GVRA Staff Talk BEP to GARRS

January 26, 2018

Staff sat down with Georgia Radio Reading Services recently to discuss the Business Enterprise Program. Here's the full transcript:

Paula (P): Greetings. My name is Paula Ferguson and this is the Georgia Radio Reading Service ‘At Your Service’.  And today, we have two very special guests with us today, Mr. Charlie Garrett, and Ms. Raj Gandy, from the Business Enterprise Program. How are you all today?

Raj (R): We’re great. Thank you.

P: Awesome, Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us today. So, before we get started with our questioning, I would like for you to share with the audience a little bit about yourselves. Raj?

R: Okay, good morning, and thank you for having me. Um, my name is Rajaunnda Gandy, commonly referred to as Raj.  Uh, I am currently working with the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency as the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer. I’ve been in this role for almost two years, and prior to then, I worked at the Business Enterprise Program for 21 years, and so I have a long history within Rehabilitation Services that I am very excited about.

 P: And you, Charlie?

Charlie (C): Hello, my name is Charlie Garrett. I am serving in the capacity as the director of the Georgia Business Enterprise Program. I’ve been in this role for approximately two years.  I took over from Ms. Rajaunnda Gandy, who served in the role for approximately 17 years as the Director of the Business Enterprise Program.

P: Tell us what is the BEP? What is the Business Enterprise Program?

R: The Business Enterprise Program is one of five rehabilitation services programs under the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency. The sole purpose is to work with individuals who are blind or severely visually impaired and assist them in operating their own businesses.  Those businesses include snack bars, coffee bars, vending routes, and even military dining facilities.

P: Oh, wow, so just a variety of facilities that are available, that they can…

R: Yes, ma’am. There’s a variety of facilities throughout the state of Georgia.

P: And, how long has it been in existence?

C: The Randolph-Shepard Act, which establishes the Business Enterprise Program, was initially established in 1936 by Senators Randolph and Shepherd, who signed the act into law. In the state of Georgia, it has been in existence since….

R: 1944.

C: 1944. 

P: Well, it’s been around a while. It’s been around quite some time. And is there one in every state? In all states?

C: Every state can apply to have a BEP.  The only state that does not right now is Wyoming or Montana.  It’s one of the two of them. But there are currently a BEP in pretty much every state in the Union.  And if I’m not mistaken, Guam and Puerto Rico have applied to have a Business Enterprise Program in their (territory).

P: So this is something that’s really growing as far as some of those states or those territories that are applying.

R: Well, the state’s Business Enterprise Programs differ in size, uh, based on, um, the number of individuals within each program. Our program here in Georgia is comprised of about 77… 78…

C: 72.

R: Okay, 72 blind vendors, whereas some states have far more. There are some states that have as few as three individuals in their BEP program.  So again, it just depends on the location.

C: It also depends on the amount of federal buildings and facilities in that state. Some states don’t have a lot of high populations, which is probably why Wyoming and Montana don’t have BEP because they don’t have much in the way of federal buildings and the ones they may have may only have a small population that would not support the vending or food service establishment that BEP establishes under. So that could have a factor.  But luckily for the State of Georgia, Atlanta’s a nice little hub along with other parts of the state of Georgia, and we also have some state facilities, so we are doing pretty well.

P: Okay, that’s wonderful. So give us an idea of the average vendor, or is there such a thing?

C: There is no such thing as the average vendor. The average vendor is… okay, you wanna go with what the average vendor is? Someone who’s visually impaired with good business acumen.  That is the average vendor.

P: Okay. So, someone out there is listening and they’re saying, hmmm. Okay, I meet those qualifications. Walk us through what they do next.

C: The first step would be to contact their local vocational rehabilitation office, because we are a part of the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Services, so, they have to go through and be evaluated through the voc rehab service. Once you’ve gone through and did the evaluation, for vocational rehabilitation, then the VR counselor would refer you to the Business Enterprise Program. There is a packet that has to be completed with all the evaluation criteria.  Once all of that’s completed, there is an initial interview. So the training department of the Business Enterprise Program would conduct an interview to see the worthiness of the program.  Now, just because you are visually impaired does not mean you need to be a part of the Business Enterprise Program. It is a business. You are an entrepreneur. One of the things we like people to know is, you don’t come into BEP and get a job. You come into BEP to be an entrepreneur and a business owner.

P: Let me pause you right there because I think that’s a very good point that you made about not coming in, you not coming to get a job, but to be a business owner-operator. So if I’m hearing you correctly, they also need to come in with, ‘This is my business plan or this is my idea of-‘

C: It’s good to have a business plan because that puts you ahead of the game, but we will train you on how to do a business plan. Initially, come to us with good desire to run business, a good understanding of what business is. And, you know, math skills. Mental math is huge in this program. Nowadays, technology is becoming a very big part of how we do business so you have to have an understanding of business. Some people may decide, hey, that sounds good. I want to run a business. I’ve always wanted to run a business. But they’re not really sure what it takes to run a business. So the assessment helps you as well as us see if you truly have that desire in you. Or the skill sets that it takes to run a business.

P: Can they run in and also have an idea of what type of business they would like to run?

C: Well, currently, the way the Business Enterprise is structured, we focus more on food service, so as Rajaunnda said earlier, we do vending, we do cafeterias and snack bars, coffee bars, and military dining. So, 98% of it is food service.

P: Okay, wow. Okay, and then you mentioned, so they would have to reach out to the local office, there’s forms, files, paperwork, as always with anything that needs to be completed, there’s an interview process. There’s some basic knowledge that they have to have. And then there’s a training process.

C: Yes.

P: Can you give us a, kind of a hint as to what that is like?

C: Once you are selected to be part of a training program, at that point you are selected to participate in the training process, so the first two to three weeks is not necessarily an orientation, but it’s an orientation/evaluation of how the process works for you. We go through and cover the history of the Randolph Shepard Program, plus the Randolph Shepard Act.  It tells you what the rights and responsibilities of this program has.  We also partner with Roosevelt Warm Springs to have the client or the applicant spend a week in Roosevelt Warm Springs, because there is a gentleman names Mike Sweatnam who runs the snack bar in Roosevelt Warm Springs, and he’s a master at evaluating people’s skill sets when it comes to being able to have the proper mobility. You know, you have to have the mobility and be able to move around. You have to be able to do the mental math of checking out customers in real time. You know, you’re working in a snack bar in Warm Springs, you have to be able to count down a drawer. You have to be able to lift stuff.  And how to stock. Things that a lot of people take for granted that, hey, I can go in and see a bag of chips and put a bag of chips in, but do you know the tricks, and we train you on a lot of these things, but, how do you identify a bag of chips? You know, from Dorito selects, things of that nature. So he goes through an initial evaluation and early on to see if the person has the skill sets needed. It also gives that applicant early on to see a chance that, hey, this is not what I thought. This is not what I’m signing up for. Because once you go through all of the training, there’s a lot of time and investment, and you know that’s not something you wanna do. We’d rather you figure it out early, versus going ten weeks into training and you spending a lot of money and then you decide, eh, I don’t wanna do that.

P: Oh, okay, so what if you get to that point and then you decide, okay, I need to sit back, I need to regroup, maybe polish some things. Can I come back later and reapply?

C: Yes. Now what’ll happen is, if it’s determined that you’re not at a certain level… if you determine it or if the training department determines that you’re not at a certain level… you are referred back to your VR counselor. And at that point, your VR counselor will speak with you and meet with you and say, hey, these are some skills you need to brush up on, so that you can brush up on those and then reapply. You can take training classes, or you can possibly say, hey, you know what, I think I wanna go a different route.

P: Not my direction.

C: Exactly. 

P: Excellent, excellent, so, as I’m listening to you all share, it sounds like exciting opportunities for individuals who are both interested as well as qualified for the program as well. What about financial gains for the vendor themselves? Financial independence? Talk to us a little about that. See that … that’s a man, always pointing to the lady for finances.

C: See one of the things when it comes to finances …. (laughs) … you’re right. Exactly.  But one of the things that needs to be known in Georgia is that it’s one of our leading programs as far as innovation and training. And technology and things as far as the way the process works. And I have to look to Raj because she… developed it. She put a lot of that in place. So you know, I’m reaping benefits of the things she put in place. So, when you’re asking about so many things, she has the historical perspective.

P: That’s what we call girl power. (laughter)

R: Thank you! (laughter) So the financial gains… um… the program can be as good to you as you want it to be. We as the Business Enterprise Program staff assign counselors to each individual vendor. And that counselor is responsible for monitoring the day to day progress of the vendor in whatever facility they have bid and been awarded. We have an average salary with I think is around…

C: 41.

R. 41 thousand.  And, um, you know, there are facilities that make less than that.  There are many that make more than that. But that is an average. And of course, we do have facilities on our military bases that make six figures. And they do very well. All of our blind vendors that are considered contract managers and they of course operate the dining halls that feed our wonderful soldiers. They have been trained via a contract managers’ class. That allows them to gain all the information needed.  All of our contract managers are involved in the daily operations of running a dining facility and feeding thousands of soldiers. In addition to operating military bases, we have been fortunate enough to have several vendors interested in running food courts and cafeterias. And so we are in that business as well. Presently at the Atlanta Federal Center, in Peachtree City…

C: Richard B. Russell Building.

R: Richard B. Russell, the Federal Aviation Administration. We have, um, large food service facilities at all of those locations, where they are operated by individuals who are blind and visually impaired, showing our other vendors just how much can be done if they put their mind to it, and these are very professional, highly trained individuals who had the gumption to, you know, say ‘I wanna do this’ and they did it.

C: Now, one thing to add too about the financial pieces… well, two points… the counselors and the staff of the Business Enterprise Program (BEP), here in Tucker and around the state, we’re state employees, so we get a set salary, and that’s that.  We assist the blind vendor, so the counselor is not a manager of the blind vendor. He is more of a consultant to the blind vendor, and the blind vendor goes in, and it’s basically almost like you’re running a franchise. You go in, and the harder you work, the more you put in, the more money you make. We work with them to look at things like sourcing products, because if you can keep your food cost down, or your product cost down, that increases your product margin. We work with them on things like staffing, make sure we can keep payroll down, because if you can keep a quality staff at a good price, that payroll, lowering your payroll at the end adds to that bottom line. So we’re constantly working with them and looking at innovative ways to assist them with business, so that they can make more money. The ultimate goal is to assist the blind vendor, coming to work, but we wanna help them make as much money as they can, because the more money they make, the more money the business makes, the more people they hire and put to work. The more people they put to work, the more successful the business. The more successful the business, the more security their family has, and the families that they employ, and the more tax revenue that’s coming back to the state as well as to the program.

P. It’s a cumulative domino effect, that’s what I’m hearing.

R: Absolutely.

P: I also love, Raj, what you said about, ‘it will be as good to you as you want it to be’. And Charlie, you reiterated that the resource is there, the opportunity is there. It’s what you make it.

R: Absolutely.

P: As with anything.  And also, when you were mentioning about the military, it sounds like a wonderful opportunity for veterans. 

R: Absolutely.

C: I would like to go on record as stating, it’s a wonderful opportunity for veterans, more so the fact that we have award-winning operators at these locations. We don’t just have blind vendors here doing a job. They win awards. Not just awards for service food but national and international awards.

R: International.

C: The Hennessey Award is for the best air force base in the world.  And our Warner Robins is up for that every year.

R: Every year.

C: There are other bases that Fort Gordon’s run awards, some of the top national awards.  Fort Benning’s won some of the top national awards. Our blind vendors are going in and doing a wonderful job.

R: A wonderful job. We set the template in lots of states for how we manage our vendor managers who operate the military bases. And we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to partner with food service companies that assist and provide assistance to our blind vendors in these day to day operations. It’s a wonderful relationship that we’ve been able to form and maintain for probably over twenty years now.

C: At least. The think is, the vendors make it happen.  At the state, we are support staff.  We have wonderful blind vendors, and we’ve worked to help train them of course, but what they do… that drive, that determination, to build business, to help themselves to support their families.  They make us look good.  We’ve got all these blind vendors that are helping us look good.

R: Yes.

C: We have blind vendors that are making us look good.

P: That is awesome, and y’all may have already answered the question, but are there particular sites, like what sites serve the most people.

C: Fort Benning.

R: Fort Benning is our largest site.  I think with Fort Benning, um, the blind vendor manager operates 14 different campuses.  And um, he’s fed, I think he feeds about 30 thousand soldiers a day.

C: To put that in perspective for you to kind of understand, he runs 14 Golden Corrals.

P: Wow.

R: Yeah.

C: Yes.

R: Simultaneously.

P: And that’s huge, having been a, um, military spouse, a military spouse for over 23 years. You know, I know soldiers can eat.

R: Yes. Yes. (laughter)

P: Soldiers can eat, and it’s a constant…

C: And you know, you have the dietary restrictions. And so the blind vendor has to make sure they have the dietary, you know, dieticians on their staff. They have to have, you know, people that can help with their meal planning and all of these different things, and they manage all of that.

R: They manage everything.

C: And you think, well, you gonna run a Golden Corral, what does it take? Well, Golden Corral has a big corporate office and they got hundreds of stores. And this blind vendor has 14 of them. They don’t have a big corporate office. They are the corporate office. And they get staff and put it together and make it happen. And we do it all the way from the large Fort Benning, and that’s all the way down to the smallest operator who’s in the average snack bar making 35, 40 thousand a year, but they have to be able to say, okay, is it better for me to be able to purchase this from Sam’s? Is it better for me to purchase from VisStar. How do I source this to make it work? And by starting in those smaller locations and building up your knowledge base and learning how to make that happen, makes it as things happen and you grow in the program, your knowledge base grows. Then by the time you get to one of those bigger ones, it’s nothing for you. You know what you’re doing.

P: You know, I’m sitting here thinking as you’re sharing this, and for those who may have misconceptions or stereotypes when it comes to the blind or disabled community, and someone is sitting and listening to you all, and they’re like, you know, this is like, unbelievable. I don’t, I can’t conceive of this. Do you run into that? Where people have stereotypes or misconceptions, and they have a hard time processing these success stories.

C: Yeah.

R: In the past, there have definitely been stereotypes, but, at the Business Enterprise Program, throughout Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency, if these individuals weren’t blind and visually impaired, and they were doing these same jobs, no one would question what their salary or what their income was, and so why should there be any boundaries or any feelings made for an individual just because they’re blind. Um, if this, if there was a job where we had, that offered 3 million dollars, you know, why should a blind individual not be able to make that 3 million dollars? And so, um, over the years, we have really worked hard to try and remove any misconceptions for that very reason, because these are individuals just like you and I that just have a visual impairment. That is the only difference.

C: That’s the big point to stress. People go, well, how can a blind person do this, or how can a blind person do that. Then my question to you is, what can’t a blind person do, other than see?

R: Absolutely. Absolutely.

C: Okay, they may not be able to see, but their brain, their body works just as well if not better than yours, and so what we do at the Business Enterprise Program is, we help eliminate those barriers, and technology is really helping with that. Okay, so you can’t see, but your brain works great. So let’s find a way to make it to where, what I see that you can’t see, let me help find a way to get you to visualize that, and so you can still do the same thing.

R: Absolutely.

P: Awesome, awesome. Raj, how have you seen this program evolve over the years?

R: Oh, wow. It has evolved to where, when I came, in 1997, um, when people talked about the Business Enterprise Program, they looked at us, and our symbol at the time was of a gentleman who is blind and who had a cane, and… very stereotypical.  And of course, you know, over the years, we have learned to change the language that we use, and we don’t identify people who are blind as blind people. We say, “people who are blind”. We put the person first. And so, over the years, we have really made a concerted effort at focusing on the abilities versus the disabilities, and how a person can be successful running their own business, and so, through that process, we have established something that no other state has done.  I think that they’re working on it now that we have set the template, but we are the first state, out of all the Business Enterprise Programs in the country, to um, ensure that all of our vendor managers were, um, accountable for their facilities, thus having them to utilize iPads, coin registers, being able to give their customers receipts, because we’ve always wanted to be competitive with, you know, your average convenience store. And so in doing that, we had to do the things the convenience stores were doing, and so we through probably a three year training process, to ensure everyone was on board, but now, every vendor that we have operating a snack bar, they’re utilizing square registers with iPads and really starting to account for every dime that goes through the store, and it’s causing a positive impact in that they’re making more money, they know where their money is, and it’s caused for a lot of success throughout the state.

P: Wow, that is incredible. And you know, with… as always when we have such wonderful programs and wonderful opportunities and wonderful engaging conversation. Time always escapes us. But in the few minutes that we have remaining, Charlie, what does the future hold for BEP, do you think, in your opinion?

C: I think the future’s very bright, and I believe that it’s unlimited. Currently, we are using a lot of the new technology to build business. The blind vendors, for years, you know, you could not use certain equipment and technology. But, because of the changes and the way that the world is changing, the iPhone and Siri and technology is changing so much, to where accessibility is a natural part of design now. It used to be an afterthought of design, but now it’s, you know, an important part of design. Blind vendors are using things like Ira, with their glasses, with a camera on it, where they can go to the grocery store and the person on the other end can tell them, hey, the can in front of you is corn, or the can next to it is green beans. You talk about being independent…

P: Oh, gosh, yeah. It opens up a whole new world.

C: We’ve had blind vendors sample and use some of these items, and they tell us, the family member tell us how much it’s life changing. Because, they can be more independent, and every time they wanna move something, I don’t have to reach someone, or call for someone to come get me. So that’s allowing for blind vendors to go and do anything they want to do now.  And the business is constantly growing, and we’re looking to be as competitive, with any business.  We’re not competing with other blind vendors. We’re competing with the company next door. So be careful. A blind vendor may be coming for you real soon. (laughter)

R: Absolutely.

P: Yes, yes. The Business Enterprise Program. Charlie Garrett, Raj Gandy, can you all share contact information? Anyone that’s interested.

C: Yes. Sure.  Well, to contact the Business Enterprise Program, our main office is in Tucker.  It’s… the address is 5238 Royal Woods Parkway, and the phone number to the Tucker office is (770) 724-6590. Once again, that’s (770) 724-6590.

R: And if you’re interested in coming, or applying for the Business Enterprise Program, again, as Charlie stated earlier, just go to your local Vocational Rehabilitation Agency office, and um, ask for a referral to the Business Enterprise Program.

P: Awesome, awesome. And we have about a minute or so left, I’ll give each of you an opportunity for quick encouragement, closing remarks.

R: Well, I’d just like to thankyou for allowing us the opportunity to share what the Business Enterprise Program is, how much we love it. Um, I have been blessed for over twenty years to have a outside family with all of the blind vendors and staff who are within the Business Enterprise Program, and for that, I will forever be grateful.

P: Awesome. Thank you. Charlie?

R: I’d like to say thank you for allowing us to come in and talk about the program. I’m very very proud of what the program does. Really proud of the vendors we have working with us with the program, and looking forward to continued success and growth of the program. And so, let everyone know that, if you’re interested, like Raj say, get with your VR counselor. Get a referral. Get on board, cause we’re growing.

P: We are growing indeed, and very successful. Thank you all so much.  Charlie Garrett, Raj Gandy, from the Business Enterprise Program, this is At Your Service from the Georgia Radio Reading Service, and I am Paula Ferguson.