An Interview with Hannah Olson: Founder of Chronically Capable
Hannah Olson is the CEO and co-founder of employment agency Chronically Capable: an organization that aims to pair flexible and accomodating employers with chronically ill job-seekers. She very kindly took the time to be interviewed by us, sharing her personal experience with Lyme Disease, reflecting upon her activism, and discussing her aspirations for the future.
1. Could you tell us a bit more about Chronicaly Capable and why you created the agency?
The idea for Chronically Capable arose after I had to leave my dream job, due to the aggressive treatment schedule for Lyme disease that required me to be on an IV for up to 6 hours per day. Although my ambition and intellect were intact, the physical demands of a traditional workplace environment could not co-exist with my life-saving treatment. In Washington, D.C., I met an innovative tech team that was in the process of developing products to support remote organizations, and together we decided to found Chronically Capable to make sure no one ever has to decide between their health and work ambitions again.
2. What are your personal experiences with chronic illness, and how has that affected you physically and emotionally?
I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease and co-infections while I was in college. I spent several years in and out of doctors offices, trying new treatments, and trying to kick this disease’s ass. Lyme took so much away from me, but it also gave me an unparalleled perspective. When you deal with the constant fluctuation of emotions, symptoms, pain, etc, you have to learn to adapt to whatever your body is feeling that day. This translates to a great sense of flexibility and strength that I don’t imagine I would’ve learned if it weren’t for my battle with Lyme. I’ve definitely become stronger throughout the years of fighting this disease, and each day that we push forward with Chronically Capable, I start to feel myself healing in a way.
3. What have you gained from creating Chronically Capable on a personal level?
Building and growing Chronically Capable has been a very cathartic experience for me. I obviously relate to our mission on a personal level, so its been a really rewarding experience building the business and knowing in a way that I’m fighting back against a pain point that immensely affected my early career. Resilience is something I’ve gained from being chronically ill, but it's also a trait among entrepreneurs. Despite the financial hardships we've faced building this platform, I have remained steadfast because I truly believe in what we’re fighting for. I’m SO grateful for this experience and so excited for all that’s to come.
4. How have you benefited others?
We started this business to provide stable work opportunities for the chronically ill community. What I didn’t expect was the outpouring of support from our community. We have built a community that fosters hope for the future. Chronically ill folks have been left out of the discussion for so long, and we’re working to bring them to the center of it. I can’t wait to see this community grow over time and continue to be placed into meaningful work opportunities.
5. Do you have any future aspirations for your activism - how would you like to see Chronically Capable progress?
I hope that we become the leading authority on chronic illness in the workplace, working with businesses, cities, states, and governments to maximize their workforce, standardize reasonable accommodations, and slash their unemployment rates. Five years from now, we hope to have eliminated the unemployment gap between chronically ill and non-ill Americans, giving these individuals a sense of purpose, financial independence and security.
6. What sort of employment have you seen Chronically Capable provide?
We have a wide range of employers on the site, as our community has an expansive set of skills. Nonprofits are particularly interested in us, as well as tech companies, being that a lot of the work can be done remotely. Some employers you can find on the site include The Wikimedia Foundation, Democracy Works, and Mobilize America. You can view our full list of employers here.
7. What does representation mean to you, and how would a movement such as Chronically Capable have helped you when you were younger?
Growing up, I didn’t see chronically ill people in television — I didn’t even know what it meant to be “chronically ill” until I was faced with it myself. My hope is that our society can bring my community to light in way that shows our strength and resilience.
8. Have you encountered any difficulties when founding and running Chronically Capable?
Absolutely! Nothing comes without challenges. We launched our full platform in late February, so we didn’t expect to be launching a business in the time of COVID-19, where hiring is halted across the board. We’ve had to change our business model a bit and we’ve made the platform free for employers during the pandemic. Overall, our biggest challenges are general awareness and bandwidth. We are a dedicated but LEAN staff, so it's hard to get the word out to employers given our limited finances and resources. This is something that I hope will change the more I participate in interviews like this!
9. Has anything surprised you about your campaign?
I’m surprised every day by the outpouring of support we’ve received. When we started this business, I truly had no idea what to expect. Seeing our community grow every day and interacting with our users is overwhelming (in a good way!). I’m so proud of the strength and resilience of the Chronically Capable community and I can’t wait to see people match with employers that fit their unique needs.
10. How can employers make the workplaces better adapted to those who are chronically ill? What sort of accommodations need to be made?
Unfortunately, unlike most disabilities, there isn’t a standard accommodations list for the chronically ill community, as their needs fluctuate. The most common accommodation request we see is the need for flexibility. This doesn’t mean that chronically ill people need to work remotely 100% of the time, but it is important that employers allow their employees to leave early for a doctors appointment, or skip out during their lunch break to get there blood drawn. There also needs to be more transparency at work. By signing up for Chronically Capable, you’re one step closer to being a more transparent company, but this needs to continue while employees are at the office. Managers should be open to their employees stating their needs, as these can change daily, and often hourly.
Lastly, I recommend that businesses have ERG’s (Employee Resource Groups) to support the chronically ill community. These groups can help employees learn about their rights, build community with other chronically ill folks, and can serve as a safe space. Not only are ERG's great support networks for the disabled and chronically ill communities but they can serve as a sounding board for employers to understand how policies will affect our community. They can also serve as a business resource for external policies and products that the company would like to bring to market. The chronically ill and disabled community is a diverse population with market power. Being cognizant of the community’s needs can go a long way for a company.
11. Do you think more companies are becoming better adapted for the chronically ill nowadays, or does more progress need to be made?
Yes, and they might not even know it. Especially now that companies are shifting towards remote operations, home-based work may level the playing field for chronically ill and disabled individuals.
But we still have a long way to go. Speaking with employers on a daily basis, I’ve learned that there is a general lack of understanding around what it means to be chronically ill. Unless an employer knows someone with a chronic illness or has one themselves, it’s hard for them to truly understand this population. The general feedback I receive is the fear that chronically ill people need major accommodations that are costly to the employer.
When I speak with employers, or anyone really, I try to speak about the strength and resilience of the chronically ill community. When you’re suffering from a long term illness, you inevitably become your own doctor/ nurse and you have an incredible sense of self awareness. It’s truly amazing to see the resilience that our community embodies.
12. Do you have more potential employers or employees reach out to you, and how do you match them up?
We’ve definitely had more sign-ups on the applicants side, as we spent the first several months focusing on building a community. Starting in February, we’ve gotten several employers to sign up and post jobs on the platform. The platform is a two-sided interface, so both employers and applicants go through an on boarding process and create personalized profiles. Employers are able to list the accommodations they can provide, and applicants select the accommodations they desire. We want our community to feel empowered to apply for positions that are best suited for them, so the applicants apply directly to the positions they’re interested in.
13. Can you tell us a bit more about what the online community means to you? i.e. have you met friends, increased your platform, found similar activists?
Before starting Chronically Capable, I didn’t talk about being chronically ill, besides within my inner- circle. Now, I’ve been increasingly more public with my story. In turn, I’ve connected with tons of people online who are chronically ill. The online community has made me so much more comfortable with sharing my story and I’ve met so many great friends. I am grateful that I’ve met so many wonderful, STRONG people online (and offline!).
Our online community has definitely helped our platform grow. We’ve had nonprofits shout us out on Instagram, I’ve participated in “live” events, etc… and this has grown awareness about Chronically Capable. I’m far from being an "influencer", but I strive to build authentic community on our various social platforms.
14. Do you have any advice for aspiring activists, or even those who want to create their own business?
If you believe in something, talk about it, nonstop. My friends probably get annoyed with me when I rattle of statistics about the chronically ill community, but I’m confident that the more you talk about a problem, the more awareness you can create. I use my social platforms as a place to shed light on the issues my community faces, and I don’t have any fear in mixing business and pleasure since I am 100% authentic online. If you met me in person, I’m just as vocal as I am on Instagram.
In terms of creating your own business, my #1 advice I always give is to find a team, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. I wouldn’t be here today without the support of my team. I found people who are equally as passionate about this problem (and our solution) as I am, and it’s a lot less scary when you’re not alone.
Interview conducted by Elizabeth Bratton.