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Taking the `dis' out of disability: Carmen Jones triumphed over a crippling car accident to build a marketing firm serving disabled consumers. (Guts & Glory).

In 1986, Carmen Jones, then a junior at Hampton University in Virginia, was returning to campus after Thanksgiving break when a horrible car accident changed her life forever Jones would never walk again, despite six months of hospitalization and intensive rehabilitation.

Scared, frustrated, and seriously hurt, both physically and emotionally, Jones vowed never to return to school. But she did. Through the inspiration of Hampton University president, William g. Harvey, her parents, and friends, Jones not only returned, but graduated with honors, earning a bachelor's degree in marketing. One of the lessons she learned was not to give up or believe that some things just can't be done.

Harvey, who had seen Jones on campus, as well as at the Hampton University Memorial Church, which they both attended, recalls helping out the young student. "Carmen is such a terrific person. And as a result of her accident, she was having a number of problems, as one might suspect, that called a lot of things into question about her future, her life, and her career," he says. "I convinced her to come back to school, stay in school, and not let adversity stop her from achieving her dreams"

Now, Jones is putting her degree to work. As president of Solutions Marketing Group (, an Arlington, Virginia, firm that assists mainstream businesses in marketing to, and servicing, people with disabilities, her goal is to inform and influence corporate America to direct more resources and attention to the disabled--a consumer group she feels is grossly underserved. Though small in stature, with about $125,000 in revenues for 2000, Solutions Marketing Group has landed such clients as American Express, America Online, and Darden Restaurants (operators of Bed Lobster and Olive Garden restaurants).

The idea for the company came to Jones about five years ago when she worked in the marketing department of a healthcare company. "One day, after meeting with a client, the whole vision for the company just came to me, because I saw no companies that were targeting me as a disabled person," she says.

And there's little doubt that the disabled market is a huge one. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 52.6 million disabled persons in the U.S. in 1997 (the most recent census data available), representing 19.7% of the American population. Jones says these disabled persons represent roughly $1 trillion in spending power. With the ratification of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Jones figured this was an untapped market. "I saw an opportunity to leverage what, in its foundational state, is compliance into a business imperative," she says.

The first step to starting her business was raising capital, so Jones turned to her husband, Carlton. "My husband and I were considering withdrawing from our [investment] club," she explains, "and my husband said, `Carmen, you can use the money from that to start your business,' so that's what I did" Jones used approximately $3,000 from the club and combined it with $3,000 in personal savings to cover the start-up costs for the firm, which she operates from her home office. "As soon as I started doing that, and I got my brochure printed, and got my Website developed," she recalls, "I started getting some calls."

Her first client: From contacts she had within the company, Jones landed American Express. "That one client opened the door to others," says Jones, who now identifies ways the corporation can target and attract disabled consumers. "For example, in [American Express] travel services, the software that is used to obtain information and make reservations [online] didn't include information about a traveler with a disability.

"Whatever programs I build, I want to make sure they're substantive and far-reaching," says Jones. "I don't believe in creating marketing programs that are fluffy, or window dressing to make a client look good so they can just check it off their list. I want to position my clients to create a relationship with the disabled community."

Jones says her biggest challenge has nothing to do with being a female African American, or disabled, but with perceptions toward disabled people. To combat them, Jones does a lot of public speaking and networking. "I take all the opportunities I can to build a business case but, typically, after I speak, there's always time to network, and those are the best chances to educate people," she says.

Future plans for Jones include expanding the firm, even as her family grows. She gave birth to her first child, Marcus, in July 2001, and is now working on securing more contracts, including one with retail giant Wal-Mart. "I imagine expanding relationships, and getting people with disabilities more involved as consumers," she explains. "To facilitate that, I've begun discussions with some disability publications and Web portals to publish articles on a monthly basis about companies that have extended a message to people with disabilities."

Harvey believes that Jones' inner strength helps her persevere. "I have absolutely no doubt that Carmen is, and will be, a success. She is a top-quality individual and she will rise above her adversity."

Perhaps, with Jones' help, disabled consumers will get the recognition she feels they deserve.
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Title Annotation:Solutions Marketing Group
Author:Hughes, Alan
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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