Thriving as a Female Veteran Business Owner With a Disability
Kaney O’Neill, the founder and CEO of ONeill Contractors, was attending community college and working as a waitress when she entered the military at 19 years old. She yearned for more excitement and a chance to see the world. She dreamed of being a search-and-rescue swimmer for the Navy and hoped to jump out of a few airplanes.
After joining the Navy, O’Neill jokes she became a “professional paint scraper.” She spent the next two years as a shipyard worker on the docked nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz.
The Life-Changing Accident
When O’Neill was 21 in 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit Newport News, Virginia. She fell off a balcony and severed her spinal cord. The accident rendered O’Neill a quadriplegic. “It was a freak accident,” she says. “I went out on my balcony to take a closer look at the oncoming storm and a gust carried me over the edge of the railing.” In an instant, her life changed forever.
After spending seven months rehabilitating at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Illinois, O’Neill continued community college and later transferred to Northwestern University to earn a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Despite her education, O’Neill couldn’t find any work.
“My resume got me job interviews but when I pulled up in my wheelchair no one wanted to hire me,” she says. Instead, O’Neill says potential employers ardently questioned how she’d be able to handle certain job functions or the type of special accommodations she’d need.
“After a year of trying, I decided to do something different,” she says. O’Neill followed the mantra, “I don’t allow an obstacle to loom larger than my own determination.” She started O’Neill Contractors, a roofing company in the Chicago suburbs in 2007. It helped that O’Neill’s father, uncle, and brother were all roofers. Still, it took her a long time to gain momentum. “In the beginning, I tried to do everything on my own,” she says.
Looking for Support
Eventually, Kaney O’Neill (who is also a single mother) realized that she was working in a vacuum. She was figuring things out for herself. So, she started networking and meeting other small business owners. She even attended local events held by the Small Business Administration and Women’s Business Development Center.
“It was a game-changer,” says O’Neill. She’s the 2015 recipient of the National Veteran-Owned Business Association Woman Vetrepreneur of the Year Award. She received the 28th Annual Woman Veteran of the Year Award from the Women’s Business Development Center in 2014, too. “For small businesses, there is so much to do and it takes so much time to attend events, but the payback has been extraordinary.”
That’s been especially important for O’Neill, she says.
“I work in a male-dominated industry,” O’Neill says. “To be around other women, to go somewhere to be around other veterans is what gives you the motivation to go back to the office and be excited.”
For any entrepreneur that’s essential, she says. That’s why listening to other speakers talk about their businesses can help with gleaning tips and energize daily routines.
“It’s so important, as entrepreneurs, to keep the spirit of how exciting it is to be running your own business,” she says. “It’s easy to get caught up in the mundane of daily activities.”
Growing an 8(a) Business
When O’Neill first started she “just kind of winged it” without an official business plan. Everything changed when she needed a line of credit and a more formalized plan with financial projections. “That’s when I realized how much I still needed to learn.”
O’Neill soon recognized that owning a business isn’t only about the day-to-day operations. It’s about the marketing, the financials and so much more, she says. She took a class at the Women’s Business Development Center in Chicago. She received help from Bunker Labs, a nonprofit that helps veterans and military spouse entrepreneurs start their businesses and immersed herself in training through the SBA’s Emerging Leaders program. Also, she received training through Operation Hand Salute, a program AT&T offered to help disabled veterans grow their small businesses.
“As I educated myself on all aspects of running a business, I started to have more confidence in how to run a business,” O’Neill says. She began work on her two-minute elevator pitch for potential clients and lenders. “Most people have a very short attention span to hear what you have to say,” she says. “You have to be able to sell yourself and what you’re good at.”
To bid on government procurement projects, Kaney O’Neill became a certified woman-owned, service-disabled, veteran-owned 8(a) business. The idea behind the federal government’s 8(a) business development program is to award at least five percent of contracting funds to entrepreneurs who, among other qualifications, own small, socially and economically disadvantaged businesses.
Part of the application process required O’Neill to write an essay on the disadvantages she faced either as a woman-owned business or disabled, veteran-owned business. “It was difficult,” she says. “You [have] to choose, even though I tried to tie it all together. You have to find concrete examples of [discrimination].”
Positivity Equals Possibility
Too often, O’Neill says many people have questioned her ability to run her own businesses because she is quadriplegic.
“Unfortunately, some people look at someone with a disability they look at all the things we can’t do rather than look at how we’ve overcome our burdens,” says O’Neill, a Veterans Wheelchair Games medalist who mentors young adults in wheelchairs and authored the children’s book “Dream and Reach.”
Eventually, Kaney O’Neill landed a $132,000 roofing contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which helped her land a modest contract with Boeing. Now she runs a 22-person, multimillion dollar contract managing business. ONeill Contractors expanded into a design-build-general contracting firm. They manage government procurement projects for the U.S. Air Force, Department of Veteran Affairs, Coast Guard, U.S. General Services Administration and Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC).
“People forget being in business is just as much about the people as [it’s] what you are doing,” says O’Neill.
Kaney O’Neill’s advice to aspiring small business owners? “If you are considering running a business, start hanging around people who are running a business. Go to conferences and attend seminars to learn before making the leap.”