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How my chronic illness inspired me to start my first business at 22

Hannah Olson was frustrated by the lack of meaningful remote opportunities for people with chronic illnesses. Her startup aims to fix this.

How my chronic illness inspired me to start my first business at 22
Hannah Olson [Photo: courtesy of Chronically Capable]

Four years ago, Hannah Olson, an ambitious Boston University sophomore, was officially diagnosed with Chronic Lyme Disease. She required regular antibiotic infusions via a catheter in her arm, as well as some 28 pills per day.

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After graduation, Olson moved to Washington, D.C., where her persistent health challenges and treatment eventually forced her to quit her first design agency job. She took on another job in tech, but says she worried about whether there was a place for her in the workforce. “Am I going to spend the next 20, 30 years of my life continually seeking out work that’s going to end in the disappointment of having to quit?” she asked herself.

Olson’s experience is not unusual. More than 133 million people in the U.S. have a chronic illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (Chronic illness is generally defined as a condition lasting longer than one year.) Despite this, it has remained difficult to convince many employers to offer significant positions–outside of coding and a few other disciplines–to workers with chronic illnesses who might not be able to work a traditional onsite, 9-to-5 job.

This problem inspired her to start Chronically Capable, which matches job seekers via algorithms and strategy with substantial–but flexible–remote jobs. The service is free to job seekers. Employers pay Chronically Capable a recruiting fee, depending on the type of project or job. Though the startup is still in its early stages (it’s about to enter its first seed round), users can currently be matched with jobs at Amazon, Google, and other employers.

Olson is on a mission. Along with serving on panels and regularly meeting with companies’ diversity and inclusion departments, the still-newish Washingtonian has spoken on Capitol Hill, and the company’s small leadership team was just accepted to join the spring 2019 cohort of mentees through the MIT Enterprise Forum, where, among others, they were matched with a leader from Amazon’s robotics division.

We caught up with Olson to learn more about her experiences, and why it’s so critical to fight stigma around chronic illness.

Fast Company: Are you concerned about how the broad term “chronic illness” might make some employers think one thing or another, or might make them generally more wary of an applicant?

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Hannah Olson: I explain the depth of chronic illness to people and say, “Look around. [According to current projections, on average] half of this room [will] have a chronic illness by 2020. That’s next year.” I just don’t think people realize it.

I’m not sick in a hospital bed, and chronic illness isn’t this blanket term that means that. I don’t have diminished mental capacity or ambition. So when they see me as this figure who’s fighting chronic illness but still capable of being an instrumental part of our workforce, people relate and understand. They are human and they care. Chronic illness and work needs to become a full-blown movement. Everyone knows someone who’s chronically ill.

FC: Additionally, chronic illness can leave you more determined, reliable, focused, grateful, mature–especially as a hired employee who’s been given a commitment. What strengths has your experience offered you?

HO: I’m grateful for this disease in certain ways because it also taught me to listen to my body. Young people in their twenties push themselves. You go, go, go. I know my limitations. I have to constantly adapt. I think about my experience on the Metro. The way I’m constantly putting on hand sanitizer and making sure that I get a seat. It’s also taught me to empathize more. People reach out with really intimate stories about their lives to me. I look at a room and care a lot about people. I really understand that sometimes people around you aren’t always okay.

FC: As someone who has lived with and written about chronic illness, I once contributed a Los Angeles Times op-ed in support of using the term “health diversity.” Along with giving the chronically ill an official designation among employers who seek a truly diverse employment base, how much is this about terminology?

HO: I’ve heard the term “immunodiverse.” I’ve heard “diversity.” I’ve heard “chronically ill in the workplace.” That’s what I wanted to do with the term “Chronically Capable”: shift the connotation of the word. Because “chronic” is seen as negative, but you can be chronically capable of really anything . . . You can be chronically optimistic.

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FC: There’s also health insurance. I’ve been really shocked to see how bad and expensive employee healthcare plans have become, especially for some people with unusual conditions. Do you look at companies’ healthcare opportunities?

HO: Insurance is one of those things I have a real love/hate relationship with. You could have a great job and a great plan and it could just choose not to cover you. I fought to get my IV covered for six or seven months. Actually, [more] companies understand chronic illness. They understand our mission, they understand the people applying. A big part of this is going to be my activism. With such close proximity to Capitol Hill, I have the opportunity to show my face.

FC: What about keeping your health information private from your employer and others? Plus, we’ve watched medical patients’ income drop steadily as time passes. I’ve heard of employers, insurers, and Medicare scraping people’s social media accounts for information to use against them.

HO: I totally relate. But the more that we have this conversation around chronic illness, the less stigmatized it’s going to be, just like it has been for other [diversity] groups. I shouldn’t have to sacrifice my health for what I’m passionate about. That’s why we’re working on educating employers. I shouldn’t have to worry about hiding that I have Lyme, because it is a part of me.

I’ve thought about the fact that what if this all fails and in 10 years I’m applying for my dream job, and someone Googles my name and all this chronic illness stuff comes up? That’s been a big fear of mine. I just have to be the person–along with our team–to take that risk.

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