To inspire our readers to meet their 2016 resolutions, our January issue is spotlighting one of Chicago’s most inspiring founders, Kaney O’Neill. Kaney is a Navy veteran, the mother of six year-old Aidan, and the founder of ONeill Contractors—a commercial roofing company serving the United States Military and other government and private agencies. And Kaney conquers it all from her wheelchair.
Interview by Terri Brax, founder of TeacherCare, co-founder of Women Tech Founders
So was it partially your love of the water that drew you to the Navy, or what influenced your decision to join?
I was nineteen years old when I decided to join the military. I was going to community college as a waitress and wanted an adventure. I have a long history of military service in my family, and I believed serving my country was the right thing to do, so I enlisted. My dream was to become a search and rescue swimmer, with the thought of traveling the world, jumping out of airplanes to save lives, and maybe even falling in love. I wanted the whole American dream, but things didn’t go as I had planned. I often use a quote from John Lennon to describe this part of my life: “Life is what happens when you’re busy planning something else.” When I arrived at my duty station, I was on an aircraft carrier that wasn’t even in the water. It was just docked. I laugh when people ask me what I did in the military and I explain that I was a professional paint scraper, but I really loved being in the Navy anyway. It was an honor and a privilege to wear my country’s uniform.
And your life-changing accident happened while you were in the Navy?
It did. In 1999, I was 21 years old, and Hurricane Floyd blew into Virginia. I ended up suffering a fall off a balcony that severed my spinal cord at the fifth and sixth vertebrae and rendered me a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down. The accident happened during a hurricane, so resources were strained at the hospital. I had my surgery with back-up generators because all the power was out. Yeah, it was life-changing. In the blink of an eye, my physical world changed forever.
That must have been an incredibly difficult period in your life. How did you move forward?
My way of coping or moving on was to invest myself in my education. I started off at community college and then transferred to Northwestern and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Learning and Organizational Change. After my Bachelor’s, I hit the streets trying to find a job, but I had trouble getting interviews and was told I needed a Master’s degree to be a better candidate. So I went back to Northwestern, earned my Master’s degree, and sure enough my resume turned into interviews. Unfortunately, when I showed up, jobs just didn’t materialize. Interviewers asked about my special accommodations and limitations rather than my skills or how I could add value to the organization. After a year of trying to find a job, I realized I may as well just start my own business. I can be in control and create my own dream.
You just didn’t let anything or anybody knock you down.
Yeah, I’m stubborn. If somebody tells me, “you can’t do that,” I guarantee you I’ll find a way to get it done. It’s just the way that I am. Tell me that I can’t do something and I’ll do my best to prove you wrong.
So where do you think you got this fire to overcome challenges?
I think it’s a combination of having a big, supportive, happy family—with a history of entrepreneurship generations deep—and the skills that I gained in the military. My family was always cheering me on, and the military showed me that I could push myself farther than I ever thought I could. I still hear the military voices inside my head saying, “improvise, adapt, and overcome,” and a lot of the military mottos like, “failure is not an option” or “find a way around.” I have so many challenges that I just view challenges as boulders in the road. When I face a problem, I tell myself, “There’s a way around it, or over it. I’ll call a friend with a crane if I have to, but I’ll find a way. There’s always a way. You just have to figure out what it is.
You shared some great quotes. Who shared those powerful messages with you?
I was fortunate enough to experience a lot of really good leaders when I was in the military. Besides overcoming challenges, they also taught me what it means to motivate a team and the value of teamwork. I learned that you can’t do anything on your own. You have to have a team, a unit.
What stories stick with you? Which stories inspire you?
I think the stories of why people become entrepreneurs and the path that they take. I gain my strength through other entrepreneurial stories and the stories of how people overcome challenges.
And speaking of entrepreneurial stories, I understand you have multi-million dollar contracts from the government and other great organizations. Can you share a little bit about O’Neill Contractors?
Sure! ONeill Contractors is a general contracting company that specializes in commercial roofing. We’ve been in business since 2007. It took me a year to get my first job, but I can remember begging the contracting officer, “Please, it’s my first job. I know it’s in Walla-Walla, Washington, but I can do it.” Now, we’ve done close to 2.5 million square feet of roof restorations up there in Washington as well as many other roofing projects. Probably one of my most meaningful jobs was winning my first roofing MATOC for the Navy at Great Lakes, where I went to boot camp. I love that I can still be of service to my Navy.
So it came full circle.
It’s really meaningful for me to be able to work on government projects. Right now, we’re working on a building at a VA cemetery. I’m proud that I’m contributing to a place that will comfort people who are grieving. She also installed a new roof at the VA hospital where she is a patient. It means a lot to me to help take care of other veterans.
I’m sure the veterans in the hospital find strength in seeing you manage those projects.
Yeah, I think that it’s easy to give up or just float by and not grow or challenge yourself. I have a lot of hopes and dreams for my future, and I want to build something I can be proud of.
I know you’re a big believer in using technology to build hopes and dreams...
Technology is hugely important for our business and personal life. Our company uses tech in everything from online information systems to multiple apps. There’s also some really exciting technology I can’t wait to use, like drones. With the use of a drone, I can be on a roof taking photographs and measurements without even having to leave my wheelchair. Technology makes up for deficiencies and helps us to be more productive. If you don’t learn and use new technology, you’re gonna be a slow turtle and everybody is gonna pass you by.
Speaking of the future, what are your goals?
I want to grow my business to $15 million. We have a long way to go, but that’s the goal. And I would really like to hire at least 75 percent veterans within my company, to actually have quality training to help veterans establish a really professional career, not just work but an actual career. But, my son holds my heart. I want to give him the best life I can. That’s always my goal.
Thanks so much for sharing your incredible story! Are there any final messages you want to pass on?
The reason that I do interviews is to get other women to realize that owning your own business is possible. Everybody has challenges, and there are ways to overcome those challenges. Maybe I have more challenges than most, but everyone has a cross to carry. You rarely hear women say, “When I grow up I want to be an entrepreneur,” but why not? I think they need to start visualizing that they, too, can go into business for themselves. And yeah, I just hope that if one person hears my story and thinks, “if she can do it, I can do it,” then that’s the biggest reward for me right there.