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AZRIELA JAFFE

8.4.99  
Living with Disability — and Opening Doors for Others
Staffcentrix helps people get started in a new profession — virtual assistant.

Michael Haaren wrote to me from McLean, Va., after spotting a column I had written for a disabled woman seeking guidance on self-employment opportunities. Michael has been in her shoes. He generously agreed to share his story in the hope that he can reach other disabled individuals wrestling with similar challenges. Here is Michael's account (edited) of his experiences.

"My disability is chronic depression, alleviated by antidepressants (Prozac). I'm a veteran, and my depression is considered service-related. But it dates from my childhood, really, where I encountered family alcoholism, domestic violence, and sexual abuse. During my service in the Army from 1968-69, the depression deepened, and I was given a medical discharge. I spent many years in therapy but had little luck overcoming the sadness until I began taking Prozac several years ago. "Like many entrepreneurs, I felt I had to earn the love and esteem of a parent who withheld it. After my Army discharge, this yearning ultimately motivated me to graduate from Georgetown University summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and obtain my JD at the University of Virginia. I went on to practice corporate law on Wall Street.

"I quickly grew dissatisfied with law and, having wanted for some time to become a writer, left New York in 1983 to write fiction in Paris. I published short stories and other short works while paying the rent as a lecturer at the University of Paris. I returned to live in the U.S. in the early 1990s.

"Soon thereafter, I discovered the Net. A few years later, I became an "indie" stock-and-options trader and portfolio manager, using the Web for research and trading. Living in Northern Virginia, which is home to so many Net companies, I launched a Net entrepreneur M&A advisory shop called Catalytik! Through Catalytik!, I was able to work closely with a large number of gifted entrepreneurs, counseling them on how to grow their businesses and secure venture funding."

At this point in Michael's career, a new venture presented itself. While running Catalytik!, he heard about virtual assistants, people who handle noncore administrative tasks for entrepreneurs via phone, fax, and E-mail. He hired one of the pioneers in the industry, Christine Durst, who ran a business called My Staff from her basement. It was growing exponentially. She got constant inquiries on how to become a VA, and she wanted to show others how it was done. Michael soon became her business partner. He began closing down Catalytik! late last December, and the two founded a VA "incubator" called Staffcentrix and a nonprofit organization to help develop standards for this new profession, the International Virtual Assistants Assn.

Their aim is to offer inexpensive guidance and referral support to prospective VAs. Their training materials are all on site, in a "members only" resource area, and they serve as mentors to VAs through a community listserve, "VA Watercooler," and give individual advice via E-mail, telephone and fax. Staffcentrix sells two packages of services and information to help people get started as VAs -- for $99 and $199, respectively. The more expensive one includes referrals and some free phone support. Staffcentrix also serves as an online community for VAs, Michael says. Staffcentrix' services are heavily marketed to the disabled community, he explains, though the company isn't only geared to them. He guesses that about 10% of the 51 VAs registered with the site are disabled, though Staffcentrix doesn't ask about their health status.

This venture has let Michael use his entrepreneurial skills to do something close to his heart: reach out to thousands of people with disabilities. He has garnered attention from mainstream media and publications for the disabled such as Paraplegia News. He and Chris have been invited to give a talk about virtual assistants to the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

Chris and Michael know from personal experience about working virtually. Although they are in close contact every day, Michael lives in Virginia and Chris in Connecticut. They are joined by a shared vision to reduce the high unemployment rate among people with disabilities and assist the disabled in capitalizing on the many E-commerce opportunities afforded by the Net. For Michael, doing what he loves and believes in has also been a great antidote to his depression.

If you are disabled and interested in the virtual assistant profession, check out their Web site at http://www.staffcentrix.com. The site is "Bobby" certified. Bobby is a Web application that analyzes sites for features that make them more accessible to people with disabilities, such as text summaries of graphics or photos. (The Web site for Bobby certification is http://www.cast.org/bobby/).

Have a question on how to handle the pressures of running a business and the impact on your personal life, marriage, and family? Contact Azriela Jaffe at AZ@azriela.com. Please put "BW Online question" in the subject field. Your real name will be kept confidential if you request, but please give an E-mail address, phone number, and your hometown so she can contact you for more information. Because of heavy volume, Azriela cannot guarantee that she will answer every query.

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