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Breaking Ground 98 - Tennessee Business Enterprise

by Sharon Paris-Treadway, Partners in Policymaking® 2010-11 Graduate

For over 75 years, blind individuals have operated vending locations on federal, state, and municipal properties. The Randolph Shepherd Act of 1936 established this program on federal locations. A few years later, Tennessee passed its own version of the Randolph Shepherd Act, which included state and local government locations.

Tennessee Business Enterprise (TBE) is overseen by the Department of Human Services’ Blind Services. We now have 104 blind managers operating approximately 120 locations in Tennessee.

So, why have you never heard of this great business opportunity? We’re not sure why it’s such a big secret, but we believe it’s time to let Tennesseans know who we are.

The national unemployment rate for the blind hovers around 75%. Yet Business Enterprise programs are in 49 of the 50 states and all offer the same chance for self-employment.

Many years ago, TBE was thought to be the last resort for a blind person wanting to succeed and have gainful employment. Today, that is not the case. We no longer just sell pencils and candy. We operate food service locations, large vending routes, college campus vending, micro markets, and over half of the county jail inmate commissaries in the state. TBE is a multi-million dollar enterprise and growing every year.

What can TBE do for someone? First, let me say that it is the very best decision I ever made. I was a single mom of a nine-year-old, had never worked outside the home, and felt that I had no real skills. I did an evaluation at the Tennessee Rehabilitation Center for college and heard from a student about the vending program. He said I should try it, that I seemed like a good fit. I had my doubts; I was very shy and had low self-esteem. But I did have a determination to take care of myself and my daughter, and this sounded like a much faster result than going to college.

My program director set it up and I was on my way. I had no idea that 23 years later, I would still be so energized about this job opportunity. It is not an easy job, and it takes a lot of planning and organization. But it is definitely worth all the time and energy.

My years have not been without challenges, but I don’t know any business owner who doesn’t have those from time to time. I don’t believe that the challenges I’ve experienced have been any more complex because of my blindness.

Managers in the TBE program are self-employed and are responsible for all parts of the business, from supervising employees, to ordering stock, to all the paperwork. There is an extensive training program and internship that each person must go through before they are licensed.

We are looking for people to join the team. If you think you have the skills and desire to be successful, please reach out to your Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, visit https://www.tn.gov/humanservices/ds/bvis-tn-business-enterprises.html, or call 615-313-4914. Your first step is opening a Vocational Rehabilitation case; that first step could change your life.

a blonde woman in a flowery sleeveless shirt stands in the break room and cafeteria of the state office building where she works, with vending machines behind her
Sharon Paris-Treadway