Member Spotlight: Jolene MacDonald

Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hi, nice to meet you, Stephanie. My name is Jolene McDonald and I am the founder of Accessibrand. We are Canada’s first accessibility-focused design, marketing, and communications agency.

How would you describe entrepreneurship? Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?

Absolutely. It’s funny that you ask that question. I actually just won Entrepreneur of the Year for 40, last Thursday night for the Kitchener Waterloo Oktoberfest Rogers Woman of the Year. So I will say yes, I am an entrepreneur. 

I’ve been raised in it. My dad was an entrepreneur for almost 50 years. There’s an ongoing joke that I had my first business card at 12. But officially, I started running a business in 2003, so it’s been about 20 years, now. 

This is my second and larger company that I have run, and I love it. I have tried to work for other people, but it’s not for me. I find this is still the route that I follow and the path that I love the most. And I’m most passionate about being self-employed.

What made you decide to pursue this business of yours?

So for Accessibrand in particular, I have been a graphic designer myself since about 1996. And I mentioned that I had another business before – I had a design company with a business partner for about 15 years. 

I’m also a mom of three. I have two girls and a boy, and my youngest – who is turning 12 – was born in 2011 with a rare form of dwarfism. When she started school, I started doing some work with Not For Profits. And I was communicating and talking about how my daughter was dealing with things. And they asked me, “Do you know that many people with disabilities can’t access digital information like websites and documents?” I had no idea. 

And so the light bulb moment was right then and there. I’d say that was probably about 2012. I tried to incorporate that into my work with my other company at the time, but we were always adding it as an extra – “Here’s your project. And here’s how much it is to make it accessible.

Of course, in Ontario where I’m located, we have the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act. Other provinces also have theirs, and the Accessible Canada Act is coming out as well. I couldn’t ethically and morally do a job without making it so that everyone had equitable access to it. 

So, long story short, I actually became very sick. We didn’t know what the issue was. I didn’t have a diagnosis until about five or six years ago. So I partnered out of my company because, with three kids who needed advocating for accessibility, plus being very sick myself, it was really too much to handle. 

That’s when I had this idea about building a company that did design marketing communications but that did everything with accessibility and inclusion built right in. I wanted it to provide job opportunities for people with disabilities as well, because they’re very under-employed, as are parents who have medically fragile children – they often end up leaving their careers. 

So I started freelancing as Accessibrand. And then I was able to get a diagnosis for my illness – I have something called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which is connective tissue disorder. And now in my own life, I’m experiencing disability, which is what we talk about in as a core message: if you don’t make things accessible, you’re not doing yourself any favors, 

We’re all going to experience disability at some point. Whether it’s when you become old, or you are in a car accident, or maybe it’s temporary. But that was really how Accessibrand was born. 

What’s kept you feeling motivated during those harder parts of your entrepreneurship journey?

It’s a great question because I have waffled many times about ‘it could be so much easier just to work for someone else’ or be able to walk out the door at five o’clock and not take work home with me. 

The problem is, I find that when you work for someone else, and if you have a good idea, you can get stopped. But you can just make that decision yourself if you’re self-employed. 

And whether it works or it fails, you still have the opportunity to move forward, and I think that’s really what drives me a lot. I like working on things that mean something to me or that are making the world a better place. 

How did you fund your business?

So really all on my own. With a couple of projects, as we got a little bit larger and re-launched, we were able to receive a grant for our podcast and our E-Learning course that we just launched recently. Otherwise, it’s all been self-funded. 

I’ve just kept plugging away and advertising and connecting. And I’ve been fortunate that I was born and raised in Waterloo Region. My other business was here, so I have a lot of those business connections. But it hasn’t been easy, for sure. 

And is there a piece of advice you could offer to others who would like to follow in your path?

I get that question quite often. I know for me, I always think that people are afraid of failure, because a lot of people are like, Oh, you’re so brave. You can’t care what anyone thinks, you just keep going. 

I think it’s better to find out that you can do it than to never have tried and have to live with those regrets. But I don’t know that everyone’s built to be self-employed. It’s not an easy route. It’s got its perks, but it’s got its cons too. 

So I think if you’re really passionate about something, if you truly want to do something that you believe in and that you love to do, then I think it’s always worth trying. If you have support around you, and you have the financial means to do that, I think it’s better to try and not live with regret.

Is there a message you’d like to share with other women entrepreneurs?

Always try and reach out for support, if you can. One thing that I recognized early on is that I maybe thought I shouldn’t ask for support, that I might look like a failure. 

There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. And I think there are so many other women entrepreneurs that are new to it that would love to have a mentor or someone just to bounce ideas off. So try and find that group, try and find people that have things in common with you, and connect with them. 

I know for myself, I’ve met a wonderful community just in the last few years, like the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce, our local Chamber of Commerce, and some online groups on Facebook for women entrepreneurs. 

I think it’s been so amazing to see that I’m not the only one experiencing what I am, including the juggling of family. Business is never easy either if you are a parent, so really try and focus on finding other people that are like-minded.

How would you like to see your business grow?

I think everyone has this idea of what a business plan should be. And you know, when we were starting out and going through incubators and accelerators, it was always about well, what are your financial goals? Where do your sales profits go? 

It’s hard; we’re a service-based business, so you don’t always know because we don’t have necessarily software as a service or a you know, a giant membership base or anything like that. But for me, my biggest goal is to have consistent revenue to support my family and also to provide as many opportunities for our team as possible. 

We have an eight-person team, though they’re not all full-time employees; we have a collective of freelancers. Everyone has a disability in our business, except for two – and either their children have a disability, or they’ve worked in accessibility and inclusion for many years. 

So for me, the growth is important – to have consistent revenue, return clients that really appreciate what we do and understand the value, who aren’t there just to check the boxes off.

And what’s one piece of achievement that you really are very proud of?

Seeing the change in our customers when they realize that accessibility and inclusion isn’t just adding simple things to a website. It’s when you see that change of mindset, and they finally understand disability from our side of the fence. That’s been really important. 

For me, I think that’s what success is because with any sort of marginalized community, we’re always fighting for equality in some way or another, whether we’re women, or it’s race or gender. 

As for disability, it’s been many years that we’re not treated equal, that employers look at hiring people with disabilities as a liability, because they have to pay for accommodations. It really doesn’t need to be that way; you need to look at the potential, instead. So when we can change perspectives and mindsets, that’s really what’s truly important.

And so that’s been a barrier for you and your entrepreneurial journey. What other barriers have you experienced?

I think one of the barriers that we face is that some people don’t always understand what we do. They know that they need accessibility in their digital information and digital technology space, but they don’t necessarily understand what it entails. So it’s almost like sometimes we’re a little far ahead of the game. 

Any last words you’d like to share with us?

I’m just really thankful for the opportunity to be part of an organization like the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce. I’d love to connect with other woman-identifying entrepreneurs. And if anyone’s looking for more understanding or education on accessibility inclusion in the digital marketing space, I’d be happy to chat about that anytime.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Connect with Jolene MacDonald here:

Watch The Interview On CanWCC’s YouTube Channel

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