The Evolution of the Next Big Step

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Since 2012, the Starkloff Career Academy, the foundation of SDI’s work to empower disabled professionals to achieve career success, has helped over 430 candidates to launch and advance meaningful careers. Although today’s classes are taught through a series of online learning modules and classroom discussions held over virtual platforms like Zoom and Canvas, the earliest iterations of the were every bit as impactful for disabled job seekers.

Colleen and Max Starkloff have longstanding legacies of advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. When they founded Starkloff Disability Institute, they focused on a specific barrier.

“Now that people with disabilities have access to education, housing, transportation and improved health care, we need to focus on the Next Big Step—employment.  That’s the missing link to full independence for those with disabilities,” Colleen Starkloff told KSDK in the program’s early days.

Colleen designed the Next Big Step (NBS) program with the help of Susan Menhard, Career Academy Director, to empower people with disabilities with the skills and confidence they need to be successful job seekers and participate fully in society.

Current SDI copyeditor Ann Kiburz participated in Starkloff’s inaugural NBS course back in 2012. Ann, who was trying to revive her career after a traumatic brain injury, recalls how the Next Big Step and Susan’s guidance, changed her mindset for the better.

“I kind of went into it with no real expectations but I loved it from day one. NBS helped me value myself beyond my disability and recognize my worth. Before NBS, I questioned my abilities, but I now see myself as a good copyeditor and writer,” Ann said. “I love Susan. She is so on it, so educated and caring. She really wants everyone to reach their highest potential.”

Ann wasn’t the only future SDI staffer to emerge from the Next Big Step. Lori Becker, SDI’s Chief Operating Officer, and Jason Hartsfield, who now serves as SDI’s Lead Disability Inclusion Consultant, were candidates in the 2013 course. Brian Chao, SDI’s Chief Financial Officer, graduated from the course the following year. Jason recognized Lori’s leadership skills in their class right away.

“Lori was a seasoned veteran of politics and communications and was ready to do more. We were very much comrades in the challenges we were facing. But Lori was never like, ‘I’ve got this experience that you don’t.’ When she had knowledge to share, she didn’t hesitate to do that,” Jason recalls. “By the end of the class, Lori had volunteered to give a presentation on networking, and she gave a very good one. When I found out that SDI hired Lori, I knew it would mean great things for the organization.”

Early versions of the course were held once a year and lasted 16 weeks, held in-person at the Sunset Hills campus of Maryville University. Although it took place in a traditional classroom setting, the fundamentals of the curriculum closely resembled the class as it is currently taught. Susan served as the primary instructor. Candidates learned from leaders in Disability Rights advocacy and made connections with area employers. Jason, who had completed his Master’s in social work and was attempting to establish himself professionally, fell instantly in love with the one-of-a-kind nature of the course.

“So many trainings claim to be for people with disabilities, but then you get there and it’s the same stuff they would give to candidates without disabilities. Here’s how to write a resume; here’s how to prepare for an interview. I didn’t need that,” Jason reflects. “This actually felt like it was for disabled people. Susan was teaching things like how to talk about your disability with employers, how to network when you’re disabled, body language, stuff like that. She was bringing in companies and guest speakers and really challenged them to answer tough questions about disability. It just felt so different and so refreshing.”

Jason thought enough of the program to begin volunteering off and on in 2015. Not content to simply answer phones and stuff envelopes, Jason went to work building a database and developing program policies. His efforts were invaluable, contributing to the program’s strong foundation, and his vision and passion for SDI’s mission unlocked a job offer. Jason joined the staff and helped grow the Next Big Step program into the new the Starkloff Career Academy.

Starting in 2017, the newly named Career Academy Course was offered twice each year, every spring and fall. The venue moved around as well, first going to the Brentwood Community Center and eventually landing at a newly constructed classroom housed within the SDI offices. Now, online tools are reshaping the format once more.

Even before the pandemic, SDI saw the value in offering a portion of the course virtually. In 2018, Starkloff launched a hybrid version of the class that combined remote learning with a handful of in-person sessions. But this initial foray into the virtual realm wasn’t a smooth one.

“We had some great candidates in 2018, but the class itself wasn’t a huge success because we didn’t know what we were doing from a technological standpoint,” Jason admits. “We picked platforms that weren’t super accessible, and we had never put together an online class before. We learned a lot of lessons.”

The onset of COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 meant that Jason and Susan would have to learn quickly. Overnight, all classes began meeting exclusively over Zoom. The lessons learned from the earlier hybrid attempt from gave staff valuable insight for a successful transition. Jason commenced the arduous process of migrating all course materials to Canvas, an online learning platform. Progress was slow at first with the chaos of a global public health crisis creating new barriers, but this transition ultimately resulted in a better, more accessible class.

The Career Academy now convenes three times each year in the fall, spring and summer. Without the confines of physical proximity, SDI is connecting with scores of new candidates in need of these resources. Enrollment has skyrocketed, with candidates from all over the country signing up.

This year, to better meet the needs of geographically diverse cohorts, each session is offered in the morning and afternoon to accommodate different time zones. In a way, Jason believes that the switch to a virtual environment has been the next big step for the program.

“I want people to fall in love with the program like I did. I want them to see the tremendous amount of potential that this class has,” Jason concludes. “It’s just so different, and I want us to keep being different.”

With years of success to build on, the Starkloff Career Academy is ready for the future. Diversity, equity, inclusion and access are priorities in the new corporate workplace. This is our moment to seize.

“People are looking to Max Starkloff’s legacy organization to help shape the narrative,” observes Lori Becker, “and we are ready to meet this moment.”

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