Soon after customers arrive at Mozzeria for the first time, they notice something’s different about the restaurant: Virtually every staffer is deaf.
Owners Russ and Melody Stein are also deaf, and have run their San Francisco restaurant since 2011. The business is thriving because customers love the food and the Steins have overcome obstacles deaf people can face when they become small business owners — particularly lingering stereotypes and prejudice, and fewer resources than hearing entrepreneurs have.
“We have the same skills as a hearing individual,” Russ Stein says.
Running Mozzeria comes naturally to Melody Stein, whose family is in the restaurant business.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says.
Deaf people have the same ambition and ability to be entrepreneurs and business owners as those who hear, says Tom Baldridge, director of the business administration program at Gallaudet University, the largest educational institution serving the deaf and hard of hearing. There’s a growing interest among Gallaudet students in entrepreneurship, matching the increase in business schools across the country. The university is expanding its entrepreneurship offerings beyond courses, and giving students experience in running businesses like campus coffee shops.
“A lot is happening right now beyond a few courses in entrepreneurship. We’ve hired a consultant who’s going to guide us (and) infuse corporate entrepreneurship into all the academic disciplines,” Baldridge says.
The hearing world is still catching up to the idea of deaf business owners. The Steins have encountered discrimination from people who hear and don’t want to make accommodations to help those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
The couple has run into resistance when they asked for help at local government offices, including times when they were trying to get permits required for running a restaurant.
“We have had our rough moments,” Russ Stein says. “There have been times when I had to ask for interpreters, and I was made fun of; I was looked down upon.”
Vendors and other business owners who can hear are often startled or feel awkward when they first meet the couple. Some have assumed that because the Steins are deaf, they didn’t know what they were doing, Russ Stein says. Some have been impatient about using pen and paper to communicate, or have said offensive or inappropriate things.
“People ask, ‘how do you drive?'” Stein says.
But most vendors adapt to working with the Steins. Mozzeria’s wine vendor has become a true colleague, helping them learn more about the restaurant business.
And customers, most of whom can hear, seem happy to write their questions about items on the menu. Some seem awkward when they first come in, but they soon relax and enjoy their meals.
“They learn to overcome their fear,” Melody Stein says.
Many deaf owners have dealt with prejudice, including hearing people believing that the best careers for deaf people are teaching or counseling other deaf people.
Mara Ladines, who owns By Mara, a clothing manufacturer and store in New York, wanted a career in fashion design, but some counselors in college tried to steer her toward being a graphic designer, a job that would require less communication with others.
“They believed a deaf individual can’t get a job in the fashion industry.” she says.
Ladines insisted on taking design courses and got jobs in retailers including clothing store H&M. In 2008, she began designing T-shirts and other clothes with a logo that shows the American Sign Language sign for “I love you.” She started the business online and it has grown to the point where she could open the store last spring; many of the people who walk in are hearing, and Ladines is able to communicate with them and make sales.
Ladines wants to keep building her business, but she’s frustrated by a lack of resources. She wants to find a mentor who understands the deaf culture.
“It seems that most hearing individuals don’t understand that a deaf individual can own a business,” she says. “I feel I was born as a natural business owner.”
A Resource and an Obstacle
With email an integral part of any business, deaf owners communicate with vendors, bankers, customers and government offices. The Internet makes phone service easier — companies known as video relay services allow deaf people to communicate in sign language with an interpreter who then speaks to a hearing person via phone. These services are free.
The Small Business Administration started a videophone service this year enabling deaf owners to communicate via sign language with agency employees and making it easier to get help and information about loans and other SBA services. Previously, owners had to use teletype services that were slower and didn’t offer the human interaction video relay does.
But owners say the Internet isn’t as accessible as it could be. Few videos and online seminars designed for small business owners are captioned or interpreted. It’s frustrating to Melissa Greenlee, who runs deaffriendly.com, a website that helps deaf people find services and companies that accommodate their needs.
“While technology has been a wonderful advancement for our community in so many ways, it also has been my biggest barrier to advancement,” she says.