Visually impaired entrepreneurs: massage centres, it services and fashion shows

Audio description: This is a colour photo. A man in a suit and tie is showing his fist with his thumb up.

In one of our previous articles, we wrote about the employment of totally blind people. We found out that, in today’s world, it is possible, but very difficult for a blind person to get a prestigious job. This time, our aim is to tell you about people who are successful in business though they are totally blind.

As expected, there are not many such examples either in Russia or in other countries. Moreover, not every entrepreneur would want to talk about their business in public. Nevertheless, we managed to interview some bright representatives of this small cohort. They told Special View how they started their businesses, what nuances await blind entrepreneurs, and what their ambitious plans are.

Massage by highly sensitive hands

Stavropol-based Alexey Bobrov owns two massage centres, with more than 10 staff members. The CEO himself and most of his employees are totally blind.

“In 2010, the All Russia Association of the Blind (VOS) offered me premises. At that time, there were many good blind specialists who couldn't find a job. Also, there was a strong demand for high-quality massage. I was in a good financial position and knew how to get grants,” Alexey said. “My first investments were small. My task was to launch the business so we bought two massage tables, renovated the place and began work.”

Audio description: This is a colour photo. A pair of female hands with light-coloured manicured nails are massaging a woman on a massage table. She is lying on her front. She has short grey hair, and there are moles on her skin.

At the beginning, the entrepreneur had to interview the candidates – the competition was 15 applicants per position. “The uniqueness of our Therapeutic Massagecentre is our qualified blind specialists, who have highly sensitive hands. That is why I had to conduct a thorough selection of the candidates. I made sure they had specialist qualifications, a proactive attitude in life, as well as good communication and professional skills,” the businessman said.

Eventually, Alexey managed to get several significant grants from the Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Economic Development and other grantors. The funds the blind businessman received allowed him to properly renovate the premises, purchase additional equipment and even expand his business by opening a second massage centre.

“State support is very important, especially at the beginning. Thanks to the grants, we expanded and created high-quality conditions for our blind employees. Our centres have talking clocks, phones, computers and other special equipment,” Alexey pointed out.

At the Citi Foundation Russian Microentrepreneurship Awards in 2018, Alexey surpassed his sighted colleagues and was declared the best Russian entrepreneur. He now plans to carefully study his competitors' businesses and open a third massage centre.

In Moscow, there is also a massage centre headed by blind businessman Dmitry Kasatkin. It provides Thai massage services by specialists from Thailand.

“After a long search, in 2014, I acquired a franchise of the SpaRaimassage centre for 4.5 million roubles. I had to take out loans. Some banks lent me money, but others found reasons to refuse when they realised that I was blind. But I didn't give up and managed to find investments to buy the franchise. That is how I became the director and owner of the Thai massage centre,” Dmitry recalls.

According to Dmitry, the massage business, like many others, is affected by seasonal fluctuations, as well as by the weakening of the rouble against the dollar. “To our specialists from Thailand, I pay their wages in dollars. The dependence of the rouble on the dollar makes things more difficult. There are successful months, when the profit is up to 1.2 million roubles, but sometimes we barely cover the rent and wages,” the entrepreneur explained.

Due to business disagreements, the entrepreneur had to break the contract with the franchisor. As Dmitry Kasatkin said, this had a lot of negative implications. Yet, instability does not upset him. On the contrary, temporary difficulties keep him on his toes.

In the photo: Dmitry Kasatkin

Audio description: This is a colour photo. A young man with short hair, wearing a turquoise medical uniform, is standing by a massage table. He is looking to the side, slightly touching the table with his left hand. This is Dmitry Kasatkin.

Mikhail Nefyodov is another prominent visually impaired businessman, who works in the field of health services. He runs an entire ophthalmology clinic in Moscow. The clinic provides treatment for glaucoma, cataract, retinal diseases, performs laser vision correction, offers optical services and even express consultations via Skype.

“Three men in a boat (to say nothing of the dog)”

One of the most popular niches among blind entrepreneurs is the development of assistive software and selling equipment for visually impaired users. In Israel, Germany and the United States, companies owned by blind businessmen act as distributors of well-known specialised brands and create their own assistive technologies. The Russian company Elita Group develops and distributes workplace solutions for people with visual impairments across Russia and the post-Soviet states. Daily management of the company requires attention, daily briefings, making responsible decisions, and new ideas, – its director general Nusret Ziyat Ogly Adigezalov copes with all of that.

Another IT businessman, Rinat Shaydullin, works with sighted customers and, despite his blindness, provides consulting and creates automated solutions on a turnkey basis. Rinat Shaydullin holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the Institute of Physics and Mathematics. Later, he also mastered the speciality Business Economics. Having a visual impairment and genuine interest in new technologies, he studied programming with the help of magnifying equipment.

“After graduating from the institute, I got a job, but quickly realised that, for a visually impaired employee, it was difficult to earn good money. At least, in my field. Therefore, I switched to freelancing and began to develop my own client base by consulting businesses in 1C and business process automation. In 2015, I registered as a sole trader and had a good team consisting of three people, including myself. A year after launching my own business, I became totally blind,” Rinat said.

The loss of vision did not discourage Rinat. The company clearly assigned responsibilities. “My partners create turnkey websites and refill printer cartridges. My task is to provide high-quality consulting in software products, as well as find effective economic and IT solutions for the automation of business processes of our clients. I develop the technology and look for freelancers who can do the job well. I connect the client and the service provider, and control the quality of work,” the entrepreneur added.

A few years later, another unusual member joined the blind entrepreneur's team. “I was given a guide dog. We are now like 'three men in a boat, to say nothing of the dog',” Rinat Shaydullin jokes. The tail-wagging "partner" is working hard for the business: he accompanies the director at business meetings and helps him move freely around the city.

“We work and develop our company exclusively with our own funds as the state doesn’t help us with anything. Saying that, we actively cooperate with foreign partners from India and Germany. I also have two disabled specialists who I outsource work to. They are not from Russia, and it seems to me that they're much more motivated to work. One of them is bedridden, which doesn’t prevent him from translating huge documents from English into Russian and vice versa. This way, he turns his dream into a reality: he learns Russian, earns a living and meets my demands by providing high-quality work,” Rinat said.

According to Rinat, blind people have several competitive advantages: they are better at memorising codes and large formulas, they remember the schedule of business meetings for the whole week, and they can often talk on the phone and touch-type at the same time.

Audio description: This is a colour photo. An open laptop is on a white table, with the screen showing a programme with a computer code. Next to the laptop, there is a house plant in a metal pot, and a cup.

A family business without sight

Sergey and Elena Novikov met in a library for the blind. He graduated from the Faculty of History at Moscow State University and was involved in publishing Braille books. Elena graduated from the Faculty of Law at Moscow State University and headed the legal department at the library. Elena lost her eyesight from glaucoma at the age of 17 before entering university, and Sergey – at the age of 14. He admits that he could barely see even before that. However, they did not give up, earned their degrees, got jobs, and one day realised that they could not live without each other.

In 2009, the family visited a foreign store of low vision products and were impressed by the abundance of assistive devices for blind people on the European market. Then they came up with the idea to try this type of business for themselves. Together with another blind friend, the family opened the Semitsvetikstore in Moscow.

At first, there were no competitors at all, but eventually they appeared. However, Sergey and Elena are not discouraged and say that their Internet store focuses not only on profit, but also on helping other people with disabilities to be more independent using new technologies.

The couple have been together for over ten years. They are raising two beautiful children and dream of bringing Russian low vision products to the global market. According to Sergey Novikov, all technologies for blind people are now very expensive because such devices are produced singly or in small batches. It is possible to lower the price of the products by using local components and establishing factory mass production.

If it gets difficult, take a step forward!

Entrepreneur from Yekaterinburg Andrey Pishchulin is a family man, father of a pair of twins and a daughter, and he enjoys travelling. His work schedule is very organised: at 9.30 am, his driver arrives and takes him to work. In his warehouses, store and office, he feels at home. The only difference is that he spends the whole day handling business calls, holding meetings and having discussions about new supply channels. Andrey now has several independent companies, but the start was not that easy.

“When working as a cable sales manager in 2009, I realised that it would be hard for me to earn good money as a hired employee. I graduated from the Economics Department at Ural Federal University and, by that time, had been working in sales for about two years,” Andrey said. “For reasons beyond anyone's control, the company where I worked at the time was falling apart, and something had to be done. I found my first warehouse, hired a couple of employees and started my first business in Yekaterinburg – a warehouse rental company.”

The business was not easy to build. The entrepreneur had to pay his first lot of wages using his wife’s credit card. To develop his company, he had to take out loans from banks. According to Andrey, his total blindness has never been a problem: if one bank did not give him a loan, another would.

Russia gradually pulled through the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, and Andrey’s young business started taking off. He expanded his warehouse space and found regular customers among local entrepreneurs and national companies, who considered renting a warehouse more profitable than building one from scratch. Eventually, Andrey got a chance to expand his activities and opened an electrical appliance store in Chelyabinsk.

“Business is all about having a team,” Andrey claims. “I'm not a good warehouseman or salesman myself, but my employees are very good at it. If it wasn't for them, I would hardly have succeeded. But a huge responsibility lies on me as the director for making correct decisions, for the money spent on our development, and, of course, for my employees' welfare.”

Andrey Pishchulin is now managing another line of activity – the wholesale of auto parts. “A blind businessman is something rare, but their problems, tasks and goals are the same as everyone else’s,” Andrey stated. “There are difficulties with signing and checking documents. It can be done in several ways: you can complete it in the presence of a notary (but the signatory's assistant must not be an interested party); you can fashion a nice signature and entrust your employee to print your name; or you can get a facsimile validated by a notary, but this kind of signature is usually treated with caution.”

When it comes to checking documents, a blind director is unable to do without a good, trusted lawyer. All the other competencies, according to Andrey Pishchulin, are a matter of practice.

“It's important to be able to deal with difficulties, learn to admit your mistakes and use them for your development. You need to be the leader of your team, build trusting relationships within the company and take responsibility for your decision-making. My favourite Chinese proverb says: ‘If it gets difficult, take a step forward’,” the entrepreneur concluded.

Audio description: This is a colour photo. In a workshop, a man in a work apron is standing with his hands on his lower back. The apron has many pockets: the chest pocket contains pencils and pens while the hip-level pockets contain a safety knife, screwdriver and other tools. Behind the man along the walls, there are racks with instruments, trays and billets.

World experience

In other countries, there are also some blind people in business, but not many. For example, in Sweden, entrepreneurs with visual impairments sell cars. In Kazakhstan, Aytbek Aulbayev, who lost his eyesight as a result of an accident, runs a children’s centre with an animation studio, after-school club and classes of English and painting. The centre operates on the inclusion principle, therefore, children with Down's syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy also attend the animation studio.

In Kyrgyzstan, 59-year-old Kanybek Begimatov has been managing a canteen for more than 10 years in spite of being a group-1 visually impaired person. Previously, he tried to earn money by selling preserve jar lids at the local market. Then he and his wife began making pasties for workers of the Republican Society of the Blind and Deaf, as well as sewers working in its premises. Later, the management of the Society asked Kanybek and his wife to cook proper lunches for the employees. That is how he opened his canteen.

In the United States, blind businessman Eddie Mial owns a grocery store. He has only three members of staff, that is why he often works behind the counter and greets customers. According to the locals often visiting the Atlanta-based store, the place is perfectly clean, the owner knows all the products by touch and counts the change twice to be sure.

However, there are particularly admirable examples. When fashion designer Mason Ewing was a child and lost his mother, he was sent from Cameroon to Paris to live with his aunt and uncle. They did not like their nephew and were abusive to him for any minor reason. After one such abuse, the boy was admitted to hospital. Having found out about the incident, police sent the child to an orphanage, where he was not welcomed either and was often beaten up by other children. One of the fights resulted in Ewing permanently losing his sight.

Yet, in his difficult circumstances, he did not give up. Among his few happy childhood memories, there was one about his mother dreaming of becoming a fashion designer. Mason Ewing decided to make it come true by any possible means.

His first fashion show occurred in Paris in 2006 and was a huge success. Fifteen people assisted the designer in creating his collection. In 2011, Mason staged a show in Los Angeles, and, in 2015, he presented his first chocolate dress at fashion shows in Moscow. The blind designer and entrepreneur now wants to open his own fashion design company in Russia as he considers Russian girls to be the most beautiful in the world.