Melody Stein and her husband Russ co-own and operate Mozzeria, a wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. Since opening in late 2011, the place has become a critical darling with additional catering, delivery, and food truck services.
Also, the Steins and all of their 15 or so employees are deaf. The sad truth is that makes their operation very unique. More than 70% of deaf Americans have trouble gaining full-time employment. So in December 2017, Mozzeria secured backing from a new kind of investor to start franchising.
The company became the first of what are now three deaf-owned and deaf-run companies to earn investment and business support from the Communication Service for the Deaf’s new social venture fund–it’s called CSD SVF, for short. The CSD Social Venture Fund is a multi-million-dollar reserve that CSD will use to fund three to four companies a year, part of its effort to create more work opportunities for people who are deaf or hard of hearing
CSD and Mozzeria won’t specify the exact terms of the investment because it’s more complex than a standard franchise deal. Part of the challenge is to figure out together what exactly it takes to scale these businesses.
For instance, it took the Steins two years to open their initial restaurant because they had to navigate all of the classic financial, operational, and legal hurdles that entrepreneurs who aren’t deaf face, along with the built-in communication barrier. For example, once a city health inspector showed up during a remodel without a sign-language interpreter and continued to look around for someone who could understand him. “It was a much longer road for us to arrive at opening the business because those resources just were nonexistent,” Melody Stein tells Fast Company in sign language, which is relayed through an interpreter on a video conference call.
CSD has since backed two more companies. One is DeafTax.com, an online tax preparation service that works through videophone-based sign language and email. The owners plan to expand their deaf-owned bookkeeping services and develop a mobile app to more easily reach clients, among other things. The other is reFort, a Washington, D.C.-based startup that reduces waste by reclaiming and refurbishing what college students throw out on moving days. That company then resells the wares to other kids on campus. It’s an early stage company that needs capital and counsel to refine its concept and business model.
For CSD, this is part of an evolving social mission. The nonprofit started in 1975, and may be best known for pioneering and popularizing things like TV closed captioning, as well as numerous telecommunications and video-based remote interpretation services. At the same time, as the group makes clear in a mission statement, it has continued to expand job placement and training classes, as well as adult education services, and crucial safety nets like domestic violence support.
“We recognized that communication access by itself wasn’t going to be the solution to the ultimate goal of creating a world where there are no barriers, where everything is possible for people who are deaf,” says CEO Christopher Soukup while on the same video call as Stein. “I think that the challenge for many in the community is that they don’t know what they don’t know. [That includes] the basic fundamentals of what goes into a business, and for a lot of those fundamentals there really aren’t resources out there that are accessible for the deaf community.”
By backing three different kinds of companies at different stages of growth, CSD should be able to quickly boost its own learning curve for what kind of support various entrepreneurs need. The goal with Mozzeria, for instance, is to spend the first half of 2018 planning what budget, timeline, and training materials it will take to launch another outpost, and then establish at least two by the end of the year, with plans to build more in 2019.
For Stein, the business partnership has both a financial and social appeal. “I, as a deaf individual, have experienced more hardships,” she adds. “And I really want to smooth that out and break those barriers down. Hopefully, for the next deaf business owner that opens up, it’ll be an easier journey.”
For CSD these aren’t grants; it’s cash that gives them equity in these ventures, and the ability to plow the returns back into their fund to keep the cycle going. But Soukup says that developing ever-more successful deaf-owned and deaf-run businesses furthers CSD’s mission another way too.
“I think that prevailing and pervasive challenge that deaf people face is this misperception of what a deaf person is capable of,” he says. “And the more success stories that we create, the further we go in demonstrating the true talent, capability, and passion that exists within our deaf community.”