by Ron Brooks
(Editor’s Note: Ron Brooks is a long-time member of the ACB, former member of the BOP and the founder and CEO of Accessible Avenue.)
I was sleepwalking through life when everything changed. It was March 11, 2020, and my younger daughter and I were on a five-hour flight from Tampa back to Phoenix. I had just wrapped up a couple of meetings for the company whose business I was helping to build. My daughter was on spring break, so I brought her along to hang out in the hotel pool while I worked, and to share the downtimes roaming the beautiful Tampa Bay region. She was watching videos on her phone, and I was on my PC browsing social media when the news flashed that the National Basketball Association was temporarily suspending operations because a player had tested positive for the coronavirus. We had been hearing about corona for a few weeks, but in Phoenix, where we lived, almost no one had it. It was someone else’s problem.
When I read that headline, I knew that this was a big deal. I mean, the NBA. They wouldn’t literally shut down and lose millions per day for nothing. And boy, was that ever true! Within a few days of landing in Phoenix, everything was different. School was at home; work was at home; Zoom fatigue was a thing; restaurants were either closed or takeout only; and we couldn’t buy paper towels at any price for weeks on end. And my transportation career began to swerve off course.
I could share a blow-by-blow account of how my employers managed the storm — the belt tightening, the consolidation of call centers and the corresponding shift to virtual operations, the “voluntary” pay cuts we all took and all the rest. But at the end of the day, we were facing the same pressures as so many others. Put simply, we were in a war of attrition with the pandemic, and as the virus peaked in the west in January of 2021, picking the ultimate winners and losers was anyone’s bet.
For me, the end came on March 12, 2021 — exactly one year and one day after my daughter and I surfed the Internet back to Phoenix. I saw it coming — the cancelled meetings, the lack of new projects, and the growing sense that I was no longer doing actual work. My boss and the CEO had scheduled a call for noon; it was a Friday, and after the pleasantries, they let me go. It wasn’t personal; it was business — a change in direction, a need to focus on current business instead of expansion, and a lot of conversation about how things might have been different had it not been for the virus. They were kind, and I harbor no ill will. In fact, the people on that call gave me a gift. It wasn’t the severance package, or the promise of a positive reference should I ever need one. It was the opportunity for me to realign my life and mission.
Throughout the pandemic, I had spent a great deal of time reflecting on who I am and on my life’s purpose — call it “my mission.” And I figured out that the common thread running through everything I had ever done — from my first entry-level transit job to the meetings I was attending in Tampa back when everything started going sideways — all of it represented my desire to transform mobility for everyone and especially for people with disabilities and blind people like me. The problem was that instead of pursuing my mission, I was working for the missions of others. In most ways, the goals of the organizations for whom I worked aligned with mine, and I am proud of many of the projects I managed and the services I helped to deliver. But more often than I’d like to admit, I had to do work that did not contribute to better mobility for the people I sought to serve. Put another way, my efforts were being diluted by competing priorities, and I was beginning to feel more dissatisfied and less fulfilled.
I had thought about starting an accessibility-focused training and consulting business for years, but had never gotten around to doing it. I was always too busy, and if I’m being honest, scared. However, with the world shut down, and with a growing sense that I was in the wrong place doing the wrong work, I decided to take action.
On Tuesday, May 19, 2020, I sat down at our kitchen table, logged into the Maricopa County Clerk’s online portal and filed the Articles of Incorporation for our new business, Accessible Avenue. At that point, I was still focused on my so-called “day job,” so progress on Accessible Avenue was very slow. I took low-risk baby steps like opening a checking account, designing a logo and building the website. More important, I dove into the skills I would need to master for success, and I focused on getting past the two most important obstacles of all — fear and uncertainty. I began journaling every morning, reading books about shaping my vision, defining my goals, and managing my time. I enrolled in virtual sales and marketing trainings, and I began participating in morning accountability calls that began at 5 a.m. every weekday — something I still do today. I joined IVIE, ACB’s special-interest affiliate for entrepreneurs and business owners, and I began surrounding myself with other successful people who could point the way.
Through these efforts, I began to recognize that I could launch a business. I could do the work, set the goals, make the calls, give the sales presentations, close the deals, and achieve success. In December of 2020, our family celebrated Christmas at home, and as soon as the presents were unwrapped and the Christmas dinner eaten, we launched the Accessible Avenue website and a brand-new LinkedIn company profile, and seeing the writing on the wall at my day job, I began getting serious about Accessible Avenue.
Fear and uncertainty don’t evaporate like the morning dew, so even as I began working on Accessible Avenue, I further intensified my efforts to save my day job. I decided to push both my day job and Accessible Avenue as hard as I could until the future became clearer. In fact, on the day they let me go, I had two documents sitting on my desk: a list of HR-type questions if they let me go, and a series of sweeping ideas for saving the company’s business (and my job) if they didn’t. As it turned out, my HR questions came in handy, and on March 12, 2021, Accessible Avenue was promoted to Plan A for my future and that of our family.
Monday, March 15, 2021, was my first full day at Accessible Avenue, and I got busy. I called and emailed every industry connection I had, looking for work. I reached out to trade associations and bartered webinars for membership dues. I ramped up my posts on LinkedIn and started participating in industry-focused virtual speed dates. It took a couple of weeks to get our first small contract, a few more weeks to land a second, and a little less time than that to find our third. That was about 18 months ago, and since that time, Accessible Avenue has continued to build momentum.
Today, life looks a lot different. I spend about half my time building and managing Accessible Avenue. My daily work includes sales and marketing, industry and community outreach and networking, consulting, training, writing, speaking and travel. In addition, I took on a part-time position with a growing on-demand paratransit provider in order to stabilize our household income, and because I love the company’s mission, which aligns with mine. And I’m still working hard to become the best version of myself that I can — both inside and out.
I’ll close with one final story. On March 1, 1999, my mom passed away back home in Indiana. On that same day, my sister-in-law out in central California gave birth to a baby girl who has now graduated from college and is thriving. For me, observing the passing of my mom and the coming of my niece on the same day is a perfect representation of the circle of life, and in many ways, so is the pandemic. On one hand, millions of people got sick and died. Others lost jobs, lost homes, and suffered in too many ways to count. And yet, many people reconnected with their families and with their life’s purpose. They went back to school, dumped jobs in favor of new careers, and rediscovered the things that truly mattered. In my own case, the pandemic disrupted my career, wrecked our finances and created a lot of uncertainty, and in so doing, it gave me the opportunity to reinvent my entire way of showing up, to build a business, and to pursue my purpose in a way I never thought possible.
And here’s the thing. I’m betting that many other people are currently sitting right where I was sitting back in the early days of the pandemic — a little bored, a little bit unfulfilled and knowing that there must be more. And while it has been a long journey from that place to the place I stand today, it began with the same thing that begins all journeys — the first scary step. So if that’s you, I invite you to stop. Put on your traveling shoes, and just start walking. And in the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the places you’ll go!”
Epilogue: Remember that second document I had open on my PC on the day my former company let me go? Like me, it survived. Today, it’s guiding much of my work at Accessible Avenue and with my new on-demand paratransit employers. But that’s a story for a future day.