Sometimes, impact ideas come from a personal place — when our communities, families, or friends are affected by an issue, and we want to find a solution to better their lives. In many cases, that solution will also impact the lives of many others, and it makes sense to build a business or a nonprofit around the idea.

This is what happened for Dave Friedman, the founder of AutonomyWorks, a company based in Chicago suburb Downers Grove that hires people with autism to do repetitive operational tasks for marketing companies. Here’s his story:

  • Define the problem: Dave observed a low employment rate for people with autism, and through an assessment of the employment landscape, determined that this low employment was due to a lack of potential employers’ understanding around the value of their skills. Indeed, people with autism, like all people, have valuable skills that are particularly useful in many business contexts, and in overlooking this group, those businesses were missing a business opportunity.   
  • Design impact: Dave’s goal was to develop a business that allows people with autism to do work that matches their unique skillsets.
  • Build: Dave and his collaborators created a model that works for clients & employees, hire operational staff & partner with the Division of Rehabilitation Services.
  • Scale: Grow in Chicagoland first, and then on a national scale.

 

Define the problem:

Low employment rate for people with autism caused by a lack of understanding around the high value of their skills.

Dave’s son, Matthew, was born with autism. When he was graduating high school, Dave started to worry about his future. Why? He knew the statistics about adults with autism: Over the next decade, nearly 500,000 people with autism will graduate high school and enter the working world. If current trends continue, at least 80% of them — that’s 400,000 or more — will be unemployed, and living on disability or with the support of their families. Those that do find jobs won’t have the same breadth of opportunity as those without autism, so they will generally be in low-skill, high-labor positions.

Dave knew that people with autism, like his son, have unique skills that would be valuable in many workplaces, but other challenges they face hold them back from finding or securing viable employment opportunities. He wanted to find a way to support Matthew and other people with autism in finding competitive employment in high-skill jobs that they’ll likely be good at. That’s where it all began.

At the time, Dave was the President of Marketing at Sears Holdings. In his role, he saw so many tasks at which a person with autism would thrive — those that require attention to detail, focus on quality, and repetition. But he knew that most traditional companies wouldn’t hire people with autism to do these tasks, because of the lack of understanding around the valuable skills. This lack of understanding is the reason for high unemployment rates among people with autism.

 

Design impact:

Develop a business that allows people with autism to do work that matches their unique skillsets

Dave realized that, in order to find a job like that for Matthew and others with autism, he’d have to create it himself. He started to think through what this would look like, and how it could change the lives of people with autism, as well as increase awareness of their valuable skillsets.

At this stage, people with potentially game changing impact ideas are often held back by risk. The best thing to do at this stage is to calculate potential risks, and determine how to manage them if they should arise. To help budding social entrepreneurs do that, we developed a Risk Assessment Tool that will help you understand your risks and how to manage them.

 

Build:

Create a model that works for clients & employees, hire operational staff, partner with the Division of Rehabilitation Services, and seek out clients with projects that are a good fit

Dave started by asking himself questions that would help him build a business that :

  • Can people with Autism do this work? If so, how do you manage them?
  • How do you create the work and package it up in a way that they can do an excellent job?
  • Where do you hire people with Autism? How do you train them?
  • How do you bring them on board so that they can be successful?

He landed on a for-profit business model for two reasons:

  • In order to be big, they would need outside capital. In order to attract outside capital, they would need to be able to offer a return on capital, which is much easier for a for-profit business.
  • They want to change the way the world views people with autism, to understand that people with autism can work for a for-profit company competing in the market just like any other.

When they started, AutonomyWorks partnered with a local school cooperative to start to build out their team of associates. That’s where Dave met Karrie Pece, the first member of their operational staff. She’s been with them, managing the team and guiding their growth, since.

Together, they built their processes around the specific needs of their clients and team.

“When we start work with a new client, the first thing we do is try to understand their internal processes. What are the inputs to the process, what work do they do and what are the outputs that their working for? And then we bring it in house and we repackage it to be appropriate for people with Autism.” – Dave

They developed an office communication tool that employees can use to talk with one another more comfortably than they would via verbal communication. It also acts as a source of support and encouragement for many employees.

“[A teammate recently] showed me a Post-it note from one of the trainees to a fellow trainee that said, “Great job at turning your mad into glad. Keep up the good work.” We often see this type of encouragement from our team members.” – Karrie

When building a social enterprise, it’s critical to think about the individuals you hope to impact, whether it be employees, suppliers, or consumers, so you can tailor your model to their needs. For example, AutonomyWorks’ approach to hiring was developed to uniquely align with the specific needs of the people with autism they’re looking to hire. Here’s how it works:

  1. Job Shadow Day: Individuals go to AutonomyWorks and meet the team — no resumes or business attire necessary. The point is for potential new team members to see what they’re all about, experience their culture, and have the opportunity to try some of the work they do.
  2. Assessment Day: On this day, individuals complete sample work, and AutonomyWorks provides feedback on the skills and talents that they have and how those skills and talents may transfer into the world of work.
  3. Work Training Program: For 4-6 weeks, AutonomyWorks teaches new trainees professional skills, AutonomyWorks-specific skills, and computer skills.
  4. Apprenticeship: At this point, employees have the opportunity to try work in a real environment.
  5. Official Onboarding: Once someone is hired, they provide them with job coaching and support so that they can really learn to master the client work that they’ve been assigned to work on and to help them feel confident that they have the support and tools that they need to be most successful.

Their hiring and onboarding system allows employees to start off on the right foot, and thrive throughout their time at AutonomyWorks. Dave and Karrie believe that their team will function best when they can take ownership for their work, and can work on their own to complete tasks. They encourage them to become client experts and master the tasks they are given.

“Our associates know that the work that they’re doing adds value and that it’s important. That creates such a level of ownership and pride in the work that they do and the jobs that they have here at AutonomyWorks. Their enthusiasm is contagious. “ – Karrie

Starting an innovative social enterprise can be challenging, but Dave and Karrie keep it positive by reminding the team that they’re doing something that’s never been done before, which means they need to find their own solutions to complex problems. Instead of focusing on the problems, they choose to focus on the people fixing them.

“There are no easy answers to complex problems and there are no simple solutions to solving these really big problems. There are only people. People who are willing to try and people who are willing to work hard to make this world a little better and I’m extremely energized by that challenge.” – Karrie

 

Scale:

Grow in Chicagoland first, and then on a national scale

The great news is, AutonomyWorks’ model is working — really well, in fact. The AutonomyWorks team consistently outperforms their competition – delivering at exceptional quality and productivity, and partnering with large and small marketing services and operating companies. Today, they have about 30 people working at their office in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove — but there is still much work to be done.

Over the past five years, they’ve realized that they won’t be able to operate as effectively as one large team, so they got creative in their thinking.

“We have come up with a model that really gets product experts closer to the products and the teams that they’re working on. Rather than a centralized model, we went to a decentralized model and in order to do that, we needed to hire solution leads. Solution leads at AutonomyWorks are responsible for mastering products. Things like digital marketing, ad operations, reporting and analytics.” – Karrie

Their next step is to create a 200-300 person service center in the Chicagoland area. Once they have that down, they want to replicate that model across every major market in America, with the goal of creating 10,000 jobs for people with autism.

“We know that even if we’re wildly successful and can achieve that goal, that it is still only a drop in the bucket for the number of people with autism that are unemployed. At AutonomyWorks, we really want to inspire and encourage others to help us solve this problem.” – Karrie

As they scale, they stay focused on the goal of breaking down the stigma around people with autism, and spreading awareness around their value in the workplace. They want to encourage and inspire others to come up with innovative and creative ways to help employ individuals with autism, and ultimately to help change the way the world views them.

“People with autism are just people. They are people who want to showcase and share their skills and talents with the world.” – Karrie

AutonomyWorks has supported many — but the personal focus that led him to build the company is still there for Dave, and continues to drive the work for him.

“What Autonomy Works has done for Matt, is changed his focus where now instead of looking back, he looks forward. And thinks a lot about what his life could be like.” – Dave

The bottom line is: If you see a problem that is affecting a family member, friend, or someone from your community, you could be the one to create a solution.
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