Occasionally here at The Startup Magazine we come across an entrepreneurial story that shows there is more to a startup than the quest to become the next billion dollar unicorn. More often than you think, an entrepreneur’s passion is for the care and concern for others less fortunate. And those entrepreneurs go beyond occasional giving of time and talent to a full application of their entrepreneurial skills building a scaled nonprofit organization with a huge social impact.
As a great example, we had a chance to interview, Jim Elliott, Founder and President of Diveheart. Jim Elliott was once a volunteer guide for blind downhill skiers. After years of being inspired by the impact that skiing had on individuals with disabilities, Jim—also a passionate scuba diver—decided that scuba diving would be the perfect candidate to replicate this tremendous, positive experience with the formation of Diveheart, a nonprofit organization that provides safe and inclusive activities for adaptive divers to enjoy the wonders of the aquatic world.
In 1996, Jim left his career in the media industry—working with Chicago Tribune, WGN Radio and CLTV News—to become a full-time volunteer and teach individuals with disabilities how to scuba dive. Five years later, in 2001, he founded Diveheart, a volunteer-driven organization focused on building confidence and independence in disabled children, adults and veterans through scuba diving.
Jim’s efforts have been widely recognized by the Illinois Skin and Scuba Council—receiving the “Humanitarian of the Year” award in 2005—and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago—receiving the “Community Award” in all of 2005 through 2007.
Jim gave us some time to tell us more about his journey and Diveheart’s impact. If you have more interest or want to help, take a look at the Diveheart site.
TSM: To get us started, describe what Diveheart does in 10 words or less:
Jim: Helps those with disabilities through adaptive scuba and scuba therapy.
TSM: With a bit more detail, what does Diveheart do? What big-picture problems does it solve?
Jim: Since 2001 Diveheart has been helping children, veterans, and others with disabilities build confidence, independence, and self-esteem which lasts a lifetime. Using zero gravity and inner space, Diveheart helps participants imagine the possibilities in their lives. It’s not about scuba diving. Diveheart helps take the unrealized human potential that exists in the population of those with disabilities and creates a paradigm shift in the participants’ perspective. They no longer identify as someone with a disability, but rather they self -identify as a scuba diver.
This shift in perspective gives them the confidence to take on other challenges in their life that they might not have taken on before.
Diveheart has also authored the most innovative adaptive scuba training program in the world for scuba instructors, dive buddies, and adaptive divers, as well as helping to facilitate scuba therapy research around the country with university medical centers like Duke, Northwestern, Midwestern, Cornell, and others.
TSM: What is an experience or two you’ve had that really shows the impact that Diveheart has on its participants?
Jim: When I first get a wheelchair user, who may have been in a wheelchair his or her whole life or for years after a traumatic injury, in the water and get him or her standing up it’s a thrill for me. When I get these participants neutrally buoyant and standing independently underwater and they look down in amazement as they see themselves standing for the first time since their injury or maybe the first time in their lives it brings a smile to my face as well as theirs.
Once that paradigm shift has occurred it is wonderful to see participants with disabilities go back to college, travel, take on new recreational activities, and even become motivational speakers because of their newfound confidence and desire to help others. That also brings a warm feeling to my heart.
TSM: With the COVID-19 crisis, are there new factors to consider on how you are able to make an impact with your diving experiences?
Jim: Fortunately, Diveheart has hundreds of news stories, documentaries, training materials, and ten years of adaptive scuba symposiums and scuba therapy research to share with the world even though we’ve had to move all our dive programs to 2021 because of COVID-19. Diveheart also has a robust outreach and education program around the world that we use to inspire people of all abilities to imagine the possibilities in their lives. It’s also given us time to redo our website, database, and update our training program.
TSM: Tell us about making that leap from a corporate media job to a startup. What were the first hurdles?
Jim: The decision was challenging. At first, I wondered if leaving a successful media career to start a nonprofit where I would not draw a salary was a wise decision. But I put on the blinders and persevered overcoming one challenge and then the next, always trying to keep the right perspective and take the right action in every situation, always keeping in mind the long game…rescuing the world. The first break came by securing a pro-bono legal firm that helped us with our nonprofit incorporation in 2001 and with registering our trademarks. Once registered as a nonprofit we could begin raising money and then we were off to the races.
TSM: Give us a bit more background on the Diveheart success. As the organization grew, what were the additional challenges to making it sustainable? Hiring? Getting visibility? Raising sponsorship funds?
Jim: My media background helped tremendously in getting press, which we did not pursue until 2004. We first wanted to have adaptive instructors and buddies trained before we hit the media. We didn’t want to create more demand than we could handle. Traveling around the world teaching adaptive scuba and getting press in many of the countries we went to help get Diveheart street cred in the dive industry and beyond.
Our successful promotion and establishment of partnerships and collaborations with for-profit business and other nonprofits also earned us a reputation in the business community. Personnel has always been a challenge. Keeping good volunteers and staff who are serious, capable, and committed is a process not an event, and is an area that we always keep our eye on. We anticipate the worst-case scenario and hope for the best regularly. Raising funds has been a steady growth process. With more publicity and credibility in the market, the more donors find us instead of us having to chase new prospects. We try to do the right thing, get press and share it with current donors to show them what we do with their support and the press helps us make new donor friends. By pioneering scuba therapy research and reinventing adaptive scuba training, Diveheart has become a leader in the adaptive scuba world and sought out to present at medical and business conferences and events, which has led to two TEDx talks in the last 10 years.
TSM: Going back to your early career decisions, tell us what factors influenced your decision to run a nonprofit and gave you the entrepreneurial passion that you apply to it?
Jim: In the mid-1980s I guided and taught blind skiers. My oldest daughter is blind from birth. I saw how powerful skiing was for people with disabilities and started thinking about doing something similar someday with diving. There is a pool in every community and that’s where Diveheart does its heavy lifting. You can only ski at certain times of the year and in certain places in the world. I figured that if I left on top of my game while in the media business, I could always come back if the nonprofit thing went sideways.
TSM: What is one piece of advice you can offer other entrepreneurs that want to follow a nonprofit path, on how they can be successful?
Jim: Get a good pro-bono lawyer and accountant, and a volunteer team that you can depend on and trust, people who share your vision and mission.
TSM: What is one interesting fact about you that people may not know?
Jim: I used to teach dancing at Fred Astaire dance studio when I was 17 years old and in high school. I had two left feet when I started there. It’s a funny story. Hope to make it a coming of age movie someday. ☺