It takes a true innovator to change the face of software accessibility, and that’s exactly what Jill Willcox, Co-Founder and Managing Member of Iterators, LLC, is doing. Her three-year old startup is making the web and mobile apps more accessible for those with disabilities. And she’s doing it as a for-profit company that can follow its own rules and values instead of a nonprofit, which would be beholden to donations. Located in Boston, the company models what it means to make a social impact while creating an inclusive work environment. Her goal is to prove that you can hire the best person for the job, no matter if they have disabilities or not.
CIC: What does your company do?
Jill Willcox: Iterators is an inclusive software testing company that does both manual and automated testing. We have a core team of nine people (in state and out of state) and are Trusted Testers, certified by the Department of Homeland Security for Sec 508 compliance, which is just one way we stand out.
One area we focus on is accessibility testing for web and mobile apps. Most companies do not have websites or apps that are accessible for people with disabilities. Our goal is to make sure that people with disabilities can use a website or app in the same way that people without disabilities use them.
When it comes to testing for visually and hearing impaired populations, we look at critical elements such as whether they have a device, implant, or epilepsy, so we know what we have to test for. In the end, we try to test for everything to make sure that every website and app is accessible not just for one group but for every group — this includes low vision, color blindness, hearing loss or impairment, motor or developmental disabilities, elder status and light-induced epilepsy.
As for who we are, we are a woman-owned company in the technology space, which is fairly rare. Additionally, we hire people who can do the job, no matter who they are, what they look like, or what issues they have. There is no stipulation put on our employees — we have individuals with ADHD, dyslexia, on the autism spectrum, et cetera.
CIC: What was the motivation behind your company?
Jill Willcox: I started my career as a compliance specialist at Hewitt LLC. I worked on the health and benefits side of compliance. They didn’t have the money to hire outside testers, so it was 100% up to our team, and I had to learn as I went in terms of what software testing is, how it works, and what to do.
That was how I got involved in software testing, but Iterators’ creation was more personal.
My twins were born prematurely. As my son grew, it became clear that he had a language disorder that would last a lifetime. When he became an adult, he had plans to go to college and earn a degree in math, but he wasn’t sure how his disability would hinder him. Would it make it more challenging to find a company that would embrace him? During the job hunt, he would come home from large companies, over and over again, saying that he wasn’t a culture fit or something similar. It was heartbreaking, and that was the spark for Iterators.
I wanted to inspire my son and others like him, and I wanted to inspire companies to recognize and embrace people that can do a job, no matter their disabilities. Too often, I hear people say, “I want a job, but I can’t get one,” and that shouldn’t be the case. My goal is to help people own their identity and then get out there and work.
Iterators is now three years old, and we have clients throughout Boston and beyond. Some clients include the City of Boston, Boston College, and Connelly Partners, who works with organizations such as the Boston Athletic Association (i.e. The Boston Marathon).
CIC: What has been one of the biggest challenges or surprises of building Iterators?
Jill Willcox: One of the biggest surprises came during the pitch process. Sometimes, when we would introduce ourselves to a potential client, they would show interest in what we do and be thrilled that someone was focused on accessibility, but then they would hesitate because we’re not a nonprofit. And I get it, because as an owner, it’s important that your charity dollars go toward something focused on social impact.
However, this attitude can be very limiting. The problem is that it puts people with disabilities into a niche that they have a hard time breaking free from. If they are only associated with charity and nonprofits, then they can’t compete against others doing the work they want.
Our goal is to make it so people with disabilities can work with all types of companies, not just nonprofits, which is a common stigma. They can do everything — moving from one job to another, increasing their salary, et cetera — just like a traditional employee, and that’s what we want for people with disabilities.
CIC: What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew before you started building your business?
Jill Willcox: I wish I knew that companies were going to debate the fact that we are an LLC and not a nonprofit organization. We can still do amazing work while as a social impact company. Additionally, this opens us up to helping nonprofit companies. We are regularly asked to help nonprofits in the disabilities space, and we do so. For example, we’ve been doing some work for the MRC (Mass Rehabilitation Commission).
Also, it’s been enjoyable to focus on the fact that we’re a company owned and run by women. We’re smart, we’re competitive, and we can succeed.
CIC: What successes are you most proud of thus far?
Jill Willcox: There are many things that I’m proud of, but I’m really proud of our testers. They are exceptional at what they do. I know that if they decide to leave Iterators one day, they are going to have so many opportunities open to them, and that’s really exciting.
CIC: What brought you to CIC?
Jill Willcox: When we were first looking for a space for Iterators, we had some steep requirements. Then, once we visited CIC, we knew immediately it was the location for us.
We love how CIC offers everything all-in-one. For example, if you need to photocopy something, that’s included in the cost of rent. We don’t have to worry about paying for every service individually, which makes things hard to use. Instead, with CIC, we feel like we’re in a real office with everything included, so we can do whatever we need or want to do.
We also love the community feel of CIC. It feels like an office building that’s filled with people and companies made up of similar experiences, which makes you feel connected. Best yet, CIC helps you make those introductions and connections so you can expand your network.
CIC: What do you most value about your experience at CIC?
Jill Willcox: I have absolutely loved the introductions that the CIC team has helped us make. Those have been invaluable. And the sense of community has opened up so many possibilities. We are more than happy to help out our new CIC friends and family with their software testing!
Oh, and the workshop nights are awesome.
CIC: What advice do you have for other startups and entrepreneurs in your industry?
Jill Willcox: Be flexible! You have to be willing to adapt for your customers and change course when you need to.
However, that doesn’t mean you have to lose your identity completely. It’s just as important to do things your own way and to have really good ideas about who you are and what you do. It’s these things that differentiates you from the competition. For example, if we’d taken all the advice we’d received, we’d be a nonprofit and doing something very different.
CIC: What does success look like for you down the line?
Jill Willcox: We already feel successful. We really enjoy what we’re doing and just want to continue growing and adding people to our network and having fun. Ideally, we’d like to hire more people and train them to join our inclusive workforce, and of course, we’d like to grow our client base.
Right now, we’re working closely with Boston College testing student service modules, working with the City of Boston to test boston.gov, and are fortunate enough to be working with Connelly Partners to test their client websites. Right now we are testing the CityYear Boston website, with a launch in the first of the year. We’d love to do more projects like this.