Small business and entrepreneurship are the lifeblood of the American economy. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are over 28 million small businesses in the United States that comprise 49.2% of private sector employment and are 64% of the net for new private sector jobs. It is the influence of the small business owners that truly shape the day to day functioning of the United States. Entrepreneurship has always been a gateway for underrepresented populations and for people with disabilities, and specifically those on the autism spectrum it is creating a pathway towards finding new opportunities to enhance both there personal and professional value.
Over the past several years there has a been a greater awareness and understanding that developing new opportunities is not only about the social good but makes good business sense. In 2016, the University of Miami’s NSU Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) and the Taft Foundation announced the launch of a new program called the “Awakening the Autism Entrepreneur” initiative. They received a three-year $510,000 grant that goes toward funding educational workshops nationwide, podcasts, webinars and other innovative strategies for those interested in pursuing social enterprises that employ those on the autism spectrum. There are a growing number of small businesses who are realizing that by creating social enterprises they are embracing the very idea that they can move beyond stereotypes and channel the natural talents of people on the spectrum. Companies such as Extraordinary Ventures in North Carolina is a perfect illustration of how developing a platform for meaningful work can also lead to economic success. Starting in 2007 with seed money from local parents of children with autism who were reaching adulthood, Extraordinary Ventures was founded on the need to resolve a significant challenge facing communities across the country: how to train and employ the increasing number of young adults who are “aging out” of public school and are no longer able to access existing services. Meeting this challenge Extraordinary Ventures rejected the idea that these kids are not capable of keeping a job or doing meaningful work. Today Extraordinary Ventures has a portfolio of seven self-sustaining businesses ranging from office solutions that support small businesses to laundry services run by recent college graduates with an entrepreneurial spirit who assess community needs that can be filled and then start and manage these businesses designed to embody the skills and interests of the individual employees on the spectrum.
In 2018, Autism Speaks President and CEO Angela Geiger testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Small Business discussing an area that it is vital to the autism community, finding and retaining employment. In her testimony, Ms. Geiger highlighted several promising trends. Two of those trends focused on the impact of mission-driven businesses run by social entrepreneurs with an emphasis on employing people on the autism spectrum as well as small businesses run by entrepreneurs with autism. The ability to create a small business and the flexibility of entrepreneurship offers a variety of new avenues to leverage untapped talent and provide opportunities for success utilizing key strategies such as job design to enhance the capabilities of these employees. As Ms. Geiger stated in her testimony, “Employment is more than the key to independence; our jobs are, in large part, the way we as Americans define ourselves.” She went onto to say that, “People with autism share the same right to shape their identities and deserve the same opportunities to maximize their potential and to contribute as full and productive members of society. Small business has a tremendous opportunity to help them do so, improving their bottom line and improving their communities at the same time.”
Management guru Peter Drucker wrote that, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right thing.” In helping small business to recruit, retain and cultivate greater success for employees with autism there must be a fundamental philosophical change. With an estimated 50,000 adolescents transitioning from school into adult life each year small business owners need to rethink how they approach this community moving beyond just corporate social responsibility but rather see the potential through the lens of a value add. Neurodiversity offers small businesses and entrepreneurs a new opportunity to explore growing their business in innovative ways and building inventive revenue models with a talent pool that provides a competitive advantage because as a society we cannot afford to let their talents go to waste.