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Becoming an Autism Employment Entrepreneur

Last fall, after a 30-year career in corporate marketing, I joined the ranks of a handful of other parents and social service agencies in a new movement referred to as autism employment entrepreneurship. I founded Yes She Can Inc. as a nonprofit dedicated to developing job skills and employment opportunities for young women with autism spectrum disorders.

Channeling a Passion

My daughter, who is almost 18, has always loved American Girl dolls. She has been and is excessively brand loyal having started her collection at age 3 with a Bitty Baby as a gift, and now (I hate to admit it) has 8 American Girl dolls. She loves reading the story books about a 10-year-old girl in a particular time in history as well as the contemporary advice books about caring for your body and your emotions. She knows each historical doll’s outfits and she makes up personas for her “girls of today.” She spends hours on the website playing games and studying the catalog.

Years ago I had wondered how to channel this passion and expertise into a future for her. “My dream job is to work at American Girl Place” she has always said. I thought given her passion perhaps she could actually have a job at the store – IF. If she could take the train to Grand Central and then walk to the store – without being abducted. If she could handle 20 hours a week of work in a highly stimulating retail environment – where everything she sees she wants. If American Girl would even hire her – with a job coach.

But what if she couldn’t and they wouldn’t? So I thought about creating the same environment that she loves in the store: the merchandise for sale, the doll hair salon, the cafe, and the library, (and they used to have a performance theater). The twist would be that the merchandise we would sell would be previously owned for resale. And that there would be many jobs that she and young women like her could do. And I knew there would be demand for the product.

I also wanted to make sure that there would be opportunity for employees to develop skills that they could transfer to other jobs with other companies – perhaps a teen fashion store or toy store. My vision was not just creating a job for my daughter, but starting a career for many young women. If I wanted to have an impact on more than a handful of people I needed to have a business model that either could scale up, or that could scale out. Scaling up would mean that I would have to create more stores in more locations, finding more used merchandise and more store managers. Scaling out meant that the marketplace would need to absorb my well-trained staff so that I could keep adding fresh first time workers to my employment ranks. Of course this meant that I would always have an inefficient workforce. I also did not want to create a sheltered workshop. I wanted to have an inclusive integrated workplace where people with and without ASD would work together.

I never wanted to be a retail empire building a chain of resale shops. Furthermore, I realized that there could be girls and women who might not be interested in American Girl dolls – really, I know. They might be interested and skilled in software coding or Legos or dog walking. So rather than think of the business as a single doll resale shop, I thought of it as an incubator with a portfolio of businesses for skill building where we would “spin off” people to other businesses.

Last November I launched Yes She Can Inc. as a non-profit corporation in New York State with the mission to develop job skills and employment opportunities for young women with autism. Our first venture is Girl AGain, which opened on February 8, 2014 in Hartsdale, NY.

Teaching to Work

I want to use Girl AGain as a realistic environment to teach people how to work in a business. This would then prepare them for employment in a business. High schools now are incorporating internships as part of their transition programming but I had concerns about what high school teachers actually knew about what was needed in business. (It’s no longer part of public education to have a vocational program).

My daughter’s transition program includes internships. I suggested that her teacher make a list of the skills she needed to learn for the workplace and begin teaching and incorporating those skills as part of her academic experience. For example in the work world, most jobs require collaboration with colleagues, yet in my daughter’s academic program she hardly had any group assignments – never a project that she had to do at home over a weekend with 3 other students. Shouldn’t she be undertaking collaborative work in school to prepare her for the work place?

Since high school internships are typically the student’s first exposure to work, they tend to focus on the task that needs to be done, not on the business. A lot of the focus is on appropriate social behavior in the workplace – which is needed.

In a sample size of one, this was “validated” when I observed my daughter in her internships this fall. I had asked her if she knew why she was putting labels on shopping bags for a store she went to weekly from school with a job coach. She did not know why. It was just a task. But she liked being in the store because it was a small woman’s boutique with lots of fashion accessories, and lots of pink.

We take it for granted that we know that a shopping bag is an advertising device and that advertising helps bring more customers to the store which leads to sales and profits, which is what keeps the store in business. We take it for granted that if a person who made a purchase is carrying a shopping bag with a brand name they are implicitly making an endorsement, which is a good thing. Since this is not concrete some people need to be taught explicitly. I asked if she knew why the bags needed labels anyhow – why weren’t the bags printed with the store logo? Did she understand it was a business decision that probably was driven by cost? (This would make a good math class problem to figure out the cost difference between preprinted bags and hand labeling plain bags with free labor.)

I have noticed that for people with ASD the question “why” does not come up too often. They don’t ask it and have a hard time answering it. “Why” is the key to generalization. “Why” helps put context around something that might seem isolated. “Why” helps people understand and to even think of alternatives, possibilities, options. This is how we can take a seemingly insignificant task like putting labels on bags and making it significant for helping a business achieve its goals, which is the function of work.

Why at Girl AGain

In the Girl AGain boutique, I had two workers take photos of each outfit. One of the workers did not want to remove the plastic bags – yes it was extra work – so I had to explain why: we get a better detailed photo that would not only be a document for us but it would be a promotion tool – we would put these photos on Pinterest so that people who can’t come to the store might be so enticed by the beautiful outfit that they would want to purchase online. We will now have a new rule in our process: take a photo of an outfit before putting the plastic bag over the hanger. Why? for better quality photo for advertising.

Putting hang tags on the clothes – I had to explain that you put the tag hanging on the back of the outfit so that people first see the item, decide they like it and then look at the price – this is a better sales strategy. I can establish the rule: hang tags go to the back. But understanding why will help them to transfer this to other situations.

One worker, who is a friend of my daughter’s did not think of me as the manager. I asked her to do something and she said no. I asked her again and she refused again. She thought it was funny. I explained that we are not here to joke and her response was, “I want to have fun when I work.” Now I realize I need to teach that the purpose of work is to accomplish a business objective not a personal objective. At work the individual is no longer the focus.

This venture is not just the employees with autism learning to work; I have a lot to learn about being an autism employment entrepreneur.

 

Girl Again is a resale boutique for American Girl dolls and is located at 157 South Central Avenue in Hartsdale, NY. 10530

Please like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/GirlAgainBoutique. For more information, please contact Marjorie at (914) 428-1258 or mjmadfis@gmail.com.

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