The estimates are alarming: 80 percent to 90 percent of adults with autism are unemployed. And for the D’Eri family, the reality hit home — hard.
Partnering with his son Thomas, who had just finished business school, entrepreneur John D’Eri cashed out of his other companies and began researching potential entrepreneurial solutions to help his son, Andrew, who is autistic. They learned that there are types of businesses where adults with autism can thrive as employees.
After about 18 months of research and preparation, the D’Eri family opened the first Rising Tide Car Wash in April. Andrew, 23, is an employee of the Parkland business, along with 34 other adults with autism.
Along with terrific service, John and Thomas hope their business delivers a strong message.
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“Autism is not a disability that requires sympathy; it’s a diversity that be can valuable to a workforce,” said Thomas. “If your business is structured and you have strong processes in place, people with autism can thrive. You are getting a very engaged employee that will follow your processes. They are the most enthusiastic employees you could possibly have.”
The D’Eri family’s young company has already turned the corner into profitability, and John and Thomas plan to replicate their success in other communities and hope to be a model for what’s working in disability employment. They are part of a new and growing breed of social entrepreneurs who are choosing for-profit business models for their socially motivated businesses so that they can scale their solutions.
“There are two words in social entrepreneurship for a reason,” said Robert H. Hacker, an investor, former chief financial officer of One Laptop Per Child and a professor. “People are increasingly coming to realize social entrepreneurship is just a variation of entrepreneurship. When you approach a social problem, you benefit from all the processes and approaches of traditional entrepreneurship,” said Hacker, who teaches social entrepreneurship for the Honors College at Florida International University.
Simply stated, social entrepreneurs work to solve society’s most pressing social problems through innovative solutions — and interest in the movement is surging. There are social entrepreneurship accelerators and incubators to nurture startups. A new generation of socially motivated investors — including angels, venture capitals and even the Obama administration’s Startup America — now offers impact investment funds, adding to the mounting microloan funds and specialized crowdfunding platforms available.
Foundations and other support organizations are multiplying too; Ashoka, a nonprofit devoted to finding and scaling world-changing solutions, now supports 3,000 fellows in 60 countries and last year launched Ashoka Miami. The Americas Business Council, a Miami Beach foundation that supports social entrepreneurs, gave world leaders for social good the stage earlier this month at its third annual conference. Local networking groups of social innovators have sprung up, including Momentum, which is holding an event on Wednesday.
Harvard Business Review found that top business schools more than doubled their social entrepreneurship courses between 2003 and 2009. Business schools at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, Berkely and Oxford all have respected social entrepreneurship centers or programs, and some of them have social tracks in their business plan competitions.
In South Florida, nearly every university and college has courses or events tied to social entrepreneurship. Barry University has a Center for Social Entrepreneurship within its business school, and campuses from Nova Southeastern to St. Thomas University to the University of Miami have brought in speakers and held workshops on the topic.
Miami Dade College’s InterAmerican Campus, for instance, offers a group of noncredit classes through its Social Entrepreneurship Academy, with topics like “Marketing Your Green/Socially Responsible Business.” MDC is also well along in its process to earn the designation as an Ashoka Changemaker campus, a coveted label only a couple of dozen campuses globally have earned so far, said Ana Cruz, chairman of the School of Business on the Wolfson Campus.
“I’m seeing a lot of young people that want to achieve more than just profitability,” said Seema Pissaris, a College of Business professor at FIU. “Purpose is very important. I’m seeing that change even in the last two years. It’s becoming such a phenomenon,” she said, attributing the increase in part to the explosion of technology that puts social issues in front of the students daily.
Students in her Social Entrepreneurship class work with real-life ventures. Last year, Pissaris inspired and supported students who formed EyeTalker, a company developing an affordable pair of glasses for the blind that will read to them. The concept won the FIU track of the Miami Herald’s Business Plan Challenge. Now, a class group is working with Barrington Irving, who flew around the world in 2007. His social entrepreneurial companies — Experience Aviation Experience Aviation, in which students participated in building a plane, car and hovercraft, and his newest venture, The Flying Classroom — teach kids about math, science and engineering in a very hands-on way.
With The Flying Classroom, Irving will fly to various location in North America, Asia and Australia starting next September and in each stop along the way students will interact virtually in challenges that involve math and science discoveries. “This journey is really about helping kids to indentify their passions and make math and science practical,” said Irving.
Irving, who has had a nonprofit since 2005, also established a for-profit company. He said it made sense in order to sell the curriculum to other schools for the social good. In essence, it’s an education-distribution company.
Several FIU class members are working with Irving and his partner Rajeev Brown, meeting with them at Irving’s office at Opa-locka Executive Airport or at The LAB Miami, a co-working and education center for entrepreneurship.
“I took the class not knowing what to expect. With social entrepreneurship your main priority is to help an underprivileged segment, but it has to be sustainable — that is very cool to me,” said John Sarasti, who is working with Irving’s team with five other FIU students. “Barrington told his story, and I said I have to work with him.”
The FIU students are helping with marketing and also building a franchise operation model.
“The main concept of business is how to make a profit. This class turns that upside down,” said Sarasti, a senior in business management with a focus on entrepreneurship. “You are making a difference. It’s really cool. This has been an incredible experience.”
Of course, real-world realities come into play.
“There’s a lot more competition for partners, distribution and funding sources than before — people want to see an evaluation of your last project,” said Hacker. “What that really means is if you are starting a social entrepreneurial venture, you better formulate your evaluation, practices and the full concept of how you will do the evaluation — that is part of starting an organization.”
Although social entrepreneurship is still young in Miami, it is coming of age globally. Take Grameen Bank, credited with revolutionizing microfinancing.
“That bank has $500-$600 million in revenue, it has started to do international expansion ... now it is looking like a traditional bank in terms of strategy, size and growth,” said Hacker, who has just finished a book on social entrepreneurship. “And Tom’s Shoes. That’s a classic example of social entrepreneurship and as part of their branding they will give a pair to a disadvantaged person in the Third World. They have continued to grow and have become a well-received company.”
Mauricio Laniado admits he was totally inspired by Tom’s Shoes. He studied its “buy-one, give-one” business model while majoring in entrepreneurship at Syracuse University. He always had this idea he wanted to re-create the shoes worn in his birthplace of Ecuador, and after doing social work in the country adter college he knew he wanted to focus on education as a social mission.
His company, Juntos, makes shoes in the style of a particular lace-up canvas shoe popular with Ecuador’s working class. “The shoes were in front of my eyes my entire life,” said Laniado, who grew up in Miami but spent summers in Guayaquil. For each pair sold of Juntos’ hip interpretation of the street shoe, the company gives a backpack stuffed with a year’s worth of school supplies to an at-risk child in Ecuador.
He began pitching his idea but faced a lot of closed doors — until he met Andrew Tupper in New York, who would become his co-founder and creative director: “He said, ‘I like where you are going, let’s just start talking once a week.’ He went to Ecuador with me and when he saw how real it was, we came up with the education backpacks.”
After a successful Indigogo crowdfunding campaign this summer in which Juntos sought $10,000 but raised more than $35,000, the company is now in production.
On JuntosProject.com, orders for the shoes lined with a map of Ecuador have come from 16 countries so far. Juntos is looking for its first retail partners, said Laniado, who recently was working on concrete product displays at a Miami Midtown art studio that would convey where the shoes came from.
The first production run was made in Asia, but Laniado is finalizing contracts to produce the shoes in Lima, bringing jobs to Latin America. His goal is to also produce them in Ecuador, but so far, he has not found a production facility meeting his specifications.
As for the backpacks, Juntos has interviewed, screened and selected three schools it is initially partnering with. Having already made its first 500 sales, Laniado will go back to Ecuador and equip one of the schools with 500 education backpacks, he said. He’ll also help install a soccer field in the playground.
Next up is the launch of his shoes in retail stores and finding investors or partners.
“We are looking at foundations in Guatemala and Ecuador, and global organizations that can help us not only find our schools but help us build our social brand and connect with the right people,” said Laniado.
Hacker would agree with that strategy. He sees social entrepreneurs moving away from partnering with governments, the traditional providers for the public good.
“You are better off with local foundations,” Hacker said. “Unions in certain countries can make really good partners; cooperatives, even churches are much more likely to partner with you. They all have social agendas — you just have to find the one that matches your social objective.”
Social enterprises could also partner with traditional businesses such as retailers to create scale, said Hans Hinkler, a consultant, an Ashoka mentor and a former DHL executive. He is a fan of the for-profit model in social entrepreneurship. “One of the best ways to scale your model is to be self-sustainable financially,” said Hickler, who has worked with social entrepreneurial businesses Lonesome George and MyMela in South Florida.
Back at the Rising Tide Car Wash, the D’Eri family is hoping its social entrepreneurial business becomes a model for the nation. For them, it’s all about scaling.
“We looked for a business that could be scaled, and a car wash is a staple business in every community,” said Thomas, also noting that it’s a fragmented industry with no dominant player. “It can also become a powerful community platform. We can use the business to explain what autism means.”
It’s also an extremely process-driven environment: People with autism thrive on structure, and many are very attentive to details, Thomas said.
Before settling on a car wash, the founders tested the concept with the help of Sonny’s Enterprises of Tamarac, The Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at UM, and consultants.
The family business ran a pilot program at a Homestead car wash owned by the owner of Sonny’s, first seeking feedback on the service without telling customers about its social mission. Feedback was good.
Then it sought the feedback after sharing its social mission and feedback was even better, said Thomas, who graduated from Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., in 2011, where he studied economics, finance and sustainability. His father, a serial entrepreneur, has 30 years experience building companies, including in litigation services and software support for the legal industry.
Rising Tide bought its first car wash in December, renovated it, and “we reopened in April with a whole new crew and a whole new purpose — to empower adults with autism through gainful employment,” said John.
Today, Rising Tide (risingtidecarwash.com), at 7201 N. State Rd. 7 in Parkland, has 35 employees with autism, out of a total of about 41 staffers.
With business growing every month, Rising Tide tripled its customer base, and in October, it had its first profitable month. “We want to operationalize it, and then open more stores within a year or so,” said Thomas, who runs the day-to-day operations.
Like other entrepreneurs in this article, Rising Tide’s founders stress that they don’t rely on their social mission to power their company. Offering a good service is key, and the company puts employees through an extensive training program on its 46-step car-cleaning process.
“We only ask that you come see what we offer, and if you like it, come back,” said John. “It is gratifying to see people get an opportunity to thrive and seeing the community supporting them.”
Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg