Jamie Clark didn’t get involved as an entrepreneur on the Internet because he heard all the buzz. Clark is deaf, after all. In most businesses, deafness would present a barrier to getting the information needed to build a company, but because the Internet is visually based, Clark was able to gather all the advice he needed from newsgroups and e-mail.
In spring 1993, Clark set up an Internet service provider in his dad’s dairy barn. With a $35,000 bank loan and the help of three deaf friends, Clark connected his servers and traffic router to a high-capacity phone line, wiring most of the cables through conduits that used to carry milk from the milking stalls to the containers. Clark tossed in a couple of folding tables for office space, and Clark Net was born. The first customer logged on on the evening of April 30, 1993. Like any new business inching along the cutting edge, Clark Net has felt some hard bumps, but deafness has not been a handicap to the development of the business.
Clark comes across as a reluctant crusader on behalf of the deaf—he claims to be just another guy who wants to make some big bucks off the Internet. Still, Clark Net has stood the usual deaf/hearing relationship on its head. In addition to its deaf leader, seven out of 30 employees are also deaf, so Clark Net’s work culture is based on signed and written communication in order to keep everyone informed.
The environment at Clark Net has erased barriers that hamper deaf people throughout their professional lives. Greg Wood, a senior software engineer, gave up a comfortable but lackluster government job to work at Clark Net. In the government, Wood’s technical skills served him adequately, but he was never as effective as he could be because he worked in a hearing-only office. The government didn’t provide interpreters and his co-workers did not sign, so he was stuck with the tedious TTY (text telephone) if he wanted to talk to anyone at work.
Perhaps more importantly, Wood could never play the bloody but necessary game of office politics. Much of what a successful businessperson needs to know is gleaned from conversations at water coolers, behind closed doors, and at lunch—all of which were closed to Wood. At Clark Net, Wood is Mr. Insider. E-mail serves as the equal opportunity grapevine. He has deaf peers to chat with, and unlike most of the hearing staff, he can drop into the boss’s office and bullshit without barriers. The level playing field means Wood is learning how to supervise staff, coordinate projects between departments, and learn all those other intangible management skills that develop self-esteem and lead to bigger paychecks.
It also makes sense that a firm like Clark Net is using technology to keep everybody, hearing or not, in the loop. Ellen Mayes supervises five technicians, two of whom are deaf. The hearing child of hearing-impaired parents, Mayes signs fluently, but she found it difficult to supervise her staff when they were in the field. So Jay Scotton, a deaf employee, wrote communications software that allows someone to send e-mail messages to vibrating pagers. Now when Mayes sends her techies out to the wrong address, she can communicate directly—without the delay and expense of the crew getting off the road and calling home by way of a TTY relay.
The opportunities at Clark Net mirror the broader options for deaf people that the Internet provides. The net gives deaf people new access to the hearing community, in much the same way closed-captioning has turned television into a mass media for the deaf. But despite entrepreneurial possibilities created by the Internet, deaf folks do not appear ready to beat down doors to launch new businesses. Clark, who attended Gallaudet University, finds that many of his fellow graduates are risk averse in their professional lives, preferring the steady, safe life of civil service. “All of my friends went to work for the government, even the ones who graduated at the top of the class. I’ve got one friend working at the IRS who I’ve been trying to hire. But he will not leave because government work is so stable, especially compared with a risky start-up like Clark Net.”
Clark concedes that there are sound reasons that deaf people look hard before they leap. “Most companies don’t like to hire deaf people because it is more expensive to accommodate their needs.” Which means that the deaf have far fewer options for re-employment if a company goes bad. “I could afford to take this risk because my dad is well off,” said Clark.
Deaf from birth, Clark’s background is one of both privilege and struggle. His grandfather, James Clark, was a circuit court judge in Howard County, and his father, James Clark Jr., was a state senator for 24 years, four as president of the state senate. Going further back, he can claim blood connections to the people who founded Ellicott City, Md. (in 1772), and Johns Hopkins. But Clark, who is now 33, spent most of his life immersed in deaf culture. He boarded at the Maryland School for the Deaf between ages 6 and 18 and attended Gallaudet thereafter. Within his immediate family, only his brother can communicate directly with him through finger spelling. His wife, actress Alison Gompf (who played Lydia in the film version of Children of a Lesser God), is also deaf, though both of their two children are hearing.
By creating a company that’s inclusive of deaf culture, Clark thinks he can demonstrate some of the upsides in hiring talented people who can’t hear. Clark notes that deaf employees “are more focused on their work and not easily distracted by telephone calls—the phone takes so much time—or chitchat by the water fountain.” Clark continues to seek qualified deaf employees, primarily through his Gallaudet connections.
Clark Net only recently moved its offices out of the barn and into a drab Columbia office park. It’s still a break-even business, and big players like AT&T are expected to provide stiff competition. A buyout from a bigger company is certainly possible, but for the time being, the company will keep pursuing a technology and a business where everybody seems to fit in.—Jeffrey Itell