How I started a business with a disability

After a life-changing injury, Tanya-Lee Holmes overcame adversity through baking – and is spreading the love by supporting others with disabilities. 

  • Tanya-Lee Holmes applied for 70 jobs and was turned down every time. She turned to baking as a source of comfort, and gradually turned it into a business.
  • She now employs other individuals with disabilities to help with packaging and deliveries, and seeks support for herself through business mentors.

When Tanya-Lee Holmes was 39 years old, her life changed forever. A florist at the time, she went to bed with a migraine and woke up a couple of hours later paralysed down one side of her body. “I’d ruptured two vertebrae in my spine, which resulted in nerve damage and surgery,” she says. Overnight, she went from being extremely active to needing a walking stick or wheelchair.

“I dealt with chronic nerve pain, incontinence... it completely changed the plan I had for my future.”

For those first few months following her injury, Tanya-Lee describes the world as feeling black. “Two of my three adult children have cerebral palsy and require wheelchair assistance. My other son is in the army. Raising kids with disabilities and then acquiring my own really made me look at things in a different light.”

One of those shifts came with understanding how some people now perceived what she had to offer. “I applied for 70 jobs after my injury... nobody would give me a role,” she says. “I was viewed as a risk. It was deflating.” She felt angry, sad and disappointed. “That people would see the physically affected side of me and not what I was capable of made me question if we had evolved in the disability space at all.”

From comfort cookies to baking entrepreneur

To deal with so many unknowns, Tanya-Lee turned to one of her most beloved forms of therapy: baking. “Before my injury, I already had a diagnosis of PTSD and anxiety, which was exacerbated post-injury. Baking helps calm me. It takes me back to when I was a kid, when I would spend hours in the kitchen with my grandma.”

There was no plan for a business – it was simply a way to help her cope. “Over time, it evolved,” she explains. “I started to bake for a local coffee shop. Then I was baking for friends and then friends of friends and then anyone who asked.” Tanya-Lee would bake late into the night to fill orders – but it didn’t feel like a chore. “The comfort I feel when the kitchen smells like baking biscuits... it’s just the best.”

“Don’t be afraid to fail. We all fail – it’s what you do next that’s most important.” 

It took 12 months to consider turning it into a business. Late one night, Tanya-Lee bought a shipping container online. When it arrived, she put it in a paddock on her farm in Bathurst and had it fitted with a kitchen. “The first six months were nerve-racking,” she says. “I had no idea what I was doing but I loved that my work was able to make me feel grounded while bringing joy to others.” She also baked to raise money for charities and started advocating for people with disabilities, which gave her a strong sense of purpose.

As any small business owner can attest, the challenges were constant. “Small business is hard and it can take a toll,” she says, admitting that COVID made her question what she was doing. She was so busy making cookies for people to send as gifts and biscuit-decorating kits for kids that she forgot to look after herself. “My health suffered.” And she realised that she didn’t need to do it all on her own.

Supporting others – and knowing when to get support for herself

Day-to-day, Tanya-Lee still runs the business by herself, but she’s employed people with disabilities to help with deliveries and packaging. “I also rope my family in when I need extra hands.” She also found business mentors she can call when she’s second-guessing herself.“One of my mentors, Katie, has become a great friend. She’s been pivotal in helping me realise my potential, pushing me out of my comfort zone and helping make sure I don’t get lost among the noise that can happen in small business.”

Tanya-Lee has also spent time coming to terms with her own self-doubt. “I’m always second-guessing myself and my capabilities. What I’ve learnt is that you have to ride the waves and acknowledge when you need a break.”

Sharing the ups and downs 

Looking back at how much she has achieved by growing a business still catches her by surprise. She won silver at the 2022 AusMumpreneur Awards in the Disabled Business Excellence NSW/ ACT category and was also named as one of Bathurst’s Living Legends for 2023. But one of the most meaningful parts of her job is being able to share the ups and downs of her disability through social media on Instagram (@imperfectlyperfectsugarcookies).

“I’ve been able to show people the good and bad sides of having a disability and that it’s OK to share the bad days,” she says. “If I can help others through a sale of a cookie or open conversation, that means more to me than anything else.”

As for her words of encouragement to anyone who has a business idea but is yet to act on it: “Don’t be afraid to fail. We all fail – it’s what you do next that’s most important.” 

Accessible banking for all

To make banking easier, CommBank collaborated with customers and community partners to launch the Equal Access Toolkit, now available in all branches. It includes practical tools to support those who may need adjustments to do their banking, including a high-contrast keyboard, magnifying tools and a customer preference card.

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  • This article was originally published in Brighter magazine

    1 DBM Australian Financial Awards 2023 – ‘Most recommended Major Business Bank’ and ‘Most Recommended Business Bank Account (Major Bank)’. Presented March 2023. Award is based on information collected from the DBM Atlas research program – feedback from over 18,000 businesses January 2022 through December 2022.

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