NABM Releases White Paper on Women in Randolph-Sheppard



The National Association of Blind Merchants

A Division of

The National Federation of the Blind

February 15, 2019


In December of 2017 National Association of Blind Merchants (a Division of the National Federation of the Blind) President Nicky Gacos, created what at the time he referred to as the Women’s Initiative.  He recognized there is a shortage of women in Randolph-Sheppard.  But he had two questions.  Why are women underrepresented in state business enterprises programs was the first question.  The second question, and perhaps the more important one, is what needs to be done about it?  

In December of 2017 National Association of Blind Merchants (a Division of the National Federation of the Blind) President Nicky Gacos, created what at the time he referred to as the Women’s Initiative.  He recognized there is a shortage of women in Randolph-Sheppard.  But he had two questions.  Why are women underrepresented in state business enterprises programs was the first question.  The second question, and perhaps the more important one, is what needs to be done about it?  

President Gacos asked NABM Board Member Melba Taylor to lead the Initiative.  Melba put together a team to help her bring life to President Gacos’ idea.  The team consisted of:

            Sharon Treadway, Blind Entrepreneur, Tennessee

            Barbara Manuel, Blind Entrepreneur, Alabama

            Melissa Smith, Blind Entrepreneur, Tennessee

            Lewanda Miranda, Blind Entrepreneur, Oregon

            Jessica Beecham, Blind Entrepreneur, Colorado

            Pam Schnurr, Blind Entrepreneur, Indiana

            Beverly Anderson, Blind Entrepreneur, South Carolina

            Hazell Brooks, Blind Entrepreneur, Washington, D.C.

Judy Schoenly, Blind Entrepreneur, Pennsylvania

Debra Smith, Blind Entrepreneur, Arizona

Anna Kim, BEP Administrator, Maryland

Catriona Macdonald, Policy Advisor, NCSAB

They renamed the Initiative Women’s Initiative Supporting Entrepreneurship or WISE for short. 

The Surveys

            The first order of business was to quantify the problem.  The committee developed two survey instruments that were sent to all Directors of state business enterprises programs and Chairs of Elected Committees of Blind Vendors.  Data was collected from all 49 state programs and the District of Columbia (Wyoming does not have a Randolph-Sheppard Program thus the number 49). 

            According to the survey results, 440 of 1835 licensed blind entrepreneurs in the United States or 24% are female.  Two states (Delaware and Iowa) reported no women.  There were some regional differences.  The Mountain states (Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah) reported the highest percentage of women at 36% while the Pacific states (Alaska, California, Washington, and Oregon) came in a close second at 34%.  The Plains states (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska) had the lowest percentage of women at just 11%, while the Mid-Atlantic States of New York and New Jersey were only slightly better at just 14%

The percentage holds true when we look at the makeup of Elected Committees of Blind Vendors.  There are 379 individuals who have been elected to serve on Committees of Blind Vendors and 97 or 25% are women.  Surprisingly, 11 states report having no women serving as Committee members. 

The disparity is even greater when we examine who is managing the higher income facilities such as military troop dining contracts.  Out of 47 blind entrepreneurs managing troop dining contracts, only 6 or 12.8% are women.  This is significant because these are the more lucrative Randolph-Sheppard vending facilities.  Likewise if one considers the 8 largest Randolph-Sheppard retail operations in the country, women operate none.  It is hard to fathom that this is coincidence.  For whatever reasons, women are clearly being relegated to facilities that generate lesser incomes. 

When we look to the immediate future, there is little hope for improvement as only 25% of individuals in entry-level training at the time of the survey were women. 

But Why?

Women owned businesses are growing at a rapid rate in this country; however, Randolph-Sheppard is not enjoying similar growth among females.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics, women own 36% of small businesses in the U.S.  This is 50% higher than in Randolph-Sheppard.  There are more blind women in the U.S. today than blind men but there are fewer women in Randolph-Sheppard.  The gap is significant.  There are 3 men for every one woman.  Those numbers speak for themselves.  The survey doesn’t give us any hard data as to why there are so few women in Randolph-Sheppard.  NABM rejects the view held by some that the work is too hard for women.  There are too many successful women in the program to support such an argument. One only has to look at NABM’s Board of Directors which has 5 very successful women entrepreneurs serving. 

NABM believes there is no singular answer but there are many contributing factors.  In reality, Randolph-Sheppard struggles to attract capable blind

people in general.  The problem is not isolated to women.  Some of the reasons are:

  1. There are too few opportunities in Randolph-Sheppard; therefore, qualified blind people seek out other employment opportunities. 
  2. Most new licensees have to start out in low volume facilities making the job less attractive. 
  3. The length of time it takes and the bureaucracy involved to go through the application, training, and licensing process is a deterrent to many would be candidates. 
  4. Blind people have other employment opportunities that compete with Randolph-Sheppard.
  5. The program is poorly marketed by the state licensing agencies and many blind people, unfortunately including vocational rehabilitation clients, are not even aware that such opportunities exist.
  6. Most states offer training that requires the trainee to leave home for months at a time and some cannot do this. 

By addressing many of these shortcomings, the overall pool of candidates, including women, will be enhanced. 

But are there issues specifically related to women?  Some possibilities to consider include: 

  1. Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors, who in many regards are the gatekeepers to Randolph-Sheppard, do not refer women to the program.  This could be due to natural biases or misconceptions about the business enterprises program. 
  2. The Randolph-Sheppard community is aging.  In fact, many current blind entrepreneurs have participated in their state business enterprises programs for 40, 50, or even 60 years.  Many entered the program at a time when fewer women were in the workforce in general thus tilting the numbers still today. 
  3. The nature of the businesses may not appeal to many women as evidenced by the fact the percentage of women in Randolph-Sheppard is not radically different than the vending industry at-large.   
  4. Even though the family dynamics have changed over the years, women still play a major role in raising children, managing their households, and acting as caregivers for aging parents and ailing relatives.  This impacts career choices and their ability to go away for long periods of time to receive training and to adhere to strict work hours required when running a business enterprises vending facility. 
  5. Discrimination and gender bias by men who have stereotypical views of women cannot be ignored.  Gender bias exists in every facet of society and it would be foolish to suggest that the same is not true in state business enterprise programs. 

The Problem

Let’s look at these possible explanations in a little more detail. 

Vocational Rehabilitation

In most states, a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor must refer a blind person to the business enterprise program.  The vast majority of blind people enter the VR system having never heard of Randolph-Sheppard and knowing absolutely nothing about opportunities in the business enterprises program.  They rely on those with whom they encounter in the VR system to guide them on career options.  If they are not told about the opportunity to own their own business, they cannot make an informed choice to choose Randolph-Sheppard as their vocational outcome.  Unfortunately, this is all too common of a scenario encountered by both blind men and blind women but perhaps more so by women.  

Why do VR Counselors not share information about the opportunities in the Randolph-Sheppard Program?  There are multiple reasons in our opinion: 

  • Lack of Training – State agencies in general do a very poor job of training and exposing their VR staff to their business enterprises program and there is consequently a lack of understanding about the program.  Although VR Counselors and BEP staff work for the same agencies, those staffs too often work in silos with one knowing very little about the other.  Communication in many instances is at a minimum. 
  • Need Those Closures - VR Counselors are evaluated based on successful closures.  If there is a route to a quicker closure, Counselors are naturally going to sell that as an employment goal.  This is further complicated by the fact some states have waiting lists to be assigned to a facility.  Counselors are hesitant to refer someone for training if it is going to be 2 years until the individual can go to work.  Counselors understandably are not inclined to invest time and money if it means waiting sometimes years to get that almighty closure. 
  • Gender Bias – It only stands to reason that some Counselors have natural biases when it comes to women.  Every Counselor comes to his/her job with different backgrounds and they are sometimes prisoners to their own misconceptions.  Some believe there are jobs that are typically done by women and, if they’ve had success placing women in those jobs that are perceived to be more suitable for women, they naturally explore these with a client first.  If they see vending as a man’s job, they are more likely to steer women away.  This gender bias is very real.  A blind woman in Tennessee heard about Randolph-Sheppard in a chance encounter with a female blind entrepreneur.  She went to VR specifically to learn more about the program.  Her VR Counselor said, “You don’t want to go into BE.”  The individual had to actually enlist the help of the Counselor’s supervisor.  Today, she is one of the most successful vendors in the Tennessee program.   A Texas woman faced even more blatant bias when she inquired about opportunities in the Business Enterprises of Texas.  She was told by the VR Counselor, “That program is for men.”  The Counselor went on to advise the aspiring blind entrepreneur that she would not waste money and resources referring her knowing she would fail.  She too had to enlist the help of a program supervisor and today, like her Tennessee cohort, is one of the most successful blind entrepreneurs in her state.  The sad truth is there are countless tales like this.  Such gender bias was even evident in comments by BEP Directors who completed the surveys.  If the individuals who are responsible for selling the program to VR Counselors have a bias, then they cannot help but communicate that to their primary referral source even if it is unintentional.  

However, the issue with Vocational Rehabilitation goes beyond the VR Counselor.  Other deterrents are systemic in nature.  For example, what motivation does a blind person who may be employed (perhaps underemployed) have to pursue a career in Randolph-Sheppard when they look at the road they have to travel to achieve that goal?  As noted earlier most states require that a VR Counselor refer candidates to BEP.  This means applying for VR services, going to the eye doctor, and undergoing various evaluations before being determined eligible.  Once eligible, the client must develop an Individual Plan for Employment which may require further vocational evaluations.  It is not unusual for this process to take a year or longer.  Once referred to and accepted by BEP, in many states the candidate must go away for weeks at a time to complete classroom training.  In some instances classes are only offered at certain times so the candidate may end up waiting close to a year if they time it wrong to get into class.  The bottom line is it may take two or three years from date of application for VR services to receive a license and sometime much longer for actual placement.  Even if underemployed, it is hard for a blind person to wait that long.   And it is even more frustrating for a blind person who is super qualified and could step right into a business and be successful. In one state, a female owned a successful restaurant and explored the possibility of using her expertise to get a Randolph-Sheppard facility but balked when told of the unwieldy process. 

Finally, in regard to VR, in some states qualified candidates are denied access to BEP because their states are in what is referred to as an Order of Selection.  This means that VR can only serve the most severely disabled individuals due to funding constraints.  In many cases, a person who is legally blind with no other disabilities cannot be served.   The result is that even if they’d be an outstanding blind entrepreneur, their path is blocked because that state requires all candidates to go through VR. 

The Old Timers Cornered the Market

            Some try to explain away the problem by noting that a large segment of the Randolph-Sheppard population is older and operators have been active in their respective programs for several decades.   NABM recently attended a state business enterprises annual training conference and 4 blind entrepreneurs were recognized for more than 40 years of service.  All were men.  This is not surprising when you consider that 40 or 50 years ago the world was a much different place.  Men were more prevalent in the workforce.  In fact, according to the Department of Labor, fewer than 30% of American workers were female in the 1950’s.  That number has increased to over 46% today.   So, the fact that most senior blind entrepreneurs are men can be partially explained by what was going on in the workforce in general a half century ago.  However, even if we accept that this has some validity, it does not explain why only 1 in 4 new trainees are women. 

The Nature of the Business

            We cannot dismiss the idea that the job itself appeals more to men than women.  This would not even be part of this discussion if not for DATAUSA’s Vending Operators Report that states only 19.5% of individuals employed in the vending industry at-large are women.  This includes all jobs within the industry including route drivers, service technicians, sales people, accountants, supervisors, etc.  We were unable to identify any statistics related to how many women own vending businesses which would be a more comparable number when considering Randolph-Sheppard entrepreneurs.  The Vending Market Watch reports that vending company owners are realizing that women represent an untapped resource for their industry and efforts are underway to attract more women into the field.  The National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA) has launched its Women in the Industry or WIN Initiative. WIN’s purpose is “to connect women throughout the convenience service industry, encouraging professionals to meet, share ideas and develop important business relationships.”  NAMA and NABM both recognize the problem and are attempting to address it. 

            But what is it about the vending industry that is unattractive to women? has one possible explanation.   Women today have had more schooling than men.  Approximately 65% of women have a post secondary education.  Consequently, they have made great advances in various professional fields.  In fact, women now make up the majority of many professions.  For example, 60% of the attorneys in our country are female.  If we assume that this trend applies to women who are blind as well, it could at least offer some insight into why women are seeking other career options.  Going back to VR for a moment, if VR invests tens of thousands of dollars in getting a blind woman a college education, they are not likely to refer them to BEP for employment.  They would instead focus on securing employment in the individual’s chosen field of study. 

The Family Unit is Still Important

            Although workingwomen are making great strides, they still face many unique challenges due to the roles they play in the family unit.  The New York Times reported that the number one barrier to women working is what it called the “Great Care Chasm.”  In our society, women are still the primary caregivers for their children.  People are living longer today and caring for aging parents and/or sick relatives often times are a burden that falls on women in our society.  This makes it difficult for women to enter the labor market in many instances.  This is true for blind women as well but it is especially difficult for blind women who may be expected to leave home for 6-8 months to go through training and/or adhere to strict work hours.  This just leaves more opportunities for blind men. 

            The New York Times also reported that the cost and lack of availability of daycare are key barriers to women in the workforce.  We mentioned earlier that most new Randolph-Sheppard entrepreneurs must start out in low income producing vending facilities.  This makes it impractical and sometimes impossible for women to work.  If the daycare will cost as much or more than one will earn in a small vending facility, then why go to work?  Working mothers have a greater chance of succeeding if they have a strong support system in place. 

            As a result of their role in the family, many women choose to work only part-time.  For blind women, this may mean they don’t see BEP as a viable option.  It may also mean that VR isn’t involved since they only want part-time work.  

How Does Discrimination Come Into Play

            Discrimination exists in the workplace everywhere and it would be unreasonable to think it doesn’t exist in Randolph-Sheppard.  Consider for a minute that most state BEP Directors are male.  Most Committee of Blind Vendors members are male.  And who makes all major decisions, including selecting individuals for vending facility assignments?  The answer is the men who are BEP Directors and who serve on the Committees.  Is it conceivable that blind women have tried but simply couldn’t break through the male dominated world? 

            We must point out that we have no evidence that such discrimination has occurred.  However, common sense tells us it is an issue. 


            Part of the problem is getting people to recognize that there is a problem.  Although NABM was very pleased with the responses to its surveys, it was disappointed that so many, either on the survey or in comments off the record, scoffed at the very idea that there is a problem and even bristled at the suggestion that we need to target more women candidates.  We concede that we need more and higher caliber referrals – both men and women.  We hope that this white paper will help accomplish that.  However, we denounce those who do not recognize the unique challenges faced by women and the need to help overcome barriers that they face. 

            NABM understands that in many ways, Randolph-Sheppard is a microcosm of what is going on in the workplace and in the vending industry at-large.  At the same time, we believe there are some aspects of the problem that are unique to Randolph-Sheppard.   We must develop strategies that attack both sides of the issue. 

            We believe that part of the problem is the way the program is perceived.  Too many people, whether VR Counselors or others, focus on the jobs that make up the business rather than the duties associated with owning the business.  Sometimes, all we see are vending machines that need to be filled or grills that must be cleaned.  In reality, we need to focus on management and ownership. 

            We also are convinced that many of the things that are barriers to women being successful in other careers are the things that should make Randolph-Sheppard attractive for working mothers.   Women entering the workforce today want flexible hours.  In many instances, Randolph-Sheppard offers just such flexibility.  As business owners, they should be able to set their own hours. 


            NABM believes there are steps that can be taken to increase the participation level of blind women in Randolph-Sheppard.  Specifically, we have outlined below 21 recommendations.  These are presented in no particular order in terms of priority:

  1. Educate VR Counselors – NABM should work with NCSAB to develop a training toolkit that can be used to train VR Counselors about opportunities in Randolph-Sheppard.   A section of that training should focus on women’s issues.  The training could be any combination of on-line webinars, training outlines, brochures, etc.  NCSAB would encourage states to ensure that such training is made available to all VR Counselors. 
  2. Utilize the Hadley Training for New Trainees – Adopting the Hadley on-line curriculum would generate more referrals for state business enterprises programs.  This will be especially true for women and there is hard data to support this contention.  Over 20 states currently use the Hadley training.  Of the 143 students who have completed the Hadley training, over 36% are female.  Since we know that in 2018 approximately 33% of the nation’s trainees are going through the Hadley training, we can extrapolate that approximately 20% or so of trainees who are going through traditional training are female.  In other words, the rate of women completing Hadley training is almost twice as high as the rate for those attending traditional classroom training.   A major deterrent to attracting candidates is the time away from home required to complete the entry-level training.  This barrier is eliminated with the Hadley training.  Women can remain at home and continue to fulfill their family responsibilities while completing the training.  A secondary benefit is the cost savings as compared to traditional on-site training programs.   
  3. Develop Special Marketing Tools for Women – As has been noted several times herein, recruiting in general is a problem.  Randolph-Sheppard needs more good men and women.  Improved marketing materials and new strategies are desperately needed.  NABM and the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind (NCSAB) should work together to develop better marketing resources  including a toolkit for recruiting women. 
  4. Emulate NAMA’s WIN Program – WISE was created as NABM’s answer to NAMA’s WIN initiative.  WISE should take the lead from WIN to connect female blind entrepreneurs so they can serve as a resource to each other.  WISE and WIN are not mutually exclusive.  Blind entrepreneurs should be encouraged to get involved with WIN. 
  5. Include Training on Women’s Issues in State Annual Training Conferences and National Conferences – Training on women’s issues should be incorporated into annual state training conferences.  NABM could provide a speaker to states subscribing to the NFBEI services.  States could get an outside speaker to present on the topic.  Breakout sessions could be held.  Likewise, programming on this issue should be included at national conferences such as BLAST (Business Leadership and Superior Training).
  6. Submit Proposal for WISE Presentation at a Future NCSAB Meeting - Working collaboratively with NCSAB is important if this issue is going to be adequately addressed.  NABM should present a proposal to NCSAB offering to make a presentation on the topic at a future NCSAB meeting. 
  7. Create Awards on State and National Levels That Recognize the Achievements of Women Blind Entrepreneurs – It is customary for many states to present awards to their blind entrepreneurs at their annual training conferences.  Likewise, NABM gives awards such as the Gold Star at BLAST.  States and NABM should consider giving awards recognizing the achievements of women blind entrepreneurs. 
  8. Hold a National Women’s Retreat / Symposium – NABM should sponsor a national symposium for women blind entrepreneurs.  This symposium should focus on equipping women to deal with the stresses of business ownership as well as formulate strategies on other ways to expand opportunities for women. 
  9. Create a List Serve for Women Blind Entrepreneurs – Digital communication has taken over the world and email list serves are just one vehicle that is available.  A list serve for female blind entrepreneurs should be created so that information and ideas can be shared. 
  10. Better Utilize Social Media – A WISE Facebook page and/or Twitter account could be an effective way of promoting women and sharing information and ideas. 
  11. Hold Quarterly WISE Calls – Regularly scheduled conference calls could be an effective way to bring women together to discuss issues and to learn. 
  12. Create a Page on the NABM Website Devoted to WISE and Women’s Issues is relied on in the Randolph-Sheppard community for information.  It highlights all NABM initiatives.  A WISE page can easily be added and this white paper posted. 
  13. Create a WISE YouTube Channel – YouTube is wildly popular today and many individuals and organizations have created channels devoted specifically to their area of interest.  By creating a WISE Channel, information about Randolph-Sheppard and women’s issue in particular could be communicated to a wider audience. 
  14. Devote a Webinar Utilizing the NABM / Hadley Randolph-Sheppard on the Web Service – NABM and the Hadley Institute for the Blind created what is called Randolph-Sheppard on the Web.  This is a series of on-line webinars focusing on a specific area of interest to blind entrepreneurs.   Devoting one to women’s issues would attract a great deal of interest.  
  15. Develop a Network of Women Entrepreneurs to Serve as Mentors and Resources for Prospective Candidates- Developing a national network of women blind entrepreneurs who could mentor newer members and serve as a resource for women considering entry into Randolph-Sheppard could attract more female candidates and improve the success rate of those women entering the program.  
  16. Revise State Rules and Policies to Offer More Flexibility in Hours Required to Be On-Site at a Vending Facility – Many states have strict rules that require minimum hours and sometimes very specific hours that the blind entrepreneur must be on-site at their vending facility.  By offering more flexibility in hours and treating Randolph-Sheppard vendors as independent business owners, women might be more attracted to come on board. 
  17. Minimize or Eliminate Seniority in Promotion Decisions – Those states that rely heavily on seniority for decisions related to promotions and transfers, should revise their rules to deemphasize the importance of longevity.  This will help attract younger candidates who are both men and women.  It is a tough sell if a blind person knows they will have to start in a marginal facility and wait sometimes decades to get into a facility that produces a good income.
  18. Eliminate the Requirement that All Referrals Come From VR – States should revise their rules and regulations to allow flexibility for qualified candidates to be licensed without going through the VR process.   This will help attract .ore candidates in general, many of whom will be women. 
  19. Encourage Women to Apply for Military Dining Contracts – We must utilize women now running military dining contracts to train other women and to encourage them to apply to manage these lucrative contracts.   
  20. Explore Ways to Offer Incentives for Women – As noted in our discussion, the expense of daycare is a major barrier to women entering the workplace.  We must explore the possibility of giving set aside credits for daycare or using state unassigned funds to give grants to cover daycare for women who work. 
  21. Utilize State NFB Affiliates – Women entrepreneurs should be encouraged to join and get involved with their state affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind.  The NFB is a great resource for support.  Many workingwomen belong to the NFB and could be a valuable asset to any woman starting out in Randolph-Sheppard.   Starting a chapter or getting involved with an existing chapter of NABM is also advisable.     

One Final Thought

            This white paper has focused on issues faced by women blind entrepreneurs.   One of the fundamental questions is how do we recruit more women?   There is an obvious answer that we more or less skipped over.  If we want more women, state-licensing agencies must be diligent in creating new opportunities.  Too many SLAs are complacent and are not aggressive in pursuing locations to which they are legally entitled or in the private sector.  The most common reason given is “we don’t have vendors.”  NABM subscribes to the theory expressed in the hit movie Field of Dreams.  “Build it and they will come.”  If we create opportunities that generate solid incomes, blind people will be attracted and that will include blind women.  It is easier to sell the program to men and women alike if they see a great opportunity staring them in the face. 


            This white paper is intended to generate thought, discussion, debate, and exploration of ideas.  How do we get more women into the Randolph-Sheppard?  How do we help them cope with the unique challenges they face?  It is written as a challenge to state licensing agencies and the Randolph-Sheppard community as a whole.  We also view it as a challenge to ourselves.  NABM has an obligation to do its part.  It is no accident that many of the recommendations contained in this paper are things NABM needs to do.  NABM President Nicky Gacos and the Board of Directors take this challenge seriously.  We ask that you join in and help with this very important initiative. 

The National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back.