Whenever I find myself getting frustrated lately with my new temporary disability, I’ve been trying to think of inspirational people that tackled odds much greater than mine. When I worked for General Motors, I had the priviledge to focus on marketing that targeted the Disability community. We partnered with iCan.com, whose CEO was Heidi Van Arnem.
This was Heidi at the Woodward Dream Cruise with a Corvette we logoed with iCan.
Here is an article on Heidi. I have been thinking of her a lot recently, and how she managed to fight for better accessibility for people with disabilities while keeping a smile on her face, despite being a quadraplegic.
THE STRENGTH OF SPIRIT (from techdivas.com)
It was a cold and cloudy March day, the kind of day in Michigan when it seems like the world can’t decide if it’s winter or spring.
Heidi Van Arnem was 16 on that day. Popular and athletic, she lived with her art-teacher mother and her businessman father in a house in a suburb of Detroit that seemed to be perpetually filled with a kind of creative energy.
Her father was a visionary when it came to business. In the late ’60s, he founded a computer leasing company and went on to start several more companies.
In 1979, he produced the comedy “Love at First Bite” starring George Hamilton and Susan St. James and helped start the Detroit Express, one of the nation’s first professional soccer teams.
Her mom devoted her life to her four kids.
The family took trips to Florida, played sports and sailed every chance they got. It was an idyllic life.
But after that spring day, nothing would ever be the same again.
Van Arnem remembers how she went over to a friend’s house to visit. Her friend wasn’t home but she found her friend’s brother sitting in his room with a gun across his lap.
She remembers how he picked up the gun and pointed it at her as a joke. How he pulled the trigger.
“He didn’t know the gun was loaded,” says Van Arnem simply.
The bullet went through Van Arnem’s neck, severing her spinal cord.
“I felt like I had been electrocuted,” says Van Arnem. “My legs just gave out and I was lying there and it felt like I wasn’t breathing.
“At first, I had no idea you could be paralyzed in your arms,” says Van Arnem, who had only heard of people whose legs were paralyzed.
But she found herself in a hospital bed, connected to tubes and machines, unable to move anything below her shoulders.
It’s what doctors call a “complete” injury.
Says Van Arnem: “I felt like my world ended.”
It took five years for Van Arnem’s body to stabilize and years for her to come to terms with what a loaded gun had done to her life.
But Van Arnem used that time to develop a strength of spirit that she is now passing on to others.
Van Arnem is founder and CEO of iCan, an online community that provides power, information and services to the 54 million people living with disabilities in the U.S. today.
Not only does Van Arnem see her company as a way to provide information and help on subjects like travel, relationships and employment for the disabled, but she believes it will become a powerful lobbying force as well.
Recently, she signed a multi-million-dollar relationship with the auto giant GM and has sponsorships from Microsoft and Kmart.
“For me,” Van Arnem says, “it’s a dream come true.”
Van Arnem sits on a black leather couch in the high ceilinged offices of iCan. She wears grey silk pinstriped slacks and a short-sleeved blue sweater. Her brown hair is shoulder length. Her voice is soft.
A lot of her survival, she says, came because her mom refused to let her give up.
Most people don’t realize the devastation a bullet can do when it slices through a spinal cord. It affects all the organs: the heart, the bladder, the bowels, the lungs.
“It truly affects every aspect of your life,” Van Arnem says. “Socially, mentally and physically. It took a long time to adjust.”
It would have been easy to use her disability as an excuse, Van Arm says. Easy to say that she didn’t feel good or that something was too hard for her to do. But Van Arnem’s family wouldn’t let her surrender to her injury – and neither would the survivor spirit of the young girl.
“A lot of people wait to feel better, wait for things to happen,” Van Arnem says. “It doesn’t work that way. If you wait to feel better, it just digs you deeper into a hole.”
Still, it was a struggle.
Unable to do even the most basic things for herself, Van Arnem saw the way people looked at her with pity and hated it. She felt like a burden and it seemed like her world was spinning out of control.
She remembers the days when she happened to see herself in the mirror as she got dressed for school.
“It was a painful moment to look at myself and I would just cry,” Van Arnem says.
The medicines Van Arnem had to take made her face swell, gave her acne and made her hair fall out. The girl that looked back at her from a bulky wheelchair was so different from the slim, active teen-ager Van Arnem had been before.
But Van Arnem’s mom wouldn’t let her daughter feel sorry for herself.
“She’d come down and say ‘you look good. Let’s go,’” Van Arnem says, and off they would head to school.
There was no time for pity.
And no time to question whether Van Arnem would continue on with her life – albeit a very different one.
With the help of aides, or often her mother, Van Arnem went to college.
“I needed someone with me all the time,” Van Arnem says. “At that time I wasn’t really stabilized. I could have a muscle spasm and spasm right out of my chair.”
Then gradually, she began to stop seeing the things she couldn’t do anymore and began to see the things she could do: that she could help other just the way she had been helped.
It was that connection and positive support of her family and friends that made the difference, Van Arnem says, and that’s that spirit behind her company.
“I think it’s all about connecting with other people and making people’s lives better,” Van Arnem says. “That’s true meaning of life.”
The seeds of iCan were planted while Van Arnem was in college.
There, Van Arnem began volunteering for non-profit organizations and noticed that a lot of the money being raised was going to pay for things like offices, advertising and halls.
So she started her own foundation dedicated to helping to find a cure for paralysis. She put on fund-raisers, but instead of renting halls and buying food, Van Arnem went out and asked people to donate those things.
The result was that much of the money she raised went directly to research. In 1998, her foundation gave $100,000 to the American Paralysis Association’s approved research at Yale University.
That same year, she started iCan.
“I saw an incredible need to have one place to find resources, products and services,” says Van Arnem, who had been writing a column for the disabled community at the Detroit News and running a travel business.
So she began the way many startup entrepreneurs do. She wrote a 40-page business plan and called a couple of investors in the New York area.
“They said ‘what’s your wire transfer number’ and it was that simple,” Van Arnem says. “I had money almost immediately.”
She began to assemble her team until she had 22 people on staff – web designers, editors, assistants.
“We have a team of the most dedicated, passionate, experienced people in the country,” Van Arnem says against a backdrop of ringing phones at iCan’s headquarters in Birmingham, Mich.
Bob Harvey, founder of Appnet, came on board as the chief operations officer and iCan will soon begin making the rounds of venture capitalists for funding.
Van Arnem believes that not only will iCan “bring a perspective of hope and a perspective of achievement and of great possibilities for people” but it will give a powerful voice to a community that has been forced to whisper for too long.
With its strategic partnerships, Van Arnem believes iCan will be able to put power into the hands of people with disabilities for positive change.
“We will be part of that changing mechanism,” she says.
Van Arnem puts in long hours, pushing herself as far as her body will allow, because she believes so strongly in what she is doing.
When she isn’t working, she loves to go to dinner with friends and to travel. She still loves the water and you can find her watching football, basketball and hockey whenever she gets the chance.
She also makes time for the spiritual side of herself, a faith in God that has sustained her through good and bad times.
Prayer, she says, is a big part of her life.
“I think it has given me the strength and ability to recognize God’s work around me, and the ability to trust in the future and to be a better person,” she says.
She also believes in the power of forgiveness.
Two days after she had been shot, Van Arnem called her friend’s brother, the boy who had shot her and changed her life forever.
She only had one thing to say to him.
“I told him I forgave him,” she says.
A FEW MORE MINUTES WITH HEIDI VAN ARNEM:
What lessons have you learned that would be valuable to women beginning their careers in technology?
VAN ARNEM: To network as much as possible and to write a solid business plan. Make sure you get constructive criticism that validates your market, business concept and revenue streams. Hire people that are smarter than you and will look out for your best interests.
If you could have dinner with any two people, living or not, who would they be?
VAN ARNEM: First it would be Jesus, because he has the answers. And then, Oprah, for her ability to direct an audience and effect significant change.
What’s your favorite quote?
VAN ARNEM: Never let what you can’t do get in the way of what you can.
What’s your definition of success?
VAN ARNEM: Overcoming adversities and making the best of situations every day.