Breaking Expectations One Bean at a Time By: Emily Pollock, Marketing and Communications Intern
“Em doesn’t drink coffee; she doesn’t like coffee at all,” Ashlea said. “It’s about Em’s connection and desire to be a part of the community.”
Ashlea Lantz, older sister to Emiliea Hillman of Em’s Coffee Co., describes her sister – known to everyone simply as “Em” – as a natural social butterfly who enjoys being the boss. She always wanted to work in her community of Independence, Iowa, but living with agenesis of the corpus callosum, an intellectual disability, meant she had few career options that would accommodate her needs.Following high school, Em worked in a segregated workplace for people with disabilities. The job lacked social interaction and paid below subminimum wage, which is still legal in many states under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act for people with disabilities. After Em spent two years in the workshop, she and her family realized this was not the best fit for her.
By nature, Em had the desire to do something that was full-time, engaging and community centered. And, as Ashlea puts it, “Em loves to be in charge.” Coming from a family of self-employed people, it only made sense that Em could be self-employed, too. The business idea came naturally after many conversations about Em’s abilities and what the town of Independence could benefit from and support easily. With the only two coffee shops in Independence having shut down, Em’s community was in need of caffeine. So, Em would start her own coffee shop – a perfect alignment for someone who loves mornings and serving others.
Starting a business requires hard work and a good team. In addition to Em’s family and friends, Em gathered a team of supporters from Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services; the Iowa Department of Natural Resources; Iowa Medicaid Enterprises; and the Work Incentive Planning and Assistance program. In just 10 months, Em’s coffee shop dreams became a reality. Now, with the continued support from her family and business coaches, Em is in her twelfth year of owning Em’s Coffee Co.
Em’s successful entrepreneurial venture has opened the doors to many amazing opportunities over the years, including an invitation to the White House by former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin for the signing of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (2014) and speaking roles at many national conferences. She and her family have also worked closely with The Harkin Institute, which centers its work on increasing employment for individuals with disabilities.
Despite all the expectations and statistics surrounding people with disabilities, Em shattered the standards and has become a successful woman business owner with a disability. More than that, she has shown the impact of what amazing things can happen when a community encourages and supports inclusivity and diversity.