"There’s a stigma attached to people with disabilities,” says Stephen Foster, president of Chill-Pak since 2017. “The stigma is difficult to overcome.” Foster, who was born with profound hearing loss, is on a mission to break down that stigma. Chill-Pak is a manufacturer and total solutions provider of sustainable, temperature-assurance packaging for a broad range of industries including pharmaceuticals, biologics and chemicals to name a few. To Foster, disabled workers represent an untapped workforce—one that Chill-Pak embraces. Currently, people with disabilities make up 23% of Chill-Pak’s workforce, and the company’s goal is to hit 40% by 2021. “We’ve grown significantly since 2017,” Foster says. To hit that 40% goal, Chill-Pak works with Preferred Family Healthcare through its Preferred Employment Services program. The program connects jobseekers with disabilities to potential employers. “I’m a strong believer in the will of the individual,” Foster says. “Give them the right opportunity and the right resources, and they’ll be successful.”
Foster, a graduate of Bellarmine University and the University of Louisville with a double major in computer science and business, spent many years in the information technology industry working with startups. Foster’s focus on startups was partly inspired by obstacles he faced in the corporate world. “With some of the larger companies, it was frustrating because of the glass ceiling for people with disabilities,” he says. “You wouldn’t know I had a disability if I walked into the room until I open my mouth, and you hear that I have a speech impediment. Immediately the context of the conversation changes.” This has ignited Foster’s passion for hiring disabled employees at Chill-Pak.
This passion is exemplified in a story Foster tells about one employee—Brian Gold, a deaf janitor with whom Foster struck up a conversation in sign language. “I went up to him and started signing and his jaw dropped,” Foster says. “I don’t think he expected that. I found out he loved working on cars, so my next question was, ‘What the hell are you doing sweeping floors?’” Foster quickly moved Gold onto the labor line, where he became one of the most productive employees at Chill-Pak. “He has that fire in his belly because he’s got something to prove,” Foster says. “Giving him that opportunity gives me goosebumps because that’s really what I’m after.” For Brian Gold, the move showed Foster really cared. “At other jobs I had, I was very isolated,” Gold says. “There was no communication; no one bothered to make an effort. They expected me to speech-read. That’s just not effective at all.”