By: Jenna Fitzgerald, Market Analysis Intern
Most entrepreneurs remember their “moment.” You know, the moment they KNEW they were meant to start a socially-conscious business venture. SEED SPOT alumna Melanie Isaacs clearly recalls her moment – a life-changing conversation on a train about beluga whales and sea turtles with a young autistic boy.
Melanie is a compassionate and driven social entrepreneur who is committed to integrating individuals of all abilities into their respective communities with her business venture – PAL Experiences. Through a unique set of technology-based tools, PAL Experiences makes mainstream society accessible to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities by making every day experiences Predictable, Approachable, and Lovable.
Really? Beluga Whales and Sea Turtles?
Yep. During her undergraduate years, Melanie studied Animal Science and Zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Soon after graduating, she decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Marine Biology from Western Illinois University. One day after a class at the Shedd Aquarium, a family noticed her aquarium shirt and asked if she worked there. Melanie noticed their young son getting excited and asked if they had ever visited the aquarium, to which the parents quickly said no. They revealed that their son had autism, and that crowded places like the aquarium were far too overwhelming for them.
This family is not alone – one in six children are diagnosed with a developmental disability and one in 68 are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Of these families, a heartbreaking 70% do not feel engaged in their communities. Bearing that initial conversation in mind, Melanie felt deeply moved to help people of all abilities and their families feel integrated within society. And with the help of SEED SPOT, she’s done exactly that.
Diving into the Think Tank
After graduating from her Master’s program, Melanie packed her bags and moved to Phoenix, Arizona. She knew she wanted to see more change and engagement within her local community, but had absolutely no business background to make it happen. PAL Experiences was barely an idea, but over time it became harder and harder to ignore. She looked to community members in Phoenix to see if they had any advice on how she might get her venture up and running. Melanie knew it was becoming real when she began wrestling with words like “pilots” and “501(c)(3).”
Melanie recalls how connecting with SEED SPOT happened very organically from several different influences in her life, including the Civitan Foundation – a public service organization that helps people with developmental disabilities – and her father-in-law who saw our CEO, Courtney Klein, speak. The very first time Melanie visited the SEED SPOT website, she signed up for our Evening Program. She knew it was time to make her dream become a reality.
Studying Fish isn’t Helpful in Starting a Business
Melanie worked hard to balance her full-time job at the Phoenix Zoo and our Evening Program at SEED SPOT. On the first night of class, Melanie recalls filling three whole notebooks with notes! The curriculum captivated her from the very beginning and Courtney Klein’s dedication to her cohort encouraged her more than ever. She felt fortunate to work with SEED SPOT because, in her own words, “studying fish was really not helpful in starting a business.”
Melanie’s most memorable moment of the 2014 Evening Program was pitching at Demo Day, SEED SPOT’s largest event, where over 800 guests rallied to support each entrepreneur as they pitched their socially-conscious venture. Melanie says, “I felt really empowered and fortunate to be able to stand up on the stage and share my story.”
Making it OfFISHial
Since the launch of PAL Experiences, Melanie and her team have partnered with the Phoenix Suns, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Children’s Museum of Phoenix. When asked about her biggest accomplishment, Melanie shared a memory about a little girl with autism named Elle. Though Elle is mostly nonverbal, she started shouting “DEFENSE!” with the other fans during a Suns game Melanie attended. Elle’s mom and dad were in disbelief and her brother was smiling from ear to ear. In that moment, Melanie couldn’t help but feel the difference PAL Experiences was making for young kids with struggles similar to Elle’s.
As for the future, Melanie and the PAL Experiences team have some pretty big dreams. Any family that feels overwhelmed can visit the PAL website and type in whatever they want to do. From family outings, to dentist appointments, to haircuts, to plane trips… you name it, PAL Experiences is working to make all of those moments accessible to everyone. Melanie’s take? “It’s time our community thinks about accessibility beyond just ramps.”
Key Takeaway? Don’t Be Afraid to Flounder
Without any business acumen, Melanie Isaacs went from swimming with the guppies to starting her own highly successful business! Her journey proves that with enough hard work, encouragement, and staying true to your “moment”, anything is possible! Melanie’s piece of advice to other entrepreneurs is a simple concept that speaks volumes – “Done is better than perfect. Create something, put it out there, receive feedback. Know you’re going to evolve so don’t be afraid to just put it out there.”
Start your entrepreneurial journey today.
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