5 Questions with Varun Chandak, Founder of Access to Success

Apr 01, 2022

Varun Chandak is the founder of Access to Success, a Canadian not-for-profit that supports the development of future leaders with disabilities and assistive tech. He led the launch of ATS Labs, Canada's first accelerator for accessibility startups, and the Access to Success Fellowship, which provides $90,000 in annual scholarships to MBA students with disabilities. His work stems from his own disabilities, and he is often invited to speak about both. Varun lives in Toronto with his wife and hyperactive Goldendoodle, Dash.

01. Give us the elevator pitch for ATS Labs.

ATS Labs is Canada’s first accelerator for accessibility, mental health, and aging tech startups. It provides unique programming, mentorship, and resources specifically designed to help startups serving people with disabilities scale. ATS Labs is managed by Access to Success a Toronto-based nonprofit that supports the development of future leaders with disabilities and assistive tech.

02. How does ATS Labs create a more diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem?

A billion people around the world have a disability, yet founders are frequently told, "disability is a niche market". At ATS Labs, we understand that founders serving people with disabilities are in a unique market, with a lot of nuances that differ from the general tech startup ecosystem. This is doubly true for founders who themselves identify as having a disability.

Recognizing this, we provide programming with a strong emphasis on inclusive design, co-creation, and other topics specifically tailored to help accessibility startups scale. We bring in founders of later-stage accessibility startups who understand what it is like to scale a business in this unique market, as well as global leaders in accessibility innovation and inclusive design. For instance, over the course of 3 months in 2021, our entrepreneurs heard from 50 speakers from 7 countries, over half of whom lead accessibility startups. We also facilitate collaborations and partnerships across the world through our network and our role as a founding member of the Inclusive Innovation Network.

Lastly, we recently started offering our inclusive design and co-creation programming to any startup, organization, or accelerator interested in becoming more inclusive and accessible. We hope that by sharing what we’ve learned, we can help make the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem more accessible.

03. How will support from the Techstars Foundation and the Techstars network further the mission of your organization?

We couldn’t be more excited to work with Techstars and Techstars Foundation! Not only will the financial support go a long way (particularly since we’re still bootstrapped), we hope that Techstars’ global network will open new opportunities for our founders. We are proud to have an expansive global network in the disability and accessibility innovation space, but the chance for our founders to request Techstars’ mentors for advice in specific areas would be invaluable. Personally, as my team and I grow ATS Labs, I’m also excited to learn from Techstars Foundation itself as well as the other organizations it supports.

04. How did you come to do this work and why is it important to you personally?

I have a couple of disabilities myself – I’m hard of hearing and have Erb’s Palsy, which is a form of partial paralysis in my left arm. Ever since I was diagnosed with hearing loss, it has been my dream to have contact lenses that could use artificial reality to provide live captioning whenever someone talks to me.

When I came to Canada in 2016 for my MBA from the University of Toronto, I launched Access to Success initially as a small student club just to support MBA students with disabilities. But we grew very rapidly and met a lot of accessibility entrepreneurs, who told me how difficult it is for them to find answers to the kind of questions they face.

I realized that my dream of AR contact lenses is probably still some time away, but the networks and resources we had already put together could actually help make a lot of other, similar dreams come true. This realization ultimately led to ATS Labs.

05. Share a success story.

ATS Labs and I are grateful to have supported a number of founders. Jolene MacDonald, Founder & CEO of Accessibrand (accessibrand.com) is one of the entrepreneurs we’ve been lucky to work with. In her own words:

“Having participated in ATS Labs has enabled Accessibrand to reach more potential opportunities and partnerships globally than we could have ever imagined.

When applying to join ATS I wasn't sure what the outcome or the benefits would be. Not only did I learn so much more about startups, disability, and accessibility, but I found the community I've been looking for. From joining the global Inclusive Innovation Network to having new clients, incredible partnership opportunities, and ongoing support from Varun and other guest speakers – we feel ATS Labs has been vital in helping our growth and reach.

I looked at other accelerators and none would have understood what we were doing like Varun and ATS. I have a disability myself, so being surrounded by others who ‘get it’ only helped me feel more confident and proud of the work we are doing.”

Access to Success is a participant in the Accelerate Equity program of the Techstars Foundation in 2022.

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