When There’s Skill, There’s a Way

Posted July 18, 2012

When Merry Korn started her company in 2004, she didn’t know she’d be providing well-paying jobs to more than 30 people with disabilities, including veterans. However, as a former social worker, she was always passionate about creating jobs for people with challenges.

Her company, Pearl Interactive Network, had humble beginnings. It launched with one employee: Linda, a former preschool teacher with multiple sclerosis, who could not use her arms or legs and hadn’t worked in 10 years. An office was set up for Linda in her home and she began selling sponsorships on behalf of local and state associations, aided by the use of speech-to-text software. “Linda was a resounding success,” says Korn, the CEO of the Columbus, Ohio-based Pearl Interactive Network.

Merry Korn

That experience set the tone for her recruiting strategy going forward. As more contracts came in, Korn was able to hire more people with disabilities who could work from home. Another employee, Tom, a veteran with quadriplegia who hadn’t worked in 29 years, was able to conduct market research and administrative tasks using speech-to-text technology. Tom’s enthusiasm inspired Korn and his family. “I got an eight-page handwritten letter from his wife thanking me for giving him a chance, and she said it was the first time in 29 years that we would come home [from work] and Tom would talk about his day,” she says.

Soon Korn’s company didn’t just employ people with disabilities as staffers, but also began to recruit them to staff their clients’ needs. Today, the company keeps on growing. Clients include pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, the Ohio Association of Health Plans, End Truancy, Pennsylvania Medicaid, and the National Association of Social Workers.

“I hired people with disabilities, initially, because I needed them to stay in their jobs and [needed] people I could rely on,” she says.

Right now, 100 percent of the company’s direct service providers are skilled people with disabilities, with about 65 percent of those being veterans with disabilities. Pearl Interactive Network provides client-specific programs for integrating veterans with disabilities back into the workforce. The company specializes in inbound and outbound call center services, administrative services, help desk and staffing services. Some of the assistive software used by workers includes JAWS® (text to speech), Dragon (speech to text), ZoomText (enlarges text for people with visual disabilities) and Braille Writer (creates braille text).

Most of Pearl Interactive Network’s jobs are home-based, but some of the government jobs are on-site. Overall, the company’s employees with disabilities come from 14 states with between 30 and 40 employees working at any given time on various contracts. Korn hopes by year’s end to have about 70 workers as a result of the growing interest in hiring veterans with disabilities.

Pearl Interactive Network’s growth and many accomplishments over the past eight years are a direct result of its high quality employees. “Our formula for success is hiring people who already have the skills,” says Korn. “We get contracts and keep them because of the quality of the service we deliver.” In fact, in a recent third-party survey conducted by Dun and Bradstreet, Pearl Interactive Network demonstrated a 95 percent client satisfaction rating.

Over the years, the firm has also positioned itself as a leader in staffing and recruiting veterans with disabilities. In addition, an increasing number of contracts are coming through requesting veterans with disabilities as workers. In fact, Pfizer works with Pearl to exclusively hire service-disabled veterans in all of their projects with Pearl Interactive Network. “Pfizer is really dedicated to helping service-disabled vets,” adds Korn.

Likewise, the Pennsylvania Medicaid contract mandates that because its clientele has disabilities, only people with disabilities should handle the call center work, which Korn adds, “is really enlightened.”

No matter the client or service, Pearl Interactive Network sets itself apart because its business model is flexible to the needs of its employees with disabilities. “We have to be sensitive to the fact that our people have medical issues. They need time off. They need flexibility, and they don’t feel well some days. So as an employer you have to be really forgiving and work with that,” says Korn. “We are happy to do that,” she adds, citing low attrition, strong motivation and a pool of employees with skills in high demand.

In fact, the skills exhibited by many of their employees are so diverse that Korn says she’s perplexed that so many of her workers had difficulty finding jobs in the past. “No one wanted to give them a chance, which blows me away. … They talk about how grateful they are to me but I’m grateful to them,” says Korn. “I keep coming back to the fact that we’re a business first and foremost and we need to deliver quality and consistent service. Because they’re so good, they help me achieve that. I am really proud of that fact.”