Tapping into an overlooked talent pool

Bo Kwon on how his restaurant business benefits from employing people with disabilities

By Bo Kwon, Owner, KOi Fusion

Originally published in the Portland Business Journal on January 3, 2018

Bo standing next to a food truck with his arms folded in front of his chest.

Eight years ago, I launched my dream — a Korean-Mexican infused food truck. Since then, our small business has rapidly grown. KOi Fusion is now one of the most popular and recognized eateries in Portland with four operational food trucks and six non-mobile locations.

As a small business owner, I’m always on the hunt for talent to help my business thrive. Businesses benefit from drawing from a wide pool of talent, especially one with diverse candidates. With the state’s unemployment rate at an all-time low of 4.3 percent, there’s a shrinking pool of workers for businesses to hire from. For our bottom line, it’s more critical than ever to diversify and expand the talent pool from which we choose our workers.

One way that I’ve grown my business is by tapping into an underutilized workforce: people with disabilities.

One way that I’ve grown my business is by tapping into an underutilized workforce: people with disabilities. Three of my employees experience disabilities. Like all of my employees, they’re capable, reliable and an asset to my business. Giving people who usually don’t get a shot the chance to prove themselves is something I enjoy.

Sam wearing a black coat and blue elbow-length gloves smiling at the camera as he washes dishes at Koi Fusion.

My employee Sam McKenney experiences intellectual and developmental disabilities. He says that he enjoys the respect that comes from proving that he can work and likes being part of a team. For him, having a job means living on his own and going out to eat and drink for fun.

Here in Oregon, a state agency offers employers a number of resources to help them take advantage of this talent pool. To do this, our state’s Vocational Rehabilitation program connects employers with applicants who have already been screened, who offer a variety of skills and talents, and who are eager and ready to work. The agency wants to make it easy for employers to reach this underutilized pool of workers. The agency offers training and technical assistance to businesses, helps managers with accommodation assessments and assistive technology, and offers sponsorships.

Historically, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, weren’t given a chance at community employment. Their job hopes were cast aside as they were relegated to non-competitive jobs in isolated workshops that sometimes paid pennies or rates far below the minimum wage.

A few years ago, Oregon made history as one of the first states to end segregated employment for workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Four years ago, Oregon had 46 sheltered workshops. Today, it has 20. Most importantly, there are more workers in integrated, competitive employment settings than ever before.