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Breaking Ground 94 - Oris G. Bowen Breaks Employment Ground through State’s Go-DBE Program

by Ned Andrew Solomon, Director of Partners in Policymaking Leadership Institute, Council on Developmental Disabilities

TN Partners in Policymaking Leadership Institute graduate Oris G. Bowen’s entrepreneurial journey started in 1998, when he kickstarted a business – Full Force Transportation, Inc. - that he founded with several other partners. In 2000, he became the first minority participant in the state’s Governor's Office Diversity of Business Enterprise (“Go-DBE”) program, which promotes opportunities for businesses owned by minorities, women, and veterans who acquired disabilities in the service. He also received a certificate from President George H. W. Bush for being the first minority-owned business in the area of transportation in the state of Tennessee.

Full Force provided full-service, “on demand” transportation. Bowen’s company became the first TennCare transportation provider owned by a minority business owner, and it also became a transportation vendor for Vocational Rehabilitation (VR), enabling many VR clients to travel back and forth to work.

In 2004, Bowen’s life changed dramatically, when he had an accident and lost his vision. “Because I lost my sight I had to shut the company down; I didn’t have anybody who could run it for me,” he recalled.

What followed was a very dark period for Bowen, sight-wise, and emotionally. He became extremely depressed and felt isolated from society.

In 2009 he began to re-emerge. One of the first things he did was visit the TN Disability Coalition to see if they could help. A Coalition staff member introduced Bowen to Metro Nashville’s Access Ride program. “I also started taking technology courses, which led me to Vocational Rehabilitation,” said Bowen.

At VR, Bowen worked on Orientation & Mobility training with Karen Nelson, the mother of TN Partners in Policymaking graduate, Dylan Brown. Karen encouraged Bowen to apply for the Council’s Partners in Policymaking™ Leadership Institute. “She said, ‘you need to talk to Ned Solomon!’” laughed Bowen. “I applied and was accepted. When I came to Partners in Policymaking, it was my first time staying out, by myself, since becoming legally blind. Partners enlightened me. It inspired me to go on, and encouraged me to go back and talk to VR about getting more mobility and technology training.”

Bowen did just that, and in 2013, VR sent him to live and work on his rehabilitation at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. “I had the experience of living in the Blind community, to be acclimated back to society,” Bowen said.

After his stay in Louisiana, Bowen continued to access “skills training” with VR in Tennessee. The goal was to get Bowen back into the workforce. They soon realized that Bowen’s experience with transportation would be far more valuable for his career than finding him an entry-level position somewhere, so they began trying to get him back to being a business owner. “I realized that it was time for me to go back into the transportation business,” he said. “I knew that my experience with transportation was well needed, to make sure that people had access to quality transportation. So I talked to my counselor, and she saw my vision.”

In September 2017, Bowen was awarded funding from VR to go back into the transportation business. VR provided adaptive technology, marketing expenses, state and local business fees, office supplies and start up insurance. Bowen provided his own transporters and transportation vehicles, and officially opened UMatter Transportation in February of 2018.

Shortly afterwards, Bowen re-applied to the Go-DBE program, which in July 2017 had added a “business owner with disability” category to its eligibility list. Bowen became the first entrepreneur with a disability – other than veterans with disabilities, who had been included in another eligibility category since the beginning – to be approved.

“This is important for all of us in the disability community to realize that we can go forth, and be acknowledged for our abilities, not our disabilities,” he said.

Bowen would like to see UMatter move beyond what he was able to accomplish with his first transportation company model. UMatter will provide door-to-door service, wherever a client wants to go, in Nashville or throughout the state. He also wants families to know that they can trust their family members and their kids to be safe in UMatter vehicles. In addition, Bowen ensures that all of his drivers are trained on supporting riders with disabilities. As his business expands, he plans on hiring people with disabilities to fill various positions with the company.

He has another long-term goal too.

“There are so many people in the disability community who want to work, but they don’t have any way to pay for their transportation,” Bowen explained. “I’m trying to find some funding that will enable us to provide transportation for those who can’t afford it. I am committed to working with people in the disability community because so many people don’t understand: it’s not your disability; it’s your ability.”

For more information about UMatter, visit umattertransportation.com or call 615.600.1217.