Lyme Disease Forced Her to Quit Her Dream Job. Now Her Startup Brings In $1 Million a Year Helping People Like Her Find Remote Work

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Hannah Olson had everything going for her. She received her bachelor’s degree in just three years from Boston University and landed a dream job at a design firm in Washington, D.C. There was just one problem: Olson was sick, extremely sick.

In her sophomore year, she was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease, which required numerous doctors visits, medications, and antibiotic treatments through an arm catheter. At one point, she was on an IV for up to six hours a day. She was forced to quit her design agency job due to the treatment.

“I began to worry that there was no place for people like me  struggling with illness or a disability in the workplace,” says Olson.

In 2018, Olson, with co-founder Kai Keane, launched Chronically Capable, a platform that connects chronically ill and disabled professionals to employers prepared to offer flexibility to employees. Its users now include more than 50,000 job seekers and more than 50 employers. Companies such as Whatsapp, Postmates, Google, and Levi Strauss post full- and part-time jobs, as well as contract and freelance work. While the service is free to job hunters and individuals, employers pay the Austin, Texas-based company a recruiting fee, which depends on the size of the employer. Startups and small companies can pay on a per job basis, while midsize organizations usually pay $5,000 to $15,000 a year on average and larger companies $30,000 to $100,000. 

The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on LGBTQ youth suicide-prevention, signed on in July. Employees had encouraged it to explore subscriptions to job boards and networking groups such as Chronically Capable, says Cristina Ciprian-Matthews, the nonprofit’s chief people officer. “Our recruitment team is intentional about diversifying our candidate sourcing strategies to expand the number of applicants with a variety of lived experiences,” she says.

Chronically Capable offers support to members, which helps differentiate it from similar websites, such as Horizontal Talent and Joonko. Through its Club Capable community, members share their experiences, including how to make sure they’re treated fairly once hired. The website also offers mentorship connections and virtual events to bring members together to swap stories about finding work with a chronic illness.

“We have purposefully built a space where people can find support at any point in their career journey,” says Olson.

The company’s biggest challenge has been educating potential customers, she says. While many companies want to support employees with chronic illnesses, they sometimes lack the know-how or res. What’s more, it can be a tall order to cater to an employer’s needs and wants, depending on where it might be in its journey of cultivating an inclusive workplace, she says. Sometimes, she notes, Chronically Capable has had to turn clients away.

“We pick and choose employers,” Olson says, adding that the retention rate of workers hired through the platform has been 100 percent in the past 17 months. “We work only with companies that are really committed to putting in the work.”

The Hiring Crisis

More than 157 million people in the U.S. have a chronic illness, generally classified as a condition lasting longer than a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Deanna Beauchamp, who lives in Texas, is among them. She has multiple sclerosis and gave up her teaching job during Covid after being denied the option to work remotely. In a search for remote work, she came across Chronically Capable and attended one of its virtual events. 

“I was very reluctant to admit that I was sick to others, but I felt a belonging and a deep connection for the people in the meeting,” says Beauchamp. “Their stories were real, and they needed work, just like I did.”

About a month after sharing her resume on the platform, Chronically Capable connected Beauchamp with Noodle Partners, a New York-based education-technology company that helps students find higher-education opportunities. Beauchamp landed a fully remote job with the company in 2020.

There’s no doubt that the pandemic upturned the hiring and recruiting world. In May, more than 9 million Americans reported an inability to find jobs, while companies said that more than 9 million job openings were left vacant, according to The Wall Street Journal. This is in part due to many workers moving during the pandemic to more remote areas where jobs aren’t as available and also to many people seeking more-flexible work options, such as working from home. 

More companies new to remote hiring are looking for recruiting platforms designed for job seekers looking for remote work, Olson says. She says her company saw 900 percent revenue growth since March, and is projecting $1 million in annual revenue for 2021. 

Ironically, the huge growth has created a staffing crunch for Chronically Capable. Its three full-time employees haven’t been able to keep up with the inbound interest. Olson says she is looking to close on at least a $1 million pre-seed investment round this fall to help with growth, including hiring a few more employees.

“People with chronic illnesses and disabilities have very few safe spaces to actually ask for what they need for jobs access,” says Brian Truong, a partner at Graph Ventures, a venture capital firm that invested in Chronically Capable. “There’s an entire talent pool of people who’ve been excluded from all sorts of jobs, particularly in knowledge work, and Chronically Capable bridges that information asymmetry.”

After more than five years of heavy antibiotic treatment, Olson no longer needs to be hooked to a catheter. She says she still has Lyme symptoms and related conditions, such as heart and thyroid issues, but she’s doing better.

“As with anyone with a chronic illness, it can always be a challenge to balance my health with my career, but I’m thankful that I didn’t have to choose,” she says. “Being able to work on something that gives you meaning and purpose in life actually has helped strengthen me.”

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