USBLN’s Jill Houghton: Opening Up Jobs for People With Disabilities

November 11, 2014 5:04 pm

Jill Houghton, USBLNJill Houghton found her life’s calling after college, when she worked for a center in Indianapolis that served people with intellectual developmental disabilities.

“I helped a young woman named Erica get a job,” she recalls. “When I saw what employment meant to her, it changed my whole life. It wasn’t just a paycheck—it was being included, having friends, and being able to say what you do.”

Jill’s journey to leadership at the US Business Leadership Network, which helps business leverage disability inclusion in the workplace, supply chain and marketplaces, started in the small town of Pittsburg, Kan., where her father was a university professor and her mother a pharmacist. “I grew up in a community where people honk to say hello,” she says. “We judged how big a town was by how many McDonald’s and Pizza Huts it has.”

Jill went to the University of Kansas, intending to go to law school so she could help disadvantaged people. But she had a learning disability and didn’t score well on the LSAT, “so we had a family convention and emerged with a plan to secure an internship in D.C. with U.S. Senator Robert J. Dole to find an issue I could get passionate about.”

Following the internship she found that issue working at the center, helping people with disabilities secure meaningful employment. And that led her on her journey to what became USBLN.

An Organization With Impact

The Business Leadership Network (BLN) started in the early ’90s, an outgrowth of Employer Subcommittee of the former President’s Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities. The BLN was developed on the premise that business responds to their peers. The name was strategically chosen to avoid the word “disability,” in order to promote inclusion and emphasize that it’s led by business, she says.

In 1994, Jill was working at the University of Northern Colorado when one of the first BLNs started in Wyoming. She attended their kick-off but had her doubts. “At the time, I thought it was smoke and mirrors. It sounded great, but at the end of the day, would people with disabilities get employed as a result of this?”

Current Position
Executive Director, US Business Leadership NetworkPrevious Positions
Interim Executive Director, US Business Leadership NetworkExecutive Director, Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Advisory Panel

Member, Board of Directors, United States International Council on Disabilities

Bachelor’s Degree, University of Kansas

She went to Seattle to lead the conversion of a sheltered workshop, a segregated environment where people with disabilities earned sub-minimum wages. While in Seattle, she met a local business leader who wanted to encourage neighboring companies to learn from their experience of including people with disabilities in the workforce. “It made me think that the answer is this Business Leadership Network” Jill notes.

Jill worked closely with business leaders in the Seattle community and together they launched the Washington State BLN and hosted the national BLN summit in 2000. “It was a huge success and I realized that my peers around the nation were all hungry for an infrastructure. We needed a mothership. It was time to create a national organization,” she recalls.

Following the national BLN summit at the US Chamber of Commerce in 2002, she worked alongside others to ensure that a steering committee was formed to develop the national organization. She moved on to serve as a senior advisor for the Director of the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. She wan next asked to serve as the executive director of the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Advisory Panel, which advised the President, Congress and the Social Security Administration on work issues for people with disabilities.

In 2008, when the advisory panel issued its final report to Congress and was sunsetting, John Kemp asked Jill to join him in helping to build the USBLN. John Kemp, a longtime friend and mentor of Jill’s, was the first to head USBLN. Kemp is now President and CEO of The Viscardi Center.

“I had BLN in my blood. I believed at the core of my being in the power of business responding to their peers,” she says. When John left, the board asked her to serve as the interim head of USBLN and then appointed her the director.

Strategic Priorities

USBLN is a trusted advisor to business and has had a significant impact on helping business leverage disability inclusion through programs like their certification for disability-owned business enterprises, including service-disabled veteran owned businesses. This previously ignored aspect of supplier diversity has taken on increasing importance in corporate diversity and the DiversityInc Top 50 tracks percentage of USBLN-certified Tier I and II vendors.

Jill and the USBLN rolled out a strategic five-year plan a year ago. “Our No. 1 goal is to raise our profile, visibility and trust. We are the best-kept secret and we want to change that,” she notes.

With 46 affiliates in 26 states plus Washington, D.C., USBLN continues to grow. In conjunction with the American Association of People with Disabilities, USBLN recently unveiled the Disability Equality Index.SM This tool helps businesses assess disability practices and policies, as well as assess ways for continued improvement.

“I believe strongly in the power of working together with others,” Jill says.