Val Jensen offers meaningful employment (and sparkle) to people with disabilities
Running a business

Val Jensen offers meaningful employment (and sparkle) to people with disabilities

In honor of Disability Employment Awareness Month, QuickBooks is spotlighting entrepreneurs who play a vital role in creating inclusive and meaningful work for all.

Name: Val Jensen

Location: Ridgefield, CT 

Business: The Prospector

Why did you decide to start your own business? Where did the idea come from, and how did you put it into action?

My sister, Hope, was born with Down syndrome. While my other two sisters and I went to one school, Hope went to another. She took a different bus than us, participated in different activities, and was often differentiated and separated from us. It was tough on our family. Doors had yet to open for people with disabilities. At times it felt like we were in our own world. 

Then I found the Special Olympics. I had never seen anything like it before; people with and without disabilities talking, laughing, and playing together. That moment brought me here. 

After receiving my Master’s in Education, I worked as an elementary school teacher, then as Executive Director of an arts non-profit for adults with disabilities. During my 13-year tenure at that organization, I wrote, designed, developed, and orchestrated live musicals and feature-length films starring adults with disabilities. 

When it was time to film a scene or rehearse our script, I was always shocked by how many of my friends were available, regardless of the time or day. My friends are so talented, motivated, dedicated, and hardworking—how could so few of them have jobs? My sister Hope has always loved her (THREE!) jobs, and I wanted her friends to experience the joys of competitive and integrated employment.

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We didn’t need more trips to the park or zoo. We needed meaningful work.

One night when driving through town, I passed the old Playhouse—our town’s first movie theater. I read in the paper that the building was scheduled to be demolished. I looked at the building. It looked at me. That’s when I had the sparklepiphany. My friends and I love movies. Our town didn’t have a movie theater. And through operating a theater, we would be able to create a wide array of jobs. After several years of planning, designing, construction, and operationalizing, the Prospector opened on November 20th, 2014, and we’ve been sparkling ever since! 

What makes your business unique in its field?

The Prospector is a 501(c)(3) non-profit providing competitive and integrated employment for people with disabilities. Around 75% of Prospects (our employees) self-identify with a disability. People with and without disabilities work alongside each other at every level of the operation. There is no distinction between who is who; we all wear the same black uniform (selected because of its accessibility!).

Since opening, over 300 Prospects have earned more than $16 million in payroll for their meaningful work! When you have a job, you can achieve a higher quality of life. You can live independently, buy groceries, pay bills, and enjoy nights out with friends and family. Jobs are vital to physical, mental, emotional, social, and financial health. Unfortunately, around 80% of people with disabilities do not have a job.

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Our organization is a sparkly beacon of hope to the millions of Americans with disabilities who can work, want to work, yet struggle to find meaningful employment.

Around 20% of Americans have a disability. We’re the largest diversity group in the country and the only one you can enter at any point in your life. Universal design and accessibility are ingrained into everything we do—our workforce, facility, and moviegoing experience. When we universally design businesses, we’re letting everyone participate (both as workers and consumers), which betters the bottom line.

Our unique model merges a non-profit with the operation of a “for-profit” business. Operational metrics are often tracked side-by-side with individualized Prospect work plans, which feature customized strategies, job carving techniques, and an assessment-driven curriculum. Our training program focuses on building Prospect sparkle and strength while outlining areas of improvement and plotting personal growth.

Through our process of sparkle-mining, we pair Prospects with appropriate and fitting jobs. Sparkle is what you love to do. At the Prospector, we transform your talents and passions into jobs. Love drawing? You can become a member of our Production team—creating high-quality marketing materials, animations, and social media graphics! Have a knack for baking? Join our Popcorn program in making, packing, and shipping our delicious Gourmet Popcorn. Shine in the spotlight? Our ushers welcome audiences with pre-show speeches before each showtime! When you do what you love, you love what you do. Prospects sparkle brightly for the world to see, shattering stereotypes and deconstructing stigmas. 

At the Prospector, our motto is “working is working,” and it’s easy to see why.

What has been most rewarding about starting your business?

Countless lives have been changed thanks to the Prospector. You can see the profound impact of our work in the lives of Prospects, as well as their families and caregivers. The question of “what happens when…” keeps many parents up at night. What happens when my child ages out of high school? What happens when I’m no longer here? 

Having a place to belong—to work and grow and learn—is the answer to those questions. Meaningful work opens worlds of possibilities and independence. When I see Prospects revel in their success and their families in awe of all they have accomplished, I know that what we’ve built is truly life-changing.

Last year, our Prospect family was shaken by the unexpected loss of our beloved friend Al. The Prospector was Al’s second home. Al loved his job. He was one of our ushers and was always excited to greet moviegoers at the door with a smile and friendly hello. He worked hard, saving his money to buy himself a new car (Al LOVED his car). When Al passed, his brother, Larry, gave us Al’s favorite piece of clothing—a jean jacket with a huge Prospector logo embroidered on it. That jacket now hangs in the lobby of the Prospector, with a quote from Al underneath. Al’s beautiful words completely epitomize what this business has provided me, and the hundreds of other Prospects who have worked here:

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Having a job is real good, and it’s real happiness.

What was the most surprising thing about becoming a business owner?

It takes a lot of work to make a lot of work! When guests join us at the Prospector, we often describe it as a Broadway show. The curtains lift, and the audience watches the magic unfold. The journey to that moment takes a lot of hard work, practice, and failing-forward. We leverage non-operational hours to work behind the screens, perfecting our customer engagement and pink glove service. The seamless experience we curate for thousands of weekly moviegoers is the culmination of that preparation and practice.

What is an aspect of running a business that you needed to learn more about when you started? How did you learn about it?

When I started the Prospector, none of us had worked at a movie theater before. Although I had been an Executive Director, I had never experienced what it was like to run a customer-facing business. What we were building was so unique; there was no guidebook to consult. We just had to do it. 

The first months were a crash course in operating a movie theater. We learned the business from the ground up. We discovered new jobs and roles alongside one another, rigor-testing and improving in real-time. In the beginning, there was a lot of burnt popcorn, ticket printer jams, and late showtime starts.

How does running your own business make you feel?

Proud, inspired, fulfilled, empathetic, amazed, excited, motivated, driven, determined, and SPARKLETASTIC. 

What are some of the challenges you’ve overcome or are working to overcome as a business owner?

Over the last eight years, the Prospector has grown tremendously. We expanded employment opportunities beyond traditional theater roles. We landscape and maintain our grounds, embroider our vests, write our own music, produce promotional content, steam-clean our carpets, repair our facility, build and design our own websites, and operate a program at a local 160-acre farm. We’ve maxed out every square inch of the building in our pursuit of creating as many jobs as possible. 

Yet, more people with disabilities are without jobs than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic deeply affected people with disabilities. Over 1 million Americans with disabilities were dismissed from their jobs due to the pandemic. The work we do is desperately needed. We’re constantly searching for ways to expand, scale, and grow our mission. That’s why we work—to create a sparklier tomorrow for everyone who has yet to feel the joys of having a job. 

What are your proudest moments?

As a mom…watching my children grow into the amazing, loving, smart, and talented people they are.

As a sister…seeing Hope rock her job at the Prospector.

As the Founder of the Prospector… sparkle-powering through the pandemic, keeping every Prospect on payroll despite being closed for 120+ days. We pivoted to virtual work, updating procedures, writing grants, hosting professional development, creating content for social media, completing daily flash challenges, and so much more!

What are the next big plans you have for your business?

We want to create more jobs! Last October, we launched our e-commerce platform. After the pandemic forced our organization to think differently about growth and expansion, we looked inward to discover pivots capable of furthering our mission and diversifying our revenue. 

Since opening, we’ve been popping and topping our delicious Gourmet Popcorn daily in our kitchen and selling it at our concessions stand. When brainstorming ways to expand our reach, build new audiences, and create more meaningful employment in a post-pandemic society, the idea POPPED into our heads (sorry for the corny pun). If we packed and shipped our Gourmet Popcorn across the country, we would be able to share our sparkle with audiences who would otherwise be unable to experience the Prospector. 

We’ve spent the last year learning all there is to know about e-commerce, digital marketing, click-through rates, nutritional labeling, shipping best practices, and every other skill needed to run an online business (it’s like a startup all over again!).

Our work is never done. We’re eager to share our successes, strategies, tools, products, and curriculum with other employers and organizations who want to make competitive and integrated employment. If you have loved learning about the Prospector, and want to bring our model to your workplace, give us a shout!

What are three things you feel have contributed to your success as a business owner?

Surrounding yourself with the right team sets you up for success. I built a team of players with unique talents, sparkle, experiences, and perspectives that could help us reach our goals. 

Invest in teaching. Teaching and training are at the core of all that we do. When you teach others how to be teachers, you’re creating a community of shared knowledge. Sometimes we’re the teacher. Sometimes we’re students. Often at the Prospector, the line between teacher and student is blurred. Moments like this build empathy and trust. When we document these processes, we’re building a tacklebox of tools and skills that will benefit those working today, as well as the future workers of tomorrow.

Build systems of continuous improvement. The Prospector uses continuous improvement systems to better our business and mission. And we’re always hungry for more. We strive to go from good to great, great to excellent, excellent to exceptional, exceptional to exemplary, and so on.

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By being flexible, adapting to change, and embracing experimentation, you can foster standards of excellence that will take your business to the next level.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone starting their own business?

Sparkle-mine yourself! What do you love to do? What can’t you live without? What gets you up in the morning, and what is the last thing you think of when falling asleep? If you’re a fish, what’s your water? 

When people reach out to the Prospector, asking how they can build what we have, I tell them repeatedly that it doesn’t need to be a movie theater—it just worked for us. We love movies. We were making movies. Our town didn’t have a movie theater. But the mission and model of the Prospector can be applied to any type of business, big or small. 

What do you love, and what does your town need? Maybe you love golf, and your town needs a golf shop. Maybe you love cars, but there’s nowhere to get your car washed nearby.

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To start a business, you need determination, grit, and drive. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you can truly do anything.

When you’re having a tough day, who or what inspires you to keep going?

I am inspired by the pioneers and trailblazers of our community—those who fought tirelessly for the Americans with Disabilities Act and everyone who has worked to make the world more accessible, inclusive, and integrated. 

And also, The Wizard of Oz. Its story is near and dear to the heart of every Prospect. During their journey, every character looks for something—a heart, a home, some courage. When they reach Oz, the characters realize they have everything they need all along. If you’re stuck in the vicious cycle of unemployment, you may begin to believe you’re missing something. Every one of us has sparkle and the keys to success. We just need more places like Oz, like the Prospector.

What’s your “power song” and why?

“Over the Rainbow.” When I hear it, I think of the Prospector. It’s a place where we can dare to dream, soar, and reach unimaginable heights. It’s a place to belong and a place to call home. The Prospector has opened endless doors of opportunity for the millions of people who have been touched by our mission. I hope to see you somewhere over the rainbow soon. We’ll see you at the movies! Sparkle on!

Follow the Prospector on Instagram @prospectortheater and get your popcorn @prospectorpopcorn.

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