By David Blanchette
Michelle Tjelmeland has started two businesses and a nonprofit, all while being profoundly deaf. She hears only through the technology of a cochlear implant, and now works to provide cochlear implants for deaf people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them.
She has a bachelor’s degree in education from Eastern Illinois University and taught middle school language arts before losing her hearing and going back to school to complete a master’s degree in computer technology at University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. Tjelmeland launched her website design business, e-websmart.com, in 2000 when the technology was still in its infancy and now offers graphic design and social media services as well.
She and her husband, Joel, live in Rochester.
How did you begin your career?
I graduated from Taylorville High School in 1991, and then followed in my father’s footsteps and went to Eastern Illinois University. I got my first job at Auburn School District and taught seventh and eighth grade language arts. The following summer I was offered an opportunity to teach for Springfield School District 186 and taught there for about four years.
I met my husband and got married, got pregnant and went profoundly deaf during my pregnancy, so I was no longer able to teach.
How did you pivot to a new career?
If you can’t hear, you can’t teach, so I decided to go back to school. The University of Illinois was offering their very first online course in computer technology and education. This was back in 1998, and that was a long time ago in digital years. I graduated with a master’s degree in 2000 in computer technology and education.
It was during the time that I was getting my degree that we had to learn how to build websites. The premise was that education was moving toward being online. This was, of course, before Zoom, Yahoo! was just a baby and Google hadn’t been born yet. So I developed a website, then a second one, then a third. Over the years we have done websites in all 50 states, plus graphic design and social media.
I still have my website design business, e-websmart.com. That is my bread-and-butter, and it’s a passion of mine.
When did you decide to start the Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation?
My daughter and I are the recipients of cochlear implants. She was born deaf and was the second-youngest child in the United States to get a cochlear implant in 1999. She was 18 months old, and I followed in 2000.
In 2005, I started my nonprofit called the Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation. My foundation is the only one of its kind. We help deaf people get cochlear implants that cannot afford it or don’t have insurance.
In 2013, I started District 23 Boutique and all of the proceeds from the store help to support the foundation. We got our start on MacArthur Boulevard and after I leased that building, I asked my husband, who was on the Sangamon County Board, what county board district the building was in. And he said ‘District 23.’ So I said, ‘There we go. We have a name.’
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the obstacles you’ve had to face?
When I look back on my life, everything has kind of been a steppingstone. When you lose a major sense, it’s a shock and a loss, and you have to grieve that loss. Sometimes I still grieve that loss. Nearly 24 years later, there are still times that I get sad about my deafness. But what I quickly realized, after I had our first child, Ellie, and our second daughter, Lucy, was that either my deafness was going to overcome me, or I was going to overcome my deafness.
I remember many times I felt like I was in a stormy sea, holding my daughter above my head, and I could barely keep myself afloat. But it was my faith in God and realizing that this could be a disability, or it can be a great ability. I have had to hone my other senses to do things and show people that all things are possible if we set our minds to it.
I think the things that we fear the most are the things that we attract. So I try to just focus on the positive. I ride those ups and downs and stay focused the best that I can.
Are you still trying new ventures?
I’m 48 years old and even today, I feel like I’ve only just begun. My husband and I are now Airbnb hosts. I am constantly learning new things and pushing my skill set. I’ve realized it’s really all about how we embrace things, trying to take a positive spin on things.
Anything is possible if you prepare and persevere. I still work hard seven days a week. There are a lot of people that may be smarter than me, but there is nobody that can out-work me.
I live a very fun life. I believe in having a lot of fun along the way.
What advice would you give to people who want to start their own business?
The only ingredients that you really need are some grit and perseverance, the ability to keep getting back up. I’m still kicked in the teeth all of the time. But when you are down on the ground you can look around, take a deep breath, dust off and get back up.
Often times, people who want to start a business on their own don’t realize the magnitude of hours that it requires every single day to make a business successful. If you’re OK with that, and you know that going in, you’ll be successful.
Go with what your heart is saying and be willing to put the work in. Watch what other successful people are doing and be willing to put the work in.
My door is always open to those people who are looking to become an entrepreneur or start a business. I’m always willing to share my life lessons.
Looking back on your life, do you have any regrets?
I have never lived a life of regret. If I won the lottery, I would just do more of what I am already doing. I might do a few more vacations; my husband and I don’t get the opportunity to vacation a lot because we both work all the time. But we don’t view it as work, because we both love what we do.