Andy Leaf (MA ’91) uses his entrepreneurial spirit to teach people with disabilities how to succeed in business.
By Emily DiFrisco
In 1963 Andy Leaf (MA ’91) was a healthy 18-year-old. “Like most teenagers, a little impulsive and a bit of a risk taker,” he explains. One day in March, he went down to Redondo Beach, California, for a swim in the ocean and dove into a hidden sandbar below the water’s surface, paralyzing him from the neck down and leaving him a C5-C6 quadriplegic.
Leaf’s ability to problem-solve took on new importance after the accident. “My old image of a healthy, active 18-year-old was dead,” he says of finding himself in rehab. “Now, I had to be creative and figure out how I could best do what I had to do with what I had.”
Leaf, who lives in Laguna Beach, California, has been in a wheelchair for more than 50 years, but the obstacles he has faced have not stopped him from achieving his goals. Since the accident, Leaf earned a BA in social ecology from the University of California, Irvine, and an MA in counseling psychology from the Graduate School of Education and Psychology.
After Pepperdine, he worked at Irvine Valley College as a business counselor for people with disabilities, a group that faces considerable obstacles in the world of employment, explains Leaf. A 2015 Kessler Foundation National Employment and Disability Survey found that only 20.9 percent of Americans with disabilities are working part- or full-time, and 28.4 percent live in poverty. At the same time, more than 48 percent of Americans with disabilities are actively preparing for employment or looking for jobs.
Leaf used his personal experience and the stories of others to fill a critical need. In 1995 he cofounded the SEED Institute, a nonprofit business incubator for disabled entrepreneurs. “I’ve always been a helper,” he reflects. “I’m the third one in the family, so I’m the peacemaker. I’m the one who had a good ear to listen, and come from a family of entrepreneurs, so I understand business. This was a good opportunity to put those skills to work for people, many of whom have no work options at all.”
From 1995 to 2003, Leaf helped more than 120 start-up businesses come to fruition, and 47 percent of the businesses were still operating after two years. “My personal experience, utilizing a wheelchair for over 50 years, and my business and educational background were invaluable in assisting my clients in overcoming their obstacles to self-employment,” explains Leaf, who adds that with current technology, it’s easier to be self-employed than ever before.
Out of the hundreds of people he has mentored, the story of Kurt Weston stands out in Leaf’s memory. Weston was a successful commercial photographer who went blind. The SEED Institute helped him complete a business plan that secured him grant money for special equipment that allowed him to continue making a living as a photographer. “I never thought of myself as a businessman,” Weston wrote, “but going through the process of writing my plan really changed my perspective.” Weston was recently honored with an award from the Kennedy Center for his art.
Leaf credits his father for teaching him how to be successful in business. “Back in the 1920s, my dad hopped a freight train from Duluth, Minnesota, out to California to create his fortune. In the ’40s, he took what money he and my mother had saved and opened a small manufacturing business. In the ’50s, he expanded and opened two more,” recalls Leaf. “He said, ‘Always do your best and your customers will be your best advertisers.’”
After a successful track record of helping entrepreneurs, Leaf founded the nonprofit organization, the SEED Business Network, in 2003. Serving people with disabilities throughout the United States and in Australia, Canada, and the U.K., the SEED Business Network uses a holistic approach to help people with disabilities develop the social and life skills they need to be successful in business.
“We provide business life coaching, online entrepreneurial, personality, and health assessment tools, and a comprehensive resource directory with over 250 easily accessible resource links,” Leaf explains of his current endeavor. “We are always looking for more volunteers. We’re limited on our budget, but we’re pushing forward. Currently, we are asking businesses to sponsor our new disabilitybiz.org website with expanded client services.”
In the face of challenges, Leaf counsels people with disabilities to consider the intangible benefits of being self-employed. “Earning a profit or receiving a paycheck is not the only benefit for you and your family,” he writes on his website. “Being productive and having a purpose will help you to feel better about yourself and your life.”
Indeed, Leaf has put that advice in place in his own life. “I am a persistent person. I have learned that if I want something badly enough, work hard, and stay focused, I will be able to achieve it.”