Leon Campbell says he is patient, attentive, and devoted to details. “I always make sure my work is accurate within the confines of the rules that are given to me,” he explains. Leon works on “all manner of things with data—extracting it from online sources and promptly putting it in other online sources, labeling images, among other things.” Many in the workforce find these tasks too monotonous to carry out on a daily basis, but for Leon and hundreds of his peers, this is exactly the kind of work they enjoy and do best. Leon is on the autism spectrum and has an aptitude for repetitive, detailed work. Through AHRC New York City’s Employment and Business Services, Leon was connected with an opportunity to use these skills to the fullest. He is thriving in his job at Daivergent, a tech startup providing a variety of companies with access to a workforce that can tackle their most intricate data needs.
Raising Awareness of a Unique Workforce
“We work with companies that have these data requests, for tasks that they need completed by an exceptional talent pool that they can draw from and support them,” says Byran Dai, the co-founder and CEO of Daivergent. He started the company in December 2017 using his savings and funding from the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Association1, and has since seen it grow from two initial hires (including Leon) to supporting more than 850 candidates across the country working with nearly two dozen corporate clients. Around 80-100 people in the candidate pool are working on active projects at a given time.
“We recognize that there is a unique ability and aptitude among this autism talent pool in many of these different domain areas like data labeling and annotations for building artificial intelligence products, or helping customers in the health care space do secure data entry,” Byran said. “So we say ‘Is this type of task something that you’d look overseas for or they’d look for people who really wouldn’t be the best suited because the work is very complex and it requires a lot of focus?’”
Daivergent works with service providers, such as AHRC New York City, to find candidates who are best suited for this work. “Daivergent has become an indispensable employment partner with AHRC NYC” says Marco Damiani, CEO of AHRC NYC. “They are helping hundreds of people with autism and other intellectual/developmental disabilities realize their potential by putting them in a position to succeed professionally. Technology is one of AHRC NYC’s key initiatives and it is exciting to partner with a company that is being an innovator in its field.”
Byran’s dream for Daivergent is borne out of personal experience. His 19-year-old brother, Brandon, has autism. “When was growing up with him, it was always very apparent that he’s not the same as me, not just because we are separated by almost 10 years in age but also the fact that our interests are different; the way we communicate [and] the way we approach the world is very different,” Byran said. Byran’s relationship with Brandon further changed four years ago after their mother passed away. “She was always the one that was the caretaker for Brandon,” he explained. “When that happened I found myself wanting to feel that there was a meaningful future and meaningful life ahead because that’s what she wanted to give to him. I think a lot of siblings feel that pressure as well.”
Over 70 percent of people with disabilities are not in the workforce.2 Byran, through Daivergent, is seeking to change that by showing how people with autism and intellectual/developmental disabilities are a unique asset for companies to employ. “We have a strong sales team that does a lot of outreach,” Byran said. “What I’ve noticed is a lot of it is educating folks. We talk to hiring managers and say ‘Listen, have you thought about bringing on someone who is neurodiverse or a vendor who provides access to neurodiverse talent pool?’ And they say ‘Oh, tell me more about that, I’ve never heard of about this before.’ So, we are in this hybrid of sales but also awareness.”
Daivergent’s business is based on two approaches. It contracts directly with corporate customers to provide data assistance and also offers access to its work-readiness platform to individuals and groups. “Our platform itself is really intended to be this triad of support areas: working experiences; professional development, and socialization skills,” said Cameron Dogan, Customer Success Manager at Daivergent. “We take advantage of software that allows us to break large-scale projects into smaller projects that can be done in bite-size chunks. What we try to do is that we recognize that among this population, different users might have different strengths and weaknesses, and we try to match them with the project that best suits their strengths.”
The platform also contains built-in curriculums to allow for social and professional development that users can access. Some are geared toward personal interests like video game design, Photoshop, and graphic design, while other curriculums are focused on augmenting professional skills, such as recognizing body language in the workplace and general Microsoft suite lessons.
Daivergent recruits employees by working directly with service providers such as AHRC New York City and The Arc of Kentucky; advocacy organizations including Autism Speaks; university accessibility offices; and family groups. “We try and do a lot of outreach on social media, so we have folks that come in that might not be affiliated with an agency or organization yet. They come to our platform and we like to provide that connection,” Byran said.
Use of an online module allows Daivergent’s workers to put themselves in the professional situations where they are most likely to succeed. “We have people who work in their local libraries, people who work out of their own home,” Cameron said. Cameron added that interoffice messaging apps such as Slack encourage close communication on both work projects and shared personal interests, increasing opportunities for socialization in a population that often struggles with it.
Gaining Confidence Through the Workplace
Workers at Daivergent have been thriving as a result of the customized employment the work-readiness platform provides. “We do feedback surveys and the thing we get the most is that they love flexibility of setting their own schedules—we have people who work from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. because they just prefer nighttime,” Cameron said. “I have people that ask me for more work when they are done with their tasks because they are so thrilled to gain that confidence and grow and put themselves out there.”
Alexis Prendergast is among those workers seeing a boost in confidence since beginning at Daivergent. She found out about the company via ACCES-VR, a New York State program that facilitates employment opportunities for people with disabilities.3
“I used to work at the library at my school, Manhattanville College,” she said. “I basically just shelved books.” Alexis never felt comfortable around her old coworkers, in large part due to her social challenges. “I’m a lot more comfortable with these guys,” she said. “I was keeping the fact that I had autism a secret from pretty much everyone at my school, so I was always kind of iffy about social interaction in case I screwed something up. But everyone here knows, so it kind of doesn’t matter if I say something silly.”
Seeing the success of employees such as Leon and Alexis is pushing Byran and his company forward. “There is an attribute among people in the autism population that is well equipped and adept at this kind of work,” Byran said. “We are fortunate to have ability to offer a training layer as well as a communication and community layer beyond just work experience.”
Dylan Watton is the Communications Coordinator at AHRC New York City. He has been with the agency for nearly five years, previously working as a Direct Support Professional. He can be reached at Dylan.Watton@ahrcnyc.org or 212-780-2597. For more information, please visit www.ahrcnyc.org.
1. Anne Kadet, September 4, 2018. “Startup Touts Unique Talent Pool: Workers with Autism.” Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/startup-touts-unique-talent-pool-workers-with-autism-1536069600
2. Accenture, 2018. “Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage” Retrieved from https://www.accenture.com/t20181029T185446Z__w__/us-en/_acnmedia/PDF-89/Accenture-Disability-Inclusion-Research-Report.pdf