students become comfortable with the idea of having a mentor. 鈥淚 don鈥檛 think 鈥榤entorship鈥 should be a dirty word. It鈥檚 healthy for us,鈥 he says. 鈥淭hey are not here to make decisions for you. A mentor is there to support you, not do your job.鈥

For last year鈥檚 competition, Omoleye was partnered up with Sachiko Flores, Executive Director of Deaf Worlds and Co-founder of CorpsTHAT, which focuses on Deaf outdoor education. After she won, she also had sessions with Dr. E. Lynn Jacobowitz, a retired Gallaudet professor who owns ASL Star, an ASL training company. Both provided invaluable advice that helped her officially launch Ablebooks Africa in September 2023. Ablebooks has published its first book, distributed 1,000 copies to deaf schools in Nigeria, and recruited a team of more than 70 volunteers to go to the schools and read to students. Two more books are slated to come out by this July.

鈥淚 went from ground zero,鈥 Omoleye says. 鈥淭hey gave me tips on how to set up finances, do license registrations, face bad days, and many more.鈥 She was particularly grateful for their guidance on how to document her expenses and income.

Because the mentors come from a range of backgrounds and bring different expertise to the table, GIEI strives to line up partnerships that make sense. Flores also worked with Abby Haroun, 鈥94, when she entered the 2022 alumni Bison Tank competition to elevate her African-inspired clothing and art business. 鈥淲e鈥檙e both women of color, and she shared the challenges she has experienced in making her visions succeed. Most importantly, she showed me her approach to overcoming those challenges,鈥 Haroun says. 鈥淚t was empowering to interact with another woman of color who has successfully established her own business. I no longer felt alone.鈥

Frank Allnutt, 鈥91, who participated in the same alumni Bison Tank competition, says he could not have imagined a more perfect mentor than Mozzeria co-founder Melody Stein. Allnutt鈥檚 plan is to launch a smoked meat catering company, so her background in the restaurant industry has been incredibly useful. One key piece of advice? 鈥淜now your customers and what they want,鈥 he says. Following that recommendation, he has spent a lot of time fine-tuning recipes and developing his social media presence.

Stein has also directed Allnutt to resources available through Vocational Rehabilitation Services to cover costs associated with paperwork and equipment. He estimates that he will save thousands of dollars by taking her advice. 鈥淚 strongly encourage everyone to take advantage of mentorship. It doesn鈥檛 cost anything to ask for help,鈥 Allnutt says.

For the mentors, the experience is just as rewarding, says Jane Jonas. Jonas 鈥 who runs a creative agency, a vacation rental company, and a coffee business staffed by all-Deaf baristas 鈥 has served as a GIEI mentor for years, and is thrilled that so many students and alumni she has worked with have gone on to launch thriving businesses and careers. 鈥淚 strongly believe that we must invest in Deaf youth and show them role models of entrepreneurship to strengthen our Deaf ecosystem and economy,鈥 she says.

Gallaudet鈥檚 support of this mentoring network is meaningful to Jonas. 鈥淚t sends the message that Deaf people can thrive and succeed in owning their businesses,鈥 she says. 鈥淪o often we are told, 鈥極h, I’m so sorry,鈥 when we tell people we are Deaf. Having innovators and entrepreneurs in our community helps highlight the powerful story of Deaf Gain and shows that we are not to be pitied.鈥

Take, for example, Haroun鈥檚 story. Her business, Afrotika, has continued to thrive, and her creations are now available at The Collective, a store in Baltimore that sells handmade goods from various local makers. Haroun finds that people frequently approach her for business-related advice. So in addition to being an entrepreneur, she has a new job lined up: mentor. 鈥淚鈥檓 ready and I鈥檓 willing and I鈥檓 available,鈥 Haroun says.

For Russell Stein, this transformation from mentee to mentor demonstrates the power of what GIEI is doing on campus. 鈥淭hink about the ripple effect this type of paying it forward can create,鈥 he says. To learn more and get involved, visit bisontank.com.

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