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White Cane founder Willman speaks before U.S. Senate Aging Committee

Photo courtesy of Sen. Bob Casey’s office Erin Willman, founder and CEO of White Cane Coffee, testified before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Aging Thursday. That committee is chaired by, right, Sen. Bob Casey.

Testimony in legislative hearings isn’t always interesting and engaging.

That wasn’t the case on Thursday, though, in testimony offered by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Aging.

Sen. Bob Casey, who chairs the committee, called the testimony interesting and informative but also inspiring.

One of the presenters? White Cane Coffee Founder/CEO Erin Willman.

The hearing, which ran about 75 minutes, afforded the committee the opportunity to hear from entrepreneurs, a self-advocate and an expert on how to support and promote entrepreneurship among people with disabilities in competitive employment.

Casey said that 40.5 percent of people with disabilities participate in the labor force, up from 32.7 percent in April 2020 and “at the highest level since record keeping began in 2008.

“More people with disabilities are looking for, finding and retaining employment than ever before,” he said. “With the right support, people with disabilities can thrive in their work environments and we must create an ecosystem that supports their ability to do so.

“We can do more and we must do more to employ people with disabilities.”

Willman was the first to speak before the committee on what she called a subject “very dear to my heart.”

“When I lost my vision at age 15,” she said, “I went looking for employment only to be met with rejection time and time again. People could see my white cane and all the things I couldn’t do,” she said.

She said that led to a sense of discouragement and “beginning to question what my worth was.”

When White Cane Coffee was born, she said there were two major objectives – including braille on all packaging and hiring individuals with disabilities.

“I figured if I wasn’t getting hired, others in my community might not be faring much better,” she added.

Willman told the committee about one employee who, when interviewing, told her he would work for less than minimum wage.

“When we hired him, we made sure he knew he had worth,” she said. “He has been an incredible employee since that day.”

“The rhetoric that people don’t want to work anymore is untrue,” she stressed. “(They) want to be treated and paid what they deserve. I implore you all – change the world.”

Citing White Cane’s 12 employees and 76 affiliate employees across the country, Casey asked Willman how she feels about hiring people with similar challenges.

“It is a wonderful feeling to give back to my community and to raise up other people with disabilities because they have gone through probably worse things than I have,” she said. “When they come in to work for me, they find a sense of community. You can hear it in their voice how much that means to them.

“I’m very thankful for the chance I have been given to be able to give them that hope.”

Casey then asked how she plans to grow the business.

“The ultimate goal is to have a White Cane all over the country,” she said. “Wherever there are disabled people, there should be somewhere they can have gainful employment. Why not a White Cane Coffee?”

Indiana Sen. Mike Braun asked her what advice she has for other entrepreneurs.

“One thing I would always say is to start small and work your way up but more importantly surround yourself with people who know things you don’t,” she said.

Willman also raised the importance of surrounding yourself with people who will believe in you but won’t just agree with everything you say.

Casey, citing a pending piece of legislation, said he’s working to expand tax benefits for businesses such as White Cane and asked Willman how those expanding tax benefits could make the business more successful.

“It would allow… the opportunity to have more access to equipment that will make areas more accessible,” she said. “We make everyone’s work station accessible to them,” suggesting that a tax credit “incentives other companies to do the same.”

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