Success Stories

Self-Employment:

Emilea, a vibrant young woman with an infectious personality, is the owner of Em’s Coffee Co

At birth, doctors told her mom that Em would never walk, talk or feed herself due to a condition called Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum – the absence of nerve tissue connecting the right and left sides of her brain.

Despite their predictions, Em graduated from high school, where she had the opportunity to build work experience starting her freshman year.  Gaining entry-level work experience as a young teenager helped strengthen Em’s expectations and desire to work.

After high school, Em started working in a sheltered workshop – the only option available in her small town – where she earned well below the minimum wage for two years. Em was unhappy.

She and her family knew that she was capable of more

Wanting to take action, Em and her family informally brainstormed about Em’s attributes and community needs.  These conversations surfaced the idea of establishing a coffee shop.  Not only were there none in town, but the idea was also seen as being a good fit between Em’s early-rising habits, customer service experience, and engaging chatterbox personality.

Shortly afterward, Em and her family attended a GHA training on self-employment, which resulted in her working with GHA and state service providers[1] to develop a business plan.  Em was coached on how to structure her business while maintaining access to her Medicaid benefits, received help with designing the shop and selecting the menu, and provided with funds for barista training, which she completed successfully.

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Emilea "Em" Hillman standing with her mom and business coach, Tami Fenner inside Em's Coffee Co.

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At the White House for the signing of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (June 2014). With now retired U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (Iowa), Ashlea Lantz (Em's sister), Tami Fenner (Em's mom) and Em.

Em has accommodations at her coffee shop that make it easier for her (and all employees) to work the espresso machine and make change for customers.  For example, all coffee shop products are sold with tax included and prices for all items end on the dollar or a quarter.  Em also uses pictures on her cash register to represent the items she sells.

After months of research, and renovations to the shop, Em’s Coffee Co. opened

10 years later, Em works full time in her coffee shop, kicking off the morning shift Monday-Friday.  She is open Monday-Saturday and employs six people.  She hires people with and without disabilities and pays the minimum wage.

Em has traveled the country sharing her story at national conferences; testified in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on the Americans with Disabilities Act Generation; joined President Obama at the White House for the signing of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act; hosted Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Jill Biden at her coffee shop; and maintains an ongoing and close friendship with former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin.

The beauty of Em’s Coffee Co. is that it works for her and her community.  Em’s tag line personifies the shop and all that has gone into creating it, “it’s way more than a great cup of coffee.”


[1] Em worked with the local Vocational Rehabilitation Office (IVRS), and Work Incentive Planning and Assistance (WIPA) Certified Benefits Planning Coordinators.

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"Team Em" Listed left to right: Gordy Fenner (Em's Dad), Ashlea Lantz (Em's sister), Todd Lantz (Em's brother-in-law), Tami Fenner (Em's mom), LaVon Lohmann (Em's Grandma), retired U.S. Senator Tom Harkin and Em.